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Authors: Brent Weeks

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Behind their smiles, not a few of the Blood Forest conns might
want
Kip dead, but none would dare to move against him openly, certainly not with his army deployed inside their city. But someone else had good reason to want Kip dead. Someone who would stop at nothing. The White King.

He shouldn’t have anyone serving him, not in this city. But he might.

Big Leo’s eyes met Ferkudi’s. There was no hesitation there.

“Nine Kill Seven!” Big Leo bellowed—

Just as Ferkudi yelled, “Nine Kill Naught!”

What?! ‘Naught’ wasn’t superviolet. ‘Naught’ meant a
paryl
-using assassin.

But their voices had already flown like torches from their hands to land amid friends and foes and fools, the nervous and naïve, all of them paranoid and powerful.

And the black powder of history roared in reply.

Chapter 2

Kip Guile had become a thousand hands holding two thousand cords, each one twisting in his fists, tearing away in every direction, each believing their own petty happiness was more important than the survival of them all. He smiled at mousy Lady Proud Hart, finding a measure of real joy in her excited jabbering about his repairs of the ceiling art
Túsaíonn Domhan
, ‘A World Begins.’ He wondered if what he was doing now was easier or harder than that repair, weaving the myriad magics together into one yoke and then pulling the whole from extinction into new life.

Except here the two thousand cords were conns and banconns, merchant princes, gentleman pirates, emissaries, slavers, spies, confidence women, and deserters, and exiles and refugees in their tens of thousands—and even one shy and fabulously wealthy art collector. Some cords turned to shape without complaint, adding weight but also more usefulness. Many resisted his pull, rightly distrustful of another war, another Guile. Many tried to twist him to their selfish ends. But behind others, even tonight, Kip could feel an undue tension, pulling against him.

He wasn’t looking to weave an emperor’s robe for himself, for Orholam’s sake, he was making a simple yoke, that he might heave the Seven Satrapies away from the edge of an abyss.

It was the White King. Koios was at work here in this very room tonight. Kip could feel it.

“With your discovery that the old masters used truly full-spectrum magic, Great Lord Guile,” Lady Proud Hart was saying, “nine colors! not seven! who’d have dared believe it?—with that insight, we can bring art back to life that has not graced this earth with its true beauty in centuries. Yes, yes, the Chromeria will be peeved, but surely art is a demi-creation that brings great glory to the Creator Himself, no? The creation of beauty
is
worship! Who can deny it?” She was a tiny woman, the foremost expert on Forester antiquities in the world, or so Tisis had told him. She was also very connected and universally loved here. “With you leading the efforts, Conn Guile—oh dear, did I let that slip? Did you know yet that the Divines are planning to confer the title on you tonight? A little present. Unofficially, of course, until the formal—”

Across the room, Ferkudi and Big Leo suddenly shouted, “Nine Kill Naught!” and “Nine Kill Seven!” simultaneously.

For an embarrassingly long moment, Kip didn’t understand why they’d be so rude as to scream during a civilized dinner party.

In one instant, Kip’s greatest dread was that Lady Proud Hart was warming to asking him to repair dozens of fragile, priceless works of art himself. There was no way he wouldn’t destroy half of them if he tried. He
was
the f’ing Turtle-Bear.

In the next instant, dual cracking noises woke him from a social fear to a physical one, like a man wakened from a fitful sleep by a thief in his room. Lux torches snapped open, Ben-hadad threw one blue and one green torch onto the banquet table, each flaring and burning and spitting magnesium heat, scorching the priceless walnut.

Kip suddenly lurched backward as Cruxer heaved on his shoulders, yanking him and his chair to get him out of any possible line of fire as quickly as possible.

Cruxer suddenly stopped the chair’s skidding feet with his own, pulling the chair hard toward the ground and catapulting Kip into the air.

Kip flipped over backward, only belatedly tucking his knees.

When they’d practiced this, he’d landed on his feet. One time.

Not this time. He crashed onto his hands and knees behind Cruxer.

By the time Kip stood, Cruxer had slammed an oblivious serving girl out of the way and off her feet with a hard shove and planted himself in front of Kip, whose back was now against the wall. Cruxer, with one side of his blue spectacles knocked askew, was staring at the blue burning lux torch on the table and drafting.

The tall bodyguard whirled each hand in circles, building a blue luxin shield, swiping left and right, painting the air itself with crystalline protection.

To not make a stationary target of himself, Kip dodged left and right within the space behind Cruxer, drafting as much off the lux torches as he could while trying to identify a threat.

Ferkudi and Big Leo were barreling through the wide common hall to get to his side. The music of lyre and timbrel and psantria fell silent.

Kip had asked for a small party—which meant (not counting those laboring in the kitchens and stockyards) a hundred lords and ladies and lackeys and lickspittles, thirty-some servants and slaves, fifty men-at-arms (who, on Cruxer’s insistence, were allowed no more armament than a table knife), and a dozen performers.

All of them were shrinking back from the center of the room and the high table. Some of the men-at-arms were covering their charges with their own bodies or hauling them toward the doors. Other men-at-arms were still stupefied like blinking heifers, too dull to do the only work for which they’d been hired.

A hundred people in the room, and not one whom Kip could see as a threat.

In a far corner of the room, the petite Winsen had jumped up on a servant’s sideboard to get a view of the whole room, his bow already strung, arrow nocked but not drawn, its point sweeping left and right with Winsen’s gaze.

Then Kip’s view was obscured as Cruxer finished the shield-bubble of blue luxin.

It wasn’t elegant work. Despite being made of translucent blue luxin, it was nearly opaque, but Kip knew it was strong. Cruxer did nothing halfway.

“More men,” Cruxer muttered. “We need more men.”

It was only then that Kip finally processed the last bits: ‘Nine Kill Seven’ meant a possible assassination attempt by an unknown number of drafters, possibly involving a superviolet. With no one charging forward now, that sounded like a false alarm. Nine Kills were often false alarms.

But ‘Nine Kill Naught’ meant a paryl drafter.

An assassin from the Order of the Broken Eye. A Shadow.

Which meant the assassin might be
invisible
, the kind of monster who could reach through clothes and flesh and luxin unseen and stop your very heart.

With a pop like an impudent kid clicking his tongue, Cruxer’s solid shield-bubble of blue luxin burst and simply fell to dust.

Aghast, Cruxer hesitated, baffled at how something he’d built to be impervious could simply
fail
, but Kip was suddenly loosed. Paryl was fragile. It could slide through luxin or flesh, into joints or hearts. But it couldn’t stretch, couldn’t cut, couldn’t survive violent motion.

As some nerve was invisibly tweaked, Cruxer’s knee buckled under him even as Kip dove away.

Kip rolled to his feet and ran straight for the high table. Last thing he wanted with a paryl assassin nearby was to trap himself against a wall. Shouting, “Paryl!” he leapfrogged over the head table between the great clay jugs of wine.

In typically flamboyant Forester fashion, there was a tradition at big parties for the conn to line up all the wine he intended to serve his guests in great jugs on the head table as a sign of his largesse and wealth. The guests, for their part, were expected to drink all of it. Naturally, the jugs got bigger as the egos did.

Here, for the man who had saved the city, some of the most brilliant examples of the big jugs ever crafted were lined up along the entire length of the high table like a rank of alcoholic soldiers.

In all the majesty of his gracefulness, the Turtle-Bear clipped one of them as he cleared the table. He rolled into the open space in the center of the big U of all the tables.

The priceless glazed clay jug painted with gold zoomorphic swirls and studded with precious stones tottered, teetered with the countervailing motion of the sloshing wine inside, tilted, toppled—and smashed.

A fortune of wine and pottery sprayed in every direction.

Beyond the spreading of wine, Kip was already looking for the assassin in sub-red, maybe near Cruxer.

Everyone else had retreated toward the walls or bolted for the doors, creating a shrieking knot of humanity.

Nothing.

Even with a shimmercloak, it took a gifted Shadow to hide himself or herself from sub-red vision.

Like the fearsome twin tusks of a charging iron bull, Ferkudi and Big Leo rushed to flank Kip.

Cruxer was still down, kicking his leg to restore feeling to it, breaking up the paryl. He was physically out of the fight for a while, but his eyes were up and he was already barking orders, no fear at all in his voice, despite his helplessness. “Ferk, Leo, wide! Keep moving! Paryl!”

Big Leo had already unlimbered the heavy chain he usually draped around his neck and tucked into his belt. He began whirring it in the air around him, sweeping it into a shifting shell of shimmering steel. No fragile fingers of paryl would make it through that. Because of Teia, the Mighty had an idea of what paryl could do.

Ferkudi, the grappler, had knots of luxin in and around each hand—a coruscating chunk of crystalline blue luxin in his right, and a spreading shillelagh of woody green in his left. He would count on deflecting any attacks with luxin just long enough to close the distance so he could seize an attacker.

Kip thought, if sub-red doesn’t work . . .

Still moving erratically, still scanning, Kip began narrowing his eyes to
chi
. It occurred to him a little late that the last time he’d messed with chi, he’d been blind for three days.

Too late.

The thunderclap of a pistol fired at close range rocked Kip. He saw fire gush from a barrel sweeping right past his face, heard the snap of a lead ball, and felt the concussive force flattening his cheek like a boxer’s punch.

In the barren, total focus that answers the sound of Death’s footfall, the world faded. No sound. No people. There was only the pistol, floating in midair held in a disembodied, gloved hand by the invisible killer. As the pistol jumped, the Shadow’s shimmercloak rippled with the shock wave, momentarily giving shape to the assassin.

A black burning powder cloud raced hard on the musket ball’s heels.

The burning cloud stung Kip’s face as he fell. He’d not noticed his feet tangled, but he definitely saw a second pistol sliding into visibility as it emerged from the cover of the shimmercloak.

Another boom and then a clatter.

Kip hit the ground on his side and saw Ferkudi leaping through the air over him, trying to snatch the assassin, blue luxin and green forming great jagged claws to make his arm span twice as wide.

Ferkudi caught nothing, though, his sweeping arms and luxin claws snapping shut on empty air. He landed on his chest with a thump and lost the luxin, both claws breaking apart and beginning to disintegrate on the floor.

Big Leo followed hard on Ferkudi’s attack, flinging his chain out to its full reach in a wide circle at waist height.

The last link caught the edge of the retreating Shadow’s cloak and threw it wide. The sudden glimpse of boots and trousers and belt where the rest of the man was invisible gave the impression they were staring through a tear in reality. Disrupted by the blow, the magics in a section of the cloak sizzled out of sync with any colors in the room before settling again as the assassin spun out of reach.

Then the cloak draped down again, covering him with its invisibility.

As Kip pulled himself together, deafened but unhurt, Big Leo pressed his advantage against the assassin, charging after the Shadow like a hound on the scent. His chain whipped out again, hitting nothing—

But there was a glimpse of boots as the assassin dove toward one wall.

This time, the whirling heavy chain came down with all the force in the warrior’s mountainous body. It cracked the floor tiles and shot sparks, but hit no flesh—the Shadow was fast.

People shrieked, cowering back in fear as Big Leo charged toward them. The Shadow must be nearly among them. If Big Leo struck again, he was going to kill or maim more than one of the bystanders.

But Big Leo pulled up short, flicking out the end of the chain just short of the crowd, who were panicked now, pushing one another through the nearest door as if pushing a cork down into a wine bottle.

With the easy grace of a squad that’s worked together so long they act like one body, Big Leo diverted the tornado of heavy chain for one instant as Ferkudi barreled past him.

Big Leo couldn’t attack too close to the crowd. Ferkudi had no such compunctions. Again, with arms and luxin spread and all of his considerable bulk at a full sprint, Ferkudi made a flying leap at the portion of the bunched crowd where he guessed the Shadow was.

Ferkudi’s tackle sent at least a dozen people flying—none of them the Shadow, and he went down in a tangle with all of them.

Which only left one way the Shadow could have gone—right back in front of the high table.

Kip saw Ben-hadad, wearing his knee brace but still hobbled by his injury from when they’d fled the Chromeria, standing at the far end of the high table. He had his heavy crossbow loaded and aimed—right at the crowd. But to shoot at the Shadow was to shoot at the crowd beyond it. The frustration was writ all over his bespectacled face.

Ben, Kip knew, felt useless. That all his brilliance was for naught. Couldn’t fight. Couldn’t help his friends who were in mortal peril. Couldn’t shoot unless he got the perfect opportunity—which he couldn’t, with these panicked strangers everywhere.

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