“I feel I have to ask one more time,” Denth said. “Do we have to go through with this?” Denth walked with Vivenna, Tonk Fah, Jewels, and Clod. Parlin had stayed behind at Denth’s suggestion. He was worried about the dangers of the meeting, and didn’t want another body to keep track of.
“Yes, we have to go through this,” Vivenna said. “They’re my people, Denth.”
“So?” he asked. “Princess, mercenaries are my people, and you don’t see me spending that much time with them. They’re a smelly, annoying lot.”
“Not to mention rude,” Tonk Fah added.
Vivenna rolled her eyes. “Denth, I’m their princess. Besides, you yourself said that they were influential.”
“Their leaders are,” Denth said. “And they’d be perfectly happy to meet with you on neutral ground. Going into the slums isn’t necessary—the common people, they really aren’t all that important.”
She eyed him. “That is the difference between Hallandren and Idrians. We pay attention to our people.”
Behind, Jewels snorted in derision.
“I’m not Hallandren,” Denth noted. However, he let the statement drop as they approached the slums. Vivenna had to admit that as they grew closer, she did feel a little more apprehensive.
This slum felt different from the others. Darker, somehow. Something more than just the run-down shops and unrepaired streets. Small groups of men stood on street corners, watching her with suspicious eyes. Every once in a while, Vivenna would catch a glimpse of a building with women in very revealing clothing—even for Hallandren—hanging about the front. Some even whistled toward Denth and Tonk Fah.
This was a foreign place. Everywhere else in T’Telir, she felt like she didn’t fit in. Here, she felt unwelcome. Distrusted. Even hated.
She steeled herself. Somewhere in this place was a group of tired, overworked, frightened Idrians. The threatening atmosphere made her feel even sorrier for her people. She didn’t know if they would be much help in trying to sabotage the Hallandren war effort, but she did know one thing: She intended to help them. If her people had slipped through the monarchy’s fingers, then it was her duty to try and pick them back up.
“That look on your face,” Denth said. “What’s it for?”
“I’m worried about my people,” she said, shivering as they passed a large group of street toughs dressed in black with red armbands, their faces stained and dirtied. “I came by this slum when Parlin and I were searching for a new home. I didn’t want to get close, even though I’d heard that rents were cheap. I can’t believe that my people are so oppressed that they would have to live somewhere in here, surrounded by all of this.”
Denth frowned. “Surrounded by it?”
Vivenna nodded. “Living among prostitutes and gangs, having to walk past such things every day . . .”
Denth started laughing, startling her. “Princess,” he said, “your people don’t live amongprostitutes and gangs. Your people are the prostitutes and gangs.”
Vivenna stopped in the middle of the street. “What?”
Denth glanced back at her. “This is the Idrian quarter of the city. These slums are called the Highlands, for Color’s sake.”
“Impossible,” she snapped.
“Very possible,” Denth replied. “I’ve seen it in cities across the world. Immigrants gather, make a little enclave. That enclave gets conveniently ignored by the rest of the city. When roads are repaired, other places come first. When guards are sent to patrol, they avoid the foreign sections.”
“The slum becomes its own little world,” Tonk Fah said, walking up beside her.
“Everyone you pass in here is an Idrian,” Denth said, waving for her to keep walking. “There’s a reason your kind have a bad reputation in the rest of the city.”
Vivenna felt a numb chillness. No, she thought. No, it’s not possible.
Unfortunately, she soon began to see signs. Symbols of Austre placed—unobtrusive by intention—in the corners of windowsills or on doorsteps. People in greys and whites. Mementos of the highlands in the form of shepherd’s caps or wool cloaks. And yet, if these people were of Idris, then they’d been completely corrupted. Colors marred their costumes, not to mention the air of danger and hostility they exuded. And how could any Idrian even think of becoming a prostitute?
“I don’t understand, Denth. We are a peaceful people. A people of mountain villages. We are open. Friendly.”
“That kind doesn’t last long in a slum,” he said, walking beside her. “They change or they get beaten down.”
Vivenna shivered, feeling a stab of anger at Hallandren. I could have forgiven the Hallandren for making my people poor. But this? They’ve made thugs and thieves out of caring shepherds and farmers. They’ve turned our women into prostitutes and our children to urchins.
She knew she shouldn’t let herself get angry. And yet, she had to grit her teeth and work very, very hard to keep her hair from bleeding to a smoldering red. The images awoke something within her. Something she had consistently avoided thinking about.
Hallandren has ruined these people. Just as it ruined me by dominating my childhood, by forcing me to honor the obligation to be taken and raped in the name of protecting my country.
I hate this city.
They were unseemly thoughts. She couldn’t afford to hate Hallandren. She had been told that on many occasions. She had trouble lately remembering why.
But she succeeded in keeping her hatred, and hair, under control. A few moments later, Thame joined them and led them the rest of the distance. She had been told they would be meeting in a large park, but Vivenna soon saw that the term “park” had been used loosely. The plot of land was barren, strewn with garbage, and hemmed in by buildings on all sides.
Her group stopped at the edge of this dreary garden and waited as Thame went ahead. People had gathered as Thame had promised. Most were of the same type she had seen earlier. Men wearing dark, ominous colors and cynical expressions. Cocky street toughs. Women in the garb of prostitutes. Some worn-down older people.
Vivenna forced on a smile, but it felt insincere, even to her. For their benefit, she changed her hair color to yellow. The color of happiness and excitement. The people muttered among themselves.
Thame soon returned and waved her forward.
“Wait,” Vivenna said. “I wanted to talk to the common people before we meet with the leaders.”
Thame shrugged. “If you wish . . .”
Vivenna stepped forward. “People of Idris,” she said. “I’ve come to offer you comfort and hope.”
The people continued to talk among themselves. Very few seemed to pay any attention to her at all. Vivenna swallowed. “I know that you’ve had hard lives. But I want to promise you that the king does care for you and wants to support you. I will find a way to bring you home.”
“Home?” one of the men said. “Back to the highlands?”
Several people snorted at that comment, and a few trailed away. Vivenna watched them go with concern. “Wait,” she said. “Don’t you want to hear me? I bring news from your king.”
The people ignored her.
“Most of them just wanted confirmation that you were who you were rumored to be, Your Highness,” Thame said quietly.
Vivenna turned back toward the groups still talking quietly in the garden. “Your lives can get better,” she promised. “I will see you cared for.”
“Our lives are already better,” one of the men said. “There is nothing for us in the highlands. I earn twice as much here as I did back there.” Others nodded in agreement.
“Then why even come to see me?” she whispered.
“I told you, Princess,” Thame said. “They’re patriots—they cling to being Idrian. City Idrians. We stick together, we do. You being here, it means something to them, don’t worry. They may seem indifferent, but they’ll do anything to get back at the Hallandren.”
Austre, Lord of Colors, she thought, growing even more deeply upset. These people aren’t even Idrians anymore. Thame called them “patriots,” but all she saw was a group held together by the eternal pressures of Hallandren disdain.
She turned, giving up on her speech. These people were not interested in hope or comfort. They only wanted revenge. She could use that, perhaps, but it made her feel dirty even to consider it. Thame led her and the others down a pathway beaten into the ugly field of weeds and trash. Near the far side of the “park,” they found a wide structure that was partially a storage shed, partially an open wooden pavilion. She could see the leaders waiting inside.
There were three of them, each with his own complement of bodyguards. She had been told of them ahead of time. The leaders wore rich, vibrant T’Telir colors. Slumlords. Vivenna felt her stomach twist. All three of the men had at least the First Heightening. One of them had attained the Third.
Jewels and Clod took their places outside the building, guarding Vivenna’s escape route. Vivenna walked in and sat in the last open chair. Denth and Tonk Fah took up protective places behind her.
Vivenna regarded the slumlords. All three were variations on the same theme. The one on the left looked most comfortable in his rich clothing. That would be Paxen—the “gentleman Idrian,” he was called. He’d gotten his money from running brothels. The one on the right looked like he needed a haircut to match his fine garments. That would be Ashu, who was known for running and funding underground fighting leagues where men could watch Idrians box each other to unconsciousness. The one in the center seemed the self-indulgent type. He was sloppy—but in a purposefully relaxed way, perhaps because it was a nice accent to his handsome, youthful face. Rira, Thame’s employer.
She reminded herself not to put too much stock in any facile interpretation of their appearances. These were dangerous men.
The room was silent.
“I’m not sure what to say to you,” Vivenna said finally. “I came to find something that doesn’t exist. I was hoping that the people still cared about their heritage.”
Rira leaned forward, sloppy clothing out of place compared with the clothing of the others in the room. “You’re our princess,” he said. “Daughter of our king. We care about that.”
“Kind of,” said Paxen.
“Really, Princess,” Rira said. “We’re honored to meet with you. And curious at your intentions in our city. You’ve been making quite a stir.”
Vivenna regarded them with a serious expression. Finally, she sighed. “You all know that war is coming.”
Rira nodded. Ashu, however, shook his head. “I’m not convinced there will be war. Not yet.”
“It is coming,” Vivenna said sharply. “I promise you that. My intentions in this city, therefore, are to make certain that the war goes as well for Idris as possible.”
“And what would that entail?” Ashu asked. “A royal on the throne of Hallandren?”
Was that what she wanted? “I just want our people to survive.”
“A weak middle ground,” said Paxen, polishing the top of his fine cane. “Wars are fought to be won, Your Highness. The Hallandren have Lifeless. Beat them, and they’ll just make more. I think that an Idrian military presence in the city would be an absolute necessity if you wanted to bring our homeland freedom.”
“You think to overthrow the city?” asked Ashu. “If you do, what do we get out of it?”
“Wait,” said Paxen. “Overthrow the city? Are we sure we want to get involved in that sort of thing again? What of Vahr’s failure? We all lost a lot of money in that venture.”
“Vahr was from Pahn Kahl,” said Ashu. “Not one of us at all. I’m willing to take another risk if there are real royals involved this time.”
“I didn’t say anything about overthrowing the kingdom,” Vivenna said. “I just want to bring the people some hope.” Or, at least, I did . . .
“Hope?” asked Paxen. “Who cares about hope? I want commitments. Will titles be handed out? Who gets the trade contracts if Idris wins?”
“You have a sister,” Rira said. “A third one, unmarried. Is her hand bargainable? Royal blood could gain my support for your war.”
Vivenna’s stomach twisted. “Gentlemen,” she said in her diplomat’s voice, “this is not about seeking personal gain. This is about patriotism.”
“Of course, of course,” Rira said. “But even patriots should earn rewards. Right?”
All three looked at her expectantly.
Vivenna stood up. “I will be going, now.”
Denth, looking surprised, laid a hand on her shoulder. “Are you sure?” he asked. “It took quite a bit of effort to set up this meeting.”
“I have been willing to work with thugs and thieves, Denth,” she said quietly. “But seeing these and knowing they’re my own people is too hard.”
“You judge us quickly, Princess,” Rira said from behind, chuckling. “Don’t tell me that you didn’t expect this?”
“Expecting something is different from seeing it firsthand, Rira. I expected you three. I didn’t expect to see what had happened to our people.”
“And the Five Visions?” Rira asked. “You sweep in here, judge us beneath you, then sweep away? That’s not very Idrian of you.”
She turned back toward the men. The long-haired Ashu had already stood and was gathering his bodyguards to go, grumbling about the “waste of time.”
“What do you know of being Idrian?” she snapped. “Where is your obedience of Austre?”
Rira reached beneath his shirt, pulling out a small white disk, inscribed with his parents’ names. An Austrin charm of obedience. “My father carried me down here from the highlands, Princess. He died working the Edgli fields. I’ve pulled myself up by the pain of my scraped, bleeding hands. I worked very hard to make things better for your people. When Vahr spoke of revolution, I gave him coin to feed his supporters.”
“You buy Breath,” she said. “And you make prostitutes of housewives.”
“I live,” he said. “And I make sure that everyone else has enough food. Will you do better for them?”
Vivenna frowned. “I . . .”
She fell silent as she heard the screams.
Her life sense jolted her, warning of large groups of people approaching. She spun as the slumlords cursed, standing. Outside, through the garden, she saw something terrible. Purple-and-yellow uniforms on hulking men with grey faces.
Lifeless soldiers. The city watch.
Peasants scattered, screaming as the Lifeless tromped into the garden, led by a number of uniformed living city guards. Denth cursed, shoving Vivenna to the side. “Run!” he said, whipping his sword free.
Tonk Fah grabbed her arm, towing her out of the building as Denth charged the guards. The slumlords and their people were in disarray as they fled, though the city guards were quickly moving to cut off the exits.
Tonk Fah cursed, pulling Vivenna into a small alleyway across from the garden.
“What’s going on?” she asked, heart thumping.
“Raid,” Tonk Fah said. “Shouldn’t be too dangerous, unless . . .”
Blades sounded, metal clashing against metal, and the screams grew more desperate. Vivenna glanced backward. The men from the slumlords’ groups, feeling trapped, had engaged the Lifeless. Vivenna felt a sense of horror, watching the terrible, grey-faced men wade among the swords and daggers, ignoring wounds. The creatures pulled out their weapons and began to attack. Men yelled and screamed, falling, bloody.
Denth moved to defend the mouth of Vivenna’s alleyway. She didn’t know where Jewels had gone.
“Kalad’s Phantoms!” Tonk Fah cursed, pushing her ahead of him as they retreated. “Those fools decided to resist. Now we’re in trouble.”
“But how did they find us!”
“Don’t know,” he said. “Don’t care. They might be after you. They might just be after those slumlords. I hope we never find out. Keep moving!”
Vivenna obeyed, rushing down the dark alleyway, trying to keep from tripping on her long dress. It proved very impractical to run in, and Tonk Fah kept shooing her forward, looking back anxiously. She heard grunts and echoing yells as Denth fought something at the mouth of the alleyway.
Vivenna and Tonk Fah burst out of the alleyway. There, standing in the street waiting, was a group of five Lifeless. Vivenna lurched to a halt. Tonk Fah cursed.
The Lifeless looked as if they were stone, their expressions eerily grim in the waning light. Tonk Fah glanced backward, obviously decided that Denth wasn’t going to be arriving anytime soon, then resignedly held his hands up and dropped his sword. “I can’t take five on my own, Princess,” he whispered. “Not Lifeless. We’ll have to let them arrest us.”
Vivenna slowly held her hands up as well.
The Lifeless pulled out their weapons.
“Uh . . .” Tonk Fah said. “We surrender?”
The creatures charged.
“Run!” he shouted, reaching down and snatching his sword off the ground.
Vivenna stumbled to the side as several of the lifeless charged Tonk Fah. She scrambled away as quickly as she could. Tonk Fah tried to follow, but had to stop to defend himself. She slowed, glancing back in time to see him ram his dueling blade through the neck of a Lifeless.
The creature gushed something that was not blood. Three others got around Tonk Fah, though he did manage to whip his blade to the side, taking one in the back of the leg. It fell to the cobbles.
Two ran toward her.
Vivenna watched them come, mind numb. Should she stay? Try to help . . .
Help how? something screamed within her. That something was visceral and primal. Run!
And she did. She dashed away, overwhelmed with terror, taking the first corner she saw, ducking into an alleyway. She raced for the other end, but in her haste she tripped on her skirt.
She hit the cobblestones roughly, crying out. She heard footsteps behind her, and she yelled for help, ignoring her bruised elbow as she quickly tore her skirt off, leaving only her under breeches. She scrambled to her feet, screaming again.
Something darkened the other end of the alleyway. A hulking figure with grey skin. Vivenna stopped, then spun. The other two entered the alleyway behind her. She backed against the wall, feeling suddenly cold. Shocked.
Austre, God of Colors, she thought, trembling. Please . . .
The three Lifeless advanced on her, weapons drawn. She looked down. A bit of rope, frayed but still useful, sat in the refuse beside her discarded green skirt.
Like everything else, the rope called to her. As if it knew that it could live again. She couldn’t sense the Lifeless bearing down on her, but ironically she felt as if she could sense the rope. Could imagine it, twisting around legs, tying the creatures up.
Those Breaths you hold, Denth had said. They’re a tool. Almost priceless. Certainly powerful . . .
She glanced back at the Lifeless, with their inhumanly human eyes. She felt her heart thumping so hard it felt like someone was pounding on her chest. She watched them approach.
And saw her death reflected in their unfeeling eyes.
Tears on her face, she fell to her knees, trembling as she grabbed the rope. She knew the mechanics. Her tutors had trained her. She’d need to touch the fallen skirt to drain color out of it.
“Come to life,” she begged the rope.
She knew the mechanics, but that obviously wasn’t enough. She wept, eyes blurry. “Please,” she begged. “Please. Save me.”
The first Lifeless reached her—the one who had cut her off at the far end of the alleyway. She cringed, cowering to the dirty street.
The creature leaped over her.
She looked up in shock as the creature slammed its weapon into one of the others as they arrived. Vivenna blinked her eyes clear, and only then did she recognize the newcomer.
Not Denth. Not Tonk Fah. A creature with skin as grey as that of the men attacking her, which was why she hadn’t recognized him at first.
He expertly took off the head of his first opponent, wielding his thick-bladed sword. Something clear sprayed from the neck of the beheaded creature as it fell backward, tumbling to the ground. Dead—apparently—as any man would have been.
Clod blocked an attack from the remaining Lifeless guard. Behind, in the mouth of the alleyway, two more appeared. They charged as Clod backed up, firmly planting one foot on either side of Vivenna, his sword held before him. It dripped clear liquid.
The remaining lifeless guard waited for the other two to approach. Vivenna trembled, too tired—too numb—to flee. She glanced upward, and saw something almost human in Clod’s eyes as he raised his sword against the three. It was the first emotion she’d seen in any Lifeless, though she might have imagined it.
The three attacked. She had assumed—in her ignorance back in Idris—that Lifeless were like decaying skeletons or corpses. She’d imagined them attacking in waves, lacking skill, but having relentless, dark power.
She’d been wrong. These creatures moved with proficiency and coordination, just as a human might. Except there was no speaking. No yelling or grunting. Just silence as Clod fended off one attack, then rammed his elbow into the face of a second Lifeless. He moved with a fluidity she had rarely seen, his skill matching the brief moment of dazzling speed that Denth had displayed in the restaurant.
Clod whipped his sword around and took the third Lifeless in the leg. One of the others, however, rammed his blade through Clod’s stomach. Something clear squirted out both sides, spraying Vivenna. Clod didn’t even grunt as he brought his weapon around and took off a second head.
The Lifeless guard died, falling to the ground and leaving his weapon sticking from Clod’s stomach. One of the other guards stumbled away, leg bleeding clear blood, and then it fell backward to the ground too. Clod efficiently turned his attention to the last standing Lifeless, which did not retreat, but took an obviously defensive stance.
The stance didn’t work; Clod took this last one down in a matter of seconds, slamming his sword repeatedly against that of his opponent before spinning it around in an unexpected motion and taking off his enemy’s sword hand. That was followed by a blow to the stomach, dropping the creature. In a final motion, he efficiently rammed his blade through the neck of a fallen creature, stopping it from trying to crawl toward Vivenna, a knife in its hand.
The alleyway fell still. Clod turned toward her, eyes lacking emotion, square jaw and rectangular face set above a thick, muscled neck. He began to twitch. He shook his head, as if trying to clear his vision. An awful lot of clear liquid was pouring from his torso. He placed one hand against the wall, then slumped to his knees.
Vivenna hesitated, then reached out a hand toward him. Her hand fell on his arm. The skin was cold.
A shadow moved on the other side of the alleyway. She looked up, apprehensive, still in shock.
“Aw, Colors,” Tonk Fah said, running forward, outfit wet with clear liquid. “Denth! She’s here!” He knelt down beside Vivenna. “You okay?”
She nodded dully, only barely aware that she was still holding her skirt in one hand. That meant her legs—to just above her knees—were exposed. She couldn’t find it in herself to care. Nor did she care that her hair was bleached white. She just stared at Clod, who knelt before her, head bowed, as if worshiping at some strange altar. His weapon slipped from his twitching fingers and clanged to the cobbles. His eyes stared forward, glassy.
Tonk Fah followed her gaze, looking at Clod. “Yeah,” he said. “Jewels is not going to be pleased. Come on, we need to get out of here.”