Tell me about the mountains, Susebron wrote.
Siri smiled. “Mountains?”
Please, he wrote, sitting in his chair beside the bed. Siri lay on one side; her bulky dress had been too hot for this evening, so she sat in her shift with a sheet over her, resting on one elbow so she could see what he wrote. The fire crackled.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” she said. “I mean, the mountains aren’t amazing like the wonders you have in T’Telir. You have so many colors, so much variety.”
I think that rocks sticking from the ground and rising thousands of feet into the air count as a wonder, he wrote.
“I guess,” she said. “I liked it in Idris—I didn’t want to know anything else. For someone like you, though, it would probably be boring.”
More boring than sitting in the same palace every day, not allowed to leave, not allowed to speak, being dressed and pampered?
“Okay, you win.”
Tell me of them, please. His handwriting was getting very good. Plus, the more he wrote, the more he seemed to understand. She wished so much that she could find him books to read—she suspected that he’d absorb them quickly, becoming as learned as any of the scholars who had tried to tutor her.
And yet, all he had was Siri. He seemed to appreciate what she gave him—but that was probably only because he didn’t know just how ignorant she was. I suspect, she thought, that my tutors would laugh themselves silly if they knew how much I’d come to regret ignoring them.
“The mountains are vast,” she said. “You can’t really get a sense of it here, in the lowlands. It’s by seeing them that you know just how insignificant people really are. I mean, no matter how long we worked and built, we could never pile up anything as high as one of the mountains.
“They’re rocks, like you said, but they’re not lifeless. They’re green—as green as your jungles. But it’s a different green. I heard some of the traveling merchants complain that the mountains cut off their view, but I think you can see more. They let you see the surface of the land as it extends upward, toward Austre’s domain in the sky.”
He paused. Austre?
Siri flushed, hair blushing as well. “I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t talk about other gods in front of you.”
Other gods? he wrote. Like those in the court?
“No,” Siri said. “Austre is the Idrian god.”
I understand, Susebron wrote. Is he very handsome?
Siri laughed. “No, you don’t understand. He’s not a Returned, like you or Lightsong. He’s . . . well, I don’t know. Didn’t the priests mention other religions to you?”
Other religions? he wrote.
“Sure,” she said. “I mean, not everybody worships the Returned. The Idrians like me worship Austre, and the Pahn Kahl people—like Bluefingers . . . well, I don’t actually know what they worship, but it’s not you.”
That is very strange to consider, he wrote. If your gods are not Returned, then what are they?
“Not they,” Siri said. “Just one. We call him Austre. The Hallandren used to worship him too before . . .” She almost said before they became heretics. “Before Peacegiver arrived, and they decided to worship the Returned instead.”
But who is this Austre? he wrote.
“He’s not a person,” Siri said. “He’s more of a force. You know, the thing that watches over all people, who punishes those who don’t do what is right and who blesses those who are worthy.”
Have you met this creature?
Siri laughed. “Of course not. You can’t see Austre.”
Susebron frowned, looking at her.
“I know,” she said. “It must seem silly to you. But, well, we know he’s there. When I see something beautiful in nature—when I look at the mountains, with their wildflowers growing in patterns that are somehow more right than a man could have planted—I know. Beauty is real. That’s what reminds me of Austre. Plus, we’ve got the Returned—including the First Returned, Vo. He had the Five Visions before he died, and they must have come from somewhere.”
But you don’t believe in worshiping the Returned?
Siri shrugged. “I haven’t decided yet. My people teach strongly against it. They’re not fond of the way that the Hallandren understand religion.”
He sat quietly for a long moment.
So . . . you do not like those such as me?
“What? Of course I like you! You’re sweet!”
He frowned, writing. I don’t think God Kings are supposed to be “sweet.”
“Fine, then,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You’re terrible and mighty. Awesome and deific. And sweet.”
Much better, he wrote, smiling. I should very much like to meet this Austre.
“I’ll introduce you to some monks sometime,” Siri said. “They should be able to help you with that.”
Now you are mocking me.
Siri smiled as he looked up at her. There was no hurt in his eyes. He didn’t appear to mind being mocked; indeed, he seemed to find it very interesting. He particularly liked trying to pick out when she was being serious and when she wasn’t.
He looked down again. More than meeting with this god, however, I should like to see the mountains. You seem to love them very much.
“I do,” Siri said. It had been a long time since she’d thought of Idris. But as he mentioned it, she remembered the cool, open feeling of the meadows she had run through not so long ago. The crispness of the chilly air—something that she suspected one could never find in Hallandren.
Plants in the Court of Gods were kept perfectly clipped, cultivated, and arranged. They were beautiful, but the wild fields of her homeland had their own special feel.
Susebron was writing again. I suspect that the mountains are beautiful, as you have said. However, I believe the most beautiful thing in them has already come down to me.
Siri started, then flushed. He seemed so open, not even a little embarrassed or shy about the bold compliment. “Susebron!” she said. “You have the heart of a charmer.”
Charmer? he wrote. I must only speak what I see. There is nothing so wonderful as you, even in my entire court. The mountains must be special indeed, to produce such beauty.
“See, now you’ve gone too far,” she said. “I’ve seen the goddesses of your court. They’re far more beautiful than I am.”
Beauty is not about how a person looks, Susebron wrote. My mother taught me this. The travelers in my storybook must not judge the old woman ugly, for she might be a beautiful goddess inside.
“This isn’t a story, Susebron.”
Yes it is, he wrote. All of those stories are just tales told by people who lived lives before ours. What they say about humankind is true. I have watched and seen how people act. He erased, then continued. It is strange, for me, to interpret these things, for I do not see as normal men do. I am the God King. Everything, to my eyes, has the same beauty.
Siri frowned. “I don’t understand.”
I have thousands of Breaths, he wrote. It is hard to see as other people do—only through the stories of my mother can I understand their ways. All colors are beauty in my eyes. When others look at something—a person—one may sometimes seem more beautiful than another.
This is not so for me. I see only the color. The rich, wondrous colors that make up all things and gives them life. I cannot focus only on the face, as so many do. I see the sparkle of the eyes, the blush of the cheeks, the tones of skin—even each blemish is a distinct pattern. All people are wonderful.
He erased. And so, when I speak of beauty, I must speak of things other than these colors. And you are different. I do not know how to describe it.
He looked up, and suddenly Siri was aware of just how close they were to each other. She, only in her shift, with the thin sheet covering her. He, tall and broad, shining with a soul that made the colors of the sheets bend out like light through a prism. He smiled in the firelight.
Oh, dear . . . she thought. This is dangerous.
She cleared her throat, sitting up, flushing yet again. “Well. Um, yes. Very nice. Thank you.”
He looked back down. I wish I could let you go home, to see your mountains again. Perhaps I could explain this to the priests.
She paled. “I don’t think it would be good to let them know that you can read.”
I could use the artisans’ script. It is very difficult to write, but they taught it to me so I could communicate with them, if I needed to.
“Still,” she said. “Telling them you want to send me home could hint that you’ve been talking to me.”
He stopped writing for a few moments.
Maybe that would be a good thing, he wrote.
“Susebron, they’re planning to kill you.”
You have no proof of that.
“Well, it’s suspicious, at least,” she said. “The last two God Kings died within months of producing an heir.”
You’re too untrusting, Susebron wrote. I keep telling you. My priests are good people.
She regarded him flatly, catching his eyes.
Except for removing my tongue, he admitted.
“And keeping you locked up, and not telling you anything. Look, even if they aren’t planning to kill you, they know things they’re not telling you. Perhaps it’s something to do with BioChroma—something that makes you die once your heir arrives.”
She frowned, leaning back. Could that be it? she wondered suddenly. “Susebron, how do you pass on your Breaths?”
He paused. I don’t know, he wrote. I . . . don’t know a lot about it.
“I don’t either,” she said. “Can they take them from you? Give them to your son? What if that kills you?”
They wouldn’t do that, he wrote.
“But maybe it’s possible,” she said. “And maybe that’s what happens. That’s why having a child is so dangerous! They have to make a new God King and it kills you to do so.”
He sat with his board in his lap, then shook his head, writing. I am a god. I am not given Breaths, I am born with them.
“No,” Siri said. “Bluefingers told me you’d been collecting them for centuries. That each God King gets two Breaths a week, instead of one, building up his reserves.”
Actually, he admitted, some weeks I get three or four.
“But you only need one a week to survive.”
“And they can’t let that wealth die with you! They’re too afraid of it to let you use it, but they also can’t let themselves lose it. So, when a new child is born, they take the Breath from the old king—killing him—and give it to the new one.”
But Returned cannot use their Breath for Awakening, he wrote. So my treasure of Breaths is useless.
This gave her pause. She had heard that. “Does that mean only the Breath you’re born with, or does it include the extra Breaths that have been added on top?”
I do not know, he wrote.
“I’ll bet you could use those extra Breaths if you wanted,” she said. “Otherwise, why remove your tongue? You may not be able to access and use that Breath that makes you Returned in the first place, but you have thousands and thousands of Breaths above that.”
Susebron sat for a few moments, and then finally he rose, walking across to the window. He stared out at the darkness beyond. Siri frowned, then picked up his board and crossed the room. She got off the bed and approached hesitantly, wearing only her shift.
“Susebron?” she asked.
He continued to stare out the window. She joined him, careful not to touch him, looking out. Colorful lights sparkled amidst the city beyond the wall of the Court of Gods. Beyond that was darkness. The still sea.
“Please,” she said, pushing the board into his hands. “What is it?”
He paused, then took it. I am sorry, he wrote. I do not wish to appear petulant.
“Is it because I keep challenging your priests?”
No, he wrote. You have interesting theories, but I think they are just guesses. You do not know that the priests plan what you claim. That doesn’t bother me.
“What is it, then?”
He hesitated, then erased with the sleeve of his robe. You do not believe that the Returned are divine.
“I thought we already talked about this.”
We did. However, I realized now that this is the reason why you treat me as you do. You are different because you do not believe in my godhood. Is that the only reason I find you interesting?
And, if you do not believe, it makes me sad. Because a god is who I am, it is what I am, and if you do not believe in it, it makes me think you do not understand me.
Yes. It does sound petulant. I am sorry.
She smiled, then tentatively touched his arm. He froze, looking down, but didn’t pull back as he had times before. So she moved up beside him, resting against his arm.
“I don’t have to believe in you to understand you,” she said. “I’d say that those people who worship you are the ones who don’t understand. They can’t get close to you, see who you really are. They’re too focused on the aura and the divinity.”
He didn’t respond.
“And,” she said, “I’m not different just because I don’t believe in you. There are a lot of people in the palace who don’t believe. Bluefingers, some of the serving girls who wear brown, other scribes. They serve you just as reverently as the priests. I’m just . . . well, I’m an irreverent type. I didn’t really listen to my father or the monks back home, either. Maybe that’s what you need. Someone who would be willing to look beyond your godhood and just get to know you.”
He nodded slowly. That is comforting, he wrote. Though, it is very strange to be a god whose wife does not believe in him.
Wife, she thought. Sometimes that was tough to remember. “Well,” she said, “I should think it would do every man good to have a wife who isn’t as in awe of him as everyone else is. Somebody has to keep you humble.”
Humility is, I believe, somewhat opposite to godhood.
“Like sweetness?” she asked.
He chuckled. Yes, just like that. He put the board down. Then, hesitantly—a little frightened—he put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer as they looked out the window at the lights of a city that remained colorful, even at night.
Bodies. Four of them. They all lay dead on the ground, blood an oddly dark color against the grass.
It was the day after Vivenna’s visit to the D’Denir garden to meet with the forgers. She was back again. Sunlight streamed down, hot upon her head and neck as she stood with the rest of the gawking crowd. The silent D’Denir waited in rows behind her, soldiers of stone who would never march. Only they had seen the four men die.
People chattered with hushed voices, waiting for the city guard to finish their inspection. Denth had brought Vivenna quickly, before the bodies could be cleared. He had done so at her request. Now she wished she’d never asked.
To her enhanced eyes, the colors of the blood on grass were powerfully distinct. Red and green. It made almost a violet in combination. She stared at the corpses, feeling an odd sense of disconnection. Color. So strange to see the colors of skin paled. She could tell the difference—the intrinsic difference—between skin that was alive and skin that was dead.
Dead skin was ten shades whiter than live skin. It was caused by blood seeping down and out of the veins. Almost like . . . like the blood was the color, drained out of its casks. The paint of a human life which had been carelessly spilled, leaving the canvas blank.
She looked away.
“You see it?” Denth said, at her side.
She nodded silently.
“You asked about him. Well, here’s what he does. This is why we’re so worried. Look at those wounds.”
She turned back. In the growing morning light, she could see something she’d missed before. The skin directly around the sword wounds had been completely drained of color. The wounds themselves had a dark black tinge to them. As if they had been infected with some terrible disease.
She turned back to Denth.
“Let’s go,” Denth said, leading her away from the crowd as the city Guards finally began to order people back, annoyed by the number of gawkers.
“Who were they?” she asked quietly.
Denth stared straight ahead. “A gang of thieves. Ones we’d worked with.”
“You think he might come for us?”
“I’m not sure,” Denth said. “He could probably find us if he wanted. I don’t know.”
Tonk Fah approached across the green as they passed through the D’Denir statues. “Jewels and Clod are on alert,” Tonk Fah said. “None of us see him anywhere.”
“What happened to the skin of those men?” Vivenna asked.
“It’s that sword of his,” Denth growled. “We have to find a way to deal with it, Tonks. We’re going to end up crossing him, eventually. I can feel it.”
“But what is the sword?” Vivenna asked. “And how did it drain the color from their skin?”
“We’ll have to steal the thing, Denth,” Tonk Fah said, rubbing his chin as Jewels and Clod filled in around them, making a protective pattern as they moved out into the human river of the street.
“Steal the sword?” Denth asked. “I’m not touching the thing! No, we have to make him use it. Draw it. He won’t be able to keep it out for long. After that, we’ll be able to take him easily. I’ll kill him myself.”
“He beat Arsteel,” Jewels said quietly.
Denth froze. “He did not beat Arsteel! Not in a duel, at least.”
“Vasher didn’t use the sword,” Jewels said. “There was no blackness to Arsteel’s wounds.”
“Then Vasher used a trick!” Denth said. “Ambush. Accomplices. Something. Vasher is no duelist.”
Vivenna let herself get pulled along, thinking of those bodies. Denth and the others had spoken of the deaths this Vasher was causing. She’d wanted to see them. Well, now she had. And it left her feeling disturbed. Unsettled. And . . .
She frowned, itching slightly.
Someone with a lot of Breath was watching her.
Hey! Nightblood said. It’s VaraTreledees! We should go talk to him. He’ll be happy to see me.
Vasher stood openly atop the building. He didn’t really care who saw him. He rarely did. An endless flow of people passed on the colorful street. VaraTreledees—Denth, as he called himself now—walked among them with his team. The woman, Jewels. Tonk Fah, as always. The clueless princess. And the abomination.
Is Shashara here? Nightblood asked, excitement in his nebulous voice. We need to go see her! She’ll be worried about what happened to me.
“We killed Shashara long ago, Nightblood,” Vasher said. “Just like we killed Arsteel.” Just like we’ll eventually kill Denth.
As usual, Nightblood refused to acknowledge Shashara’s death. She made me, you know,Nightblood said. Made me to destroy things that were evil. I’m rather good at it. I think she’d be proud of me. We should go talk to her. Show her how well I do my job.
“You are good at it,” Vasher whispered. “Too good.”
Nightblood began to hum quietly, pleased at the perceived praise. Vasher, however, focused on the princess, walking in her obviously exotic dress, standing out like a flake of snow in the tropical heat. He would need to do something about her. Because of her, so many things were falling apart. Plans toppling like badly stacked boxes, creating a racket with their collapse. He didn’t know where Denth had found her or how he kept control of her. However, Vasher was sorely tempted to jump down and let Nightblood take her.
The deaths the night before had already drawn too much attention. Nightblood was right. Vasher wasn’t good at sneaking about. Rumors regarding him were widespread in the city. That was both good and bad.
Later, he thought, turning from the silly girl and her mercenary entourage. Later.