Vivenna went among the people of T’Telir and couldn’t help feeling that every one of them recognized her.
She fought the feeling down. It was actually a miracle that Thame—who came from her own home city—had been able to pick her out. The people around her would have no way of connecting Vivenna to the rumors they might have heard, especially considering her clothing.
Immodest reds and yellows layered one atop the other on her dress. The garment had been the only one that Parlin and Tonk Fah had been able to find that met her stringent requirements for modesty. The tubelike dress was made after a foreign cut, from Tedradel, across the Inner Sea. It came down almost to her ankles, and though its snugness emphasized her bust, at least the garment covered her almost up to the neck, and had full-length sleeves.
Rebelliously, she did find herself stealing glances at the other women in their loose, short skirts and sleeveless tops. That much exposed skin was scandalous, but with the blazing sun and the cursed coastal humidity, she could see why they did it.
After a month in the city, she was also beginning to get the hang of moving with the flow of traffic. She still wasn’t sure she wanted to be out, but Denth had been persuasive.
You know the worst thing that can happen to a bodyguard? he had asked. Letting your charge get killed when you aren’t even there. We have a small team, Princess. We can either divide and leave you behind with one guard or you can come with us. Personally, I’d like to have you along where I can keep an eye on you.
And so she’d come. Dressed in one of her new gowns, her hair turned an uncomfortable—yet un-Idrian—yellow and left loose, blowing behind her. She walked around the garden square, as if out on a stroll, moving so that she wouldn’t look nervous. The people of T’Telir liked gardens—they had all kinds all over the city. In fact, from what Vivenna had seen, most of the city practically was a garden. Palms and ferns grew on every street, and exotic flowers bloomed everywhere year-round.
Four streets crossed in the square, with four plots of cultivated ground forming a checkerboard pattern. Each sprouted a dozen different palms. The buildings surrounding the gardens were more rich than the ones in the market up the way. And while there was plenty of foot traffic, people made certain to stick to the slate sidewalks, for carriages were common. This was a wealthy shopping district. No tents. Fewer performers. Higher quality—and more expensive—shops.
Vivenna strolled along the perimeter of the northwestern garden block. There were ferns and grass to her right. Shops of a quaint, rich, and—of course—colorful variety lay across the street to her left. Tonk Fah and Parlin lounged between two of these. Parlin had the monkey on his shoulder, and had taken to wearing a colorful red vest with his green hat. She couldn’t help thinking that the woodsman was even more out of place in T’Telir than she was, but he didn’t seem to attract any attention.
Vivenna kept walking. Jewels trailed her somewhere in the crowd. The woman was good—Vivenna only rarely caught a glimpse of her, and that was because she’d been told where to look. She never saw Denth. He was there somewhere, far too stealthy for her to spot. As she reached the end of the street and turned around to walk back, she did catch sight of Clod. The Lifeless stood as still as one of the D’Denir statues that lined the gardens, impassively watching the crowds pass. Most of the people ignored him.
Denth was right. Lifeless weren’t plentiful, but they also weren’t uncommon. Several walked through the market carrying packages for their owners. None of these were as muscular or as tall as Clod—Lifeless came in as many shapes and sizes as people. They were put to work guarding shops. Acting as packmen. Sweeping the walkway. All around her.
She continued to walk, and she caught a brief glimpse of Jewels in the crowd as she passed.How does she manage to look so relaxed? Vivenna thought. Each of the mercenaries looked as calm as if they were at a leisurely picnic.
Don’t think about the danger, Vivenna thought, clenching her fists. She focused on the gardens. The truth was, she was a little jealous of the T’Telirites. People lounged, sitting on the grass, lying in the shade of trees, their children playing and laughing. D’Denir statues stood in a solemn line, arms upraised, weapons at the ready, as if in defense of the people. Trees climbed high into the sky, spreading branches that grew strange flowerlike bundles.
Wide-petaled flowers bloomed in planters; some of them were actually Tears of Edgli. Austre had placed the flowers where he wanted them. To cut and bring them back, to use them to adorn a room or house, was ostentation. Yet was it ostentatious to plant them in the middle of the city, where all were free to enjoy them?
She turned away. Her BioChroma continued to sense the beauty. The density of life in one area made a sort of buzz inside her chest.
No wonder they like to live so close together, she thought, noticing how a group of flowers scaled in color, fanning toward the inside of their planter. And if you’re going to live this compactly, the only way to see nature would be to bring it in.
Vivenna spun, as did most of the other people on the street. The building Tonk Fah and Parlin had been standing next to was burning. Vivenna didn’t continue to gawk, but turned and looked toward the center of the gardens. Most of the people in the garden itself were stunned, looking toward the smoke billowing into the air.
People ran to help, crossing the street, causing carriages to pull up abruptly. At that moment, Clod stepped forward—surging with the crowd—and swung a club at the leg of a horse. Vivenna couldn’t hear the leg break, but she did see the beast scream and fall, upsetting the carriage it had been pulling. A trunk fell from the top of the vehicle, plunging to the street.
The carriage belonged to one Nanrovah, high priest of the god Stillmark. Denth’s intelligence said the carriage would be carrying valuables. Even if it weren’t, a high priest in danger would draw a lot of attention. The trunk hit the street. And, in a twist of good fortune, it shattered, spraying out gold coins.
Vivenna caught a glimpse of Jewels standing on the other side of the carriage. She looked at Vivenna and nodded. Time to go. As people ran toward either gold or fire, Vivenna walked away. Nearby, Denth would be raiding one of the shops with a gang of thieves. The thieves got to keep the goods. Vivenna just wanted to make certain those goods disappeared.
Vivenna was joined by Jewels and Parlin on the way out. She was surprised to feel how quickly her heart was thumping. Almost nothing had happened. No real danger. No threat to herself. Just a couple of “accidents.”
But, then, that was the idea.
Hours later, Denth and Tonk Fah still hadn’t returned to the house. Vivenna sat quietly on their new furniture, hands in her lap. The furniture was green. Apparently, brown was not an option in T’Telir.
“What time is it?” Vivenna asked quietly.
“I don’t know,” Jewels snapped, standing beside the window, looking out at the street.
Patience, Vivenna told herself. It’s not her fault she’s so abrasive. She had her Breath stolen.
“Should they be back yet?” Vivenna asked calmly.
Jewels shrugged. “Maybe. Depends on if they decided to go to a safe house to let things cool down first or not.”
“I see. How long do you think we should wait?”
“As long as we have to,” Jewels said. “Look, do you think you could just not talk to me? I’d really appreciate it.” She turned back to look out the window.
Vivenna stiffened at the insult. Patience! she told herself. Understand her place. That’s what the Five Visions teach.
Vivenna stood up, then walked quietly over to Jewels. Tentatively, she laid an arm on the other woman’s shoulder. Jewels jumped immediately—obviously, without Breath, it was harder for her to notice when people approached her.
“It’s all right,” Vivenna said. “I understand.”
“Understand?” Jewels asked. “Understand what?”
“They took your Breath,” Vivenna said. “They had no right to do something so terrible.”
Vivenna smiled, then withdrew, walking to the stairs.
Jewels started laughing. Vivenna stopped, glancing back.
“You think you understand me?” Jewels asked. “What? You feel sorry for me because I’m a Drab?”
“Your parents shouldn’t have done what they did.”
“My parents served our God King,” Jewels said. “My Breath was given to him directly. It’s a greater honor than you could possibly understand.”
Vivenna stood still for a moment, absorbing that comment. “You believe in the Iridescent Tones?”
“Of course I do,” Jewels said. “I’m a Hallandren, aren’t I?”
“But the others—”
“Tonk Fah is from Pahn Kahl,” Jewels said. “And I don’t know where in the Colors Denthis from. But I’m from T’Telir itself.”
“But surely you can’t still worship those so-called gods,” Vivenna said. “Not after what was done to you.”
“What was done to me? I’ll have you know that I gave away my Breath willingly.”
“You were a child!”
“I was eleven and my parents gave me the choice. I made the right one. My father had been in the dye industry, but had slipped and fallen. The damage to his back wouldn’t allow him to work, and I had five brothers and sisters. Do you know what it’s like to watch your brothers and sisters starve? Years before, my parents had already sold their Breath to get enough money to start the business. By selling mine, we got enough money to live for nearly a year!”
“No price is worth a soul,” Vivenna said. “You—”
“Stop judging me!” Jewels snapped. “Kalad’s Phantoms take you, woman. I was proud to sell my Breath! I still am. A part of me lives inside the God King. Because of me, he continues to live. I’m part of this kingdom in a way that few others are.”
Jewels shook her head, turning away. “That’s why we get annoyed by you Idrians. So high, so certain that what you do is right. If your god asked you to give up your Breath—or even the Breath of your child—wouldn’t you do it? You give up your children to become monks, forcing them into a life of servitude, don’t you? That’s seen as a sign of faith. Yet when we do something to serve our gods, you twist your lips at us and call us blasphemers.”
Vivenna opened her mouth, but could come up with no response. Sending children away to become monks was different.
“We sacrifice for our gods,” Jewels said, still staring out the window. “But that doesn’t mean we’re being exploited. My family was blessed because of what we did. Not only was there enough money to buy food, but my father recovered, and a few years later, he was able to open up the dye business again. My brothers still run it.
“You don’t have to believe in my miracles. You can call them accidents or coincidences, if you must. But don’t pity me for my faith. And don’t presume that you’re better, just because you believe something different.”
Vivenna closed her mouth. Obviously, there was no point in arguing. Jewels was in no mood for her sympathy. Vivenna retreated back up the stairs.
A few hours later, it began to grow dark. Vivenna stood on the house’s second-story balcony, looking out over the city. Most of the buildings on their street had such balconies on the front. Ostentatious or not, from their hillside location they did provide a good view of T’Telir.
The city glowed with light. On the larger streets, pole-mounted lamps lined the sidewalks, lit each night by city workers. Many of the buildings were illuminated as well. Such expenditure of oil and candles still amazed her. Yet with the Inner Sea to hand, oil was far cheaper than it was in the highlands.
She didn’t know what to make of Jewels’s outburst. How could someone be proud that their Breath had been stolen and then fed to a greedy Returned? The woman’s tone seemed to indicate she was being sincere. She’d clearly thought about these things before. Obviously, she had to rationalize her experiences to live with them.
Vivenna was trapped. The Five Visions taught that she must try to understand others. They told her not to place herself above them. And yet, Austrism taught that what Jewels had done was an abomination.
The two seemed contradictory. To believe that Jewels was wrong was to place herself above the woman. Yet to accept what Jewels said was to deny Austrism. Some might have laughed at her turmoil, but Vivenna had always tried very hard to be devout. She’d understood that she’d need strict devotion to survive in heathen Hallandren.
Heathen. Didn’t she place herself above Hallandren by calling it that word? But they wereheathen. She couldn’t accept the Returned as true gods. It seemed that to believe in any faith was to become arrogant.
Perhaps she deserved the things Jewels had said to her.
Someone approached. Vivenna turned as Denth pushed open the wooden door and stepped out onto the balcony. “We’re back,” he announced.
“I know,” she said, looking out over the city and its specks of light. “I felt you enter the building a little while ago.”
He chuckled, joining her. “I forget that you have so much Breath, Princess. You never use it.”
Except to feel when people are nearby, she thought. But I can’t help that, can I?
“I recognize that look of frustration,” Denth noted. “Still worried that the plan isn’t working fast enough?”
She shook her head. “Other things entirely, Denth.”
“Probably shouldn’t have left you alone so long with Jewels. I hope she didn’t take too many bites out of you.”
Vivenna didn’t respond. Finally, she sighed, then turned toward him. “How did the job go?”
“Perfectly,” Denth said. “By the time we hit the shop, nobody was looking. Considering the guards they put there every night, they must be feeling pretty stupid to have been robbed in broad daylight.”
“I still don’t understand what good it will do,” she said. “A spice merchant’s shop?”
“Not his shop,” Denth said. “His stores. We ruined or carted off every barrel of salt in that cellar. He’s one of only three men who store salt in any great amount; most of the other spice merchants buy from him.”
“Yes, but salt,” Vivenna said. “What’s the point?”
“How hot was it today?” Denth asked.
Vivenna shrugged. “Too hot.”
“What happens to meat when it’s hot?”
“It rots,” Vivenna said. “But they don’t have to use salt to preserve meat. They can use . . .”
“Ice?” Denth asked, chuckling. “No, not down here, Princess. You want to preserve meat, you salt it. And if you want an army to carry fish with them from the Inner Sea to attack a place as far away as Idris . . .”
“The thieves we worked with will ship the salt away,” Denth said. “Smuggle it to the distant kingdoms where it can be sold openly. By the time this war comes, the Crown will have some real trouble keeping its men supplied with meat. Just another small strike, but those should add up.”
“Thank you,” Vivenna said.
“Don’t thank us,” Denth said. “Just pay us.”
Vivenna nodded. They fell silent for a time, looking out over the city.
“Does Jewels really believe in the Iridescent Tones?” Vivenna finally asked.
“As passionately as Tonk Fah likes to nap,” Denth said. He eyed her. “You didn’t challenge her, did you?”
Denth whistled. “And you’re still standing? I’ll have to thank her for her restraint.”
“How can she believe?” Vivenna said.
Denth shrugged. “Seems like a good enough religion to me. I mean, you can go and see her gods. Talk to them, watch them shine. It isn’t all that tough to understand.”
“But she’s working for an Idrian,” Vivenna said. “Working to undermine her own gods’ ability to wage war. That was a priest’s carriage we knocked over today.”
“And a fairly important one, actually,” Denth said with a chuckle. “Ah, Princess. It’s a little difficult to understand. Mind-set of a mercenary. We’re paid to do things—but we’re not the ones doing them. It’s you who do these things. We’re just your tools.”
“Tools that work against the Hallandren gods.”
“That isn’t a reason to stop believing,” Denth said. “We get pretty good at separating ourselves from the things we have to do. Maybe that’s what makes people hate us so much. They can’t see that if we kill a friend on a battlefield, it doesn’t mean that we’re callous or untrustworthy. We do what we’re paid to do. Just like anyone else.”
“It’s different,” Vivenna said.
Denth shrugged. “Do you think the refiner ever considers that the iron he purifies could end up in a sword that kills a friend of his?”
Vivenna stared out over the lights of the city and all of the people they represented, with all their different beliefs, different ways of thinking, different contradictions. Perhaps she wasn’t the only one who struggled to believe two seemingly opposing things at the same time.
“What about you, Denth?” she asked. “Are you Hallandren?”
“Gods, no,” he said.
“Then what do you believe?”
“Haven’t believed much,” he said. “Not in a long time.”
“What about your family?” Vivenna asked. “What did they believe?”
“Family’s all dead. They believed faiths that most everybody has forgotten by now. I never joined them.”
Vivenna frowned. “You have to believe in something. If not a religion, then somebody. A way of living.”
“I did once.”
“Do you always have to answer so vaguely?”
He glanced at her. “Yes,” he said. “Except, perhaps, for that question.”
She rolled her eyes.
He leaned against the banister. “The things I believed,” he said, “I don’t know that they’d make sense, or that you’d even hear me out if I told you about them.”
“You claim to seek money,” she said. “But you don’t. I’ve seen Lemex’s ledgers. He wasn’t paying you that much. Not as much as I’d assumed by far. And, if you’d wanted, you could have hit that priest’s carriage and taken the money. You could have stolen it twice as easily as you did the salt.”
He didn’t respond.
“You don’t serve any kingdom or king that I can figure out,” she continued. “You’re a better swordsman than any simple bodyguard—I suspect better than almost anyone, if you can impress a crime boss with your skill so easily. You could have fame, students, and prizes if you decided to become a sport duelist. You claim to obey your employer, but you give the orders more often than take them—and besides, since you don’t care about money, that whole employee thing is probably just a front.”
She paused. “In fact,” she said, “the only thing I’ve ever seen you express even a spark of emotion about is that man, Vasher. The one with the sword.”
Even as she said the name, Denth grew more tense.
“Who are you?” she asked.
He turned toward her, eyes hard, showing her—once again—that the jovial man he showed the world was a mask. A charade. A softness to cover the stone within.
“I’m a mercenary,” he said.
“All right,” she said, “then who were you?”
“You don’t want to know the answer to that,” he said. And then he left, stomping away through the door and leaving her alone on the dark wooden balcony.