In the slums it could seem like night, even during the full light of day.
Vivenna wandered, aimless, stepping over soiled bits of colorful trash. She knew that she should find a place to hide and stay there. Yet she wasn’t really thinking straight anymore.
Parlin was dead. He’d been her friend since childhood. She’d convinced him to come with her on what now seemed the most idiotic of quests. His death was her fault.
Denth and his team had betrayed her. No. They had never worked for her. Now that she looked back, she could see the signs. How conveniently they’d found her in the restaurant. How they’d used her to get at Lemex’s Breath. How they’d manipulated her, letting her feel that she was in control. They’d just been playing along.
She’d been a prisoner and never known it.
The betrayal felt so much the worse for how she’d come to trust, even befriend, them. She should have seen the warnings. Tonk Fah’s joking brutality. Denth’s explanations that mercenaries had no allegiances. He’d pointed out that Jewels would work against her own gods. Compared with that, what was betraying a friend?
She stumbled down yet another alleyway, hand on the wall of a brick building beside her. Dirt and soot stained her fingers. Her hair was a bleached white. It still hadn’t recovered.
The attack in the slum had been frightening. Getting captured by Vasher had been terrifying. But seeing Parlin, tied to that chair, blood coming from his nose, his cheeks sliced open to reveal the inside of his mouth . . .
She would never forget. Something inside of her seemed broken. Her ability to care. She was just . . . numb.
She reached the end of the alleyway, then looked up dully. There was a wall in front of her. A dead end. She turned to go back.
“You,” a voice said.
Vivenna turned, surprised at the speed of her own reaction. Her mind remained shocked, but a carnal part of her was still awake. Capable of defensive instinct.
She stood in a narrow alley like those she had walked down all day. She’d kept to the slums, figuring that Denth would expect her to run for the open city. He knew it better than she did. In her addled mind, staying in the cluttered, quiet slum seemed a much better idea.
A man sat on a small stack of boxes behind her, legs swinging over the sides. He was short, dark-haired, and wore typical slum clothing—a mixture of garments going through various stages of wear.
“You’ve been causing quite a stir,” the man said.
She stood quietly.
“Woman wandering the slums in a beautiful white dress, eyes dark, hair white and ragged. If everyone hadn’t been so paranoid following the raid the other day, you’d have been seen to hours ago.”
The man seemed faintly familiar. “You’re Idrian,” she whispered. “You were there, in the crowd, when I visited the slumlords.”
“That means you know who I am,” she said.
“I don’t know anything,” he said. “Particularly not things that could get me into trouble.”
“Please,” she said. “You have to help me.” She took a step forward.
He hopped off his boxes, a knife flashing in his hand. “Help you?” he asked. “I saw that look in your eyes when you came to the meeting. You look down on us. Just like the Hallandren.”
She shied back.
“A lot of people have seen you wandering about like a wraith,” he said. “But nobody seems to know exactly where to find you. There’s quite a search going in some parts.”
Denth, she thought. It’s a miracle I’ve stayed free so long. I need to do something. Stop wandering. Find a place to hide.
“I figure that someone will find you eventually,” the man said. “So I’m going to act first.”
“Please,” she whispered.
He raised the knife. “I won’t turn you in. You deserve at least that much. Besides, I don’t want to draw attention to myself. That dress, though. That will sell for a lot, even damaged like it is. I could feed my family for weeks on that cloth.”
“Scream and I’ll cut you,” he said quietly. “It’s not a threat. It’s just an inevitability. The dress, Princess. You’ll be better without it. It’s what is making everyone take notice of you.”
She considered using her Breath. But what if it didn’t work? She couldn’t concentrate, and had a feeling that she wouldn’t be able to get the Commands to work. She wavered, but the looming knife convinced her. So, staring straight ahead and feeling like she was someone else, she reached up and began undoing the buttons.
“Don’t drop it to the ground,” the man said. “It’s dirty enough already.”
She pulled it off, then shivered, standing only in her underleggings and her shift. He took the dress, then opened her pocket pouch. He frowned as he tossed aside the rope inside of it. “No money?”
She shook her head dully.
“The leggings. They’re silk, right?”
Her shift came down to her midthighs. She stooped down, pulling off the leggings, then handed them over. He took them, and she saw a glint of greed—or perhaps something else—in his eyes.
“The shift,” he said, waving his knife.
“No,” she said quietly.
He took a step forward.
Something snapped inside of her.
“No!” she yelled. “No, no, NO! You take your city, your colors and clothing, and go! Leave me!” She fell to her knees, crying, and grabbed handfuls of refuse and mud, rubbing it on the shift. “There!” she screamed. “You want it! Take it from me! Sell it like this!”
Contrary to his threat, the man wavered. He looked around, then clutched the valuable cloth to his chest and dashed away.
Vivenna knelt. Where had she found more tears? She curled up, heedless of the trash and mud, and wept.
It started raining sometime while she was curled in the mud. It was one of the soft, hazy Hallandren rainfalls. The wet drops kissed her cheek; little streams ran down the sides of the alleyway walls.
She was hungry and exhausted. But with the falling rain came a shred of lucidity.
She needed to move. The thief had been right—the dress had been a hindrance. She felt naked in the shift, particularly now that it was wet, but she had seen women in the slums wearing just as little. She needed to go on, become just another waif in the dirt and grime.
She crawled over to a refuse pile, noticing a bit of a cloth sticking from it. She pulled free a muddy, stinking shawl. Or maybe it had been a rug. Either way, she wrapped it around her shoulders, pulling it tight across her chest to offer some measure of modesty. She tried to make her hair black, but it refused.
She sat down, too apathetic to be frustrated. Instead, she simply rubbed mud and dirt into her hair, changing the pale white into a sickly brown.
It’s still too long, she thought. I’ll need to do something about that. It stands out. No beggar would keep hair that long—it would be difficult to care for.
She began to make her way out of the alleyway, then paused. The shawl had become brighter, now that she was wearing it. Breath. I’ll be immediately visible to anyone with the First Heightening. I can’t hide in the slums!
She still felt the loss of the Breath she’d sent into the rope and then the larger amount she’d wasted on Tonk’s cloak. Yet she had the greater portion left. She huddled down by the side of the wall, nearly losing control again as she considered the situation.
And then she realized something.
Tonk Fah snuck up on me down in that cellar. I couldn’t feel his Breath. Just like I couldn’t feel Vasher’s when he ambushed me in my rooms.
The answer felt so easy it was ridiculous. She couldn’t feel the Breath in the rope she’d made. She picked it up, tying it around her ankle. Then she took the shawl, holding it in front of her. It was such a pathetic thing, frayed at the edges, its original red color barely peeking through the grime.
“My life to yours,” she said, speaking the words Denth had tried to get her to say. “My Breath become yours.” They were the same words Lemex had spoken when he’d given her his Breath.
It worked on the shawl too. Her Breath drained from her body, all of it, invested into the shawl. It was no Command—the shawl wouldn’t be able do anything—but her Breath, hopefully, would be safe. She wouldn’t give off an aura.
None at all. She almost fell to the ground with the shock of losing it all. Where she had once been able to sense the city around her, now everything became still. It was as if it had been silenced. The entire city becoming dead.
Or maybe it was Vivenna who had become dead. A Drab. She stood slowly, shivering in the drizzling rain, and wiped the water from her eyes. Then she pulled the shawl—Breaths and all—close and shuffled away.