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Authors: Brent Weeks

Tags: #Fantasy

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Ironfist had sworn loyalty to Gavin! He’d administered those very oaths to half the rest of the Blackguard! Before the blades come out, you have to decide where you stand. King Ironfist had decided to stand for himself. He’d thrown off his loyalty to Gavin, and now he must be trying to do the same with the Order.

Why else would they be sending Teia to assassinate him? He was one of their own.

Had been, anyway.

Now Teia would be the shield that came down on his neck. Hers would be the hand that brought his head to her masters.

It would hurt to kill Ironfist. But it wouldn’t break her. She was beyond that now.

Invisible in the master cloak, Teia made her way out onto the lonely dock. Cheerless dawn was threatening the horizon as sailors prepared the ship in hushed tones. There was no harbormaster present, nor any of the usual dockhands or slaves or attendants Teia would have expected. It was a ghost ship—fitting for the departing condemned.

Three figures stood on the quay. One was hunched and swaddled as if ill, or perhaps to hide his height. The second was a broadly gesticulating man with a wild, woolly beard with match cords woven into it and a gold-brocaded jacket worn open over his bare chest, despite the chill of the morning. The third figure had his back to Teia. There was something in his carriage that spoke of being human freight, a slave about to be passed from one man to another. Teia had seen that broken shuffle before; in truth, she’d walked like that herself.

So she dismissed that one, flaring her eyes to paryl to look at the others just as the heavily cloaked man presented a sword.

Its appearance hit her like a rapid blow to the nose, leaving her blinking: that blade should have shone white in her paryl vision. Metal always did, with minute variations of tone for different metals. This thing was
invisible
.

No, the shimmercloaks made things invisible—when you looked at an active shimmercloak, you saw whatever lay beyond it. This was a bar of black, heavy nothingness. Usually, darkness is a hole, an absence, as death is the absence of life.

This was a piece of hungry night, of darkness breathing.

This was more than Death, hammered and folded into killing shape. This was not made by the hand of man. Perhaps in the youth of Old Man Time, some dead demigod, after his descent to the all-devouring depths of the ninth hell, had rallied instead of despaired at his imprisonment there. He’d charged hell’s gates from the inside. Then, confronting the three-headed hound who guarded that way, terrifying all lesser souls, he smashed its faces on the gates, using its snarling snouts as battering rams, snapping lupine teeth and bones, one, two, and three, throwing the mighty gates from their hinges.

Then the demigod had gone his way, triumphant to the heavens, heedless of the hellhound he left behind.

If such might be true, then this blade was one of hell’s jagged, broken fangs.

The cloaked man laid it across his gloved palms and offered it up.

But not to the flamboyant captain.

And there was another blow. A paryl marker, visible only to her, the sign that this man was her target, hung in the air above the wretch she’d dismissed as a slave.

He couldn’t be—he
wasn’t
Ironfist.

He wasn’t Ironfist.

Even from the back it was clear this man was too small. Broad across his hunched shoulders, square-jawed, but light-skinned and not tall enough. Hair covered with a grubby hat. He was just some broken old warrior.

All the cold courage she’d been knotting tight loosed its tension from her limbs and she could suddenly breathe.

She didn’t have to kill Ironfist.

Something like a prayer of thanks made its way to her teeth. But there it stopped.

Why would the Old Man think I’d have a hard time killing some stranger?

The man a sailor had referred to as Captain Gunner whistled a melodious little trill. “C’mon!” he said, waggling his bushy eyebrows at the slave. He had a winsome, goofy grin, but he struck Teia as not very stable, and very, very dangerous. “What’ll it be? Death or glory?”

Apparently, the poor bastard was being offered some kind of choice. Not much of one, though, since no matter what he did Teia was going to be killing him afterward.

“Let’s sail,” the slave said, straightening his stooped shoulders and taking up the blade. Some spirit came back into him, and recognition clobbered Teia like a left hook to the neck. “Death
and
glory, Cap’n Gunner,” said none other than Gavin Guile.

The Prism himself, Gavin Guile. The price for saving Teia’s father was that she assassinate Emperor Gavin Fucking Guile.

Chapter 4

The young goddess strode barefoot through the hidden shipyards in a dress mostly faded to blue from the original bright murex purple it had been when the White King had given it to her. That had been before he tried to kill her. Invisible to most, tornadoes of the airy spidersilk luxin billowed from her, spiraling out in orderly whorls, the patterns repeating themselves on every scale. Tendrils stuck to those in her path and wormed their way into them. And tradesmen and shipbuilders and the unpaid laborers whom no one here called slaves found reasons to move aside, most without even noticing her.

The dirty warehouse she approached made a tawdry throne room for a man who would be a king of the gods, but it had kept its secrets safe.

As she passed through the crowds that magically parted for her, she heard the cadences of their speeches warble, disparate words from a hundred conversations suddenly aligning, the pitches rising and falling in perfect uniformity with every other—and then falling simultaneously to silence, as everyone noticed.

Most were baffled, some alarmed. The words had been their own; the speakers hadn’t intended such conformity. Surely here, among the new pagans, odd magic was the norm. Wights of every color walked the streets. Six of the
bane
had been gathered in closer proximity than perhaps ever before in history. But this magic was different.

Aliviana, born Aliviana Danavis, now the goddess Ferrilux, passed the wights guarding the doors. The superviolet wights were the easiest of all: they could belong to her in an instant, if she willed it. The dull, animalistic sub-reds were the most challenging for her; they goggled bestial eyes at all those around them, as if everyone else had heard a tone to which they were deaf. One of the burned freaks even stared at her, but couldn’t comprehend why Aliviana might be important.

The cadences and then the silence rippled through the petitioners in two slow waves before her, only to burst at the circle of the White King’s nine bodyguards, all formerly elite drafter-warriors who had made the leap halfway to godhood and were now polychrome wights with black-luxin-edged vechevorals and ataghans and scorpions and flyssas and man catchers, even in their weapons preferring the old and provincial to the modern and universal.

Liv’s superviolet luxin died where she touched those spears, as all magic died when it touched living black luxin.

That these wights had such weapons told her that the White King had been experimenting with his black seed crystal. She wondered if he understood that he was playing with the most dangerous magic in all the world, and something tightened uneasily in her stomach.

An emotion, perhaps.

She could dredge up a name for it from her memory, if she tried, but she simply didn’t care to.

“That’s far enough!” the White King boomed.

And then everyone could see her, her will-crafting broken as if it were a spell. The people fell away from her, some literally so, tumbling over their neighbors in their astonishment and fear.

Weapons came to wights’ hands, but not even the reds or sub-reds moved to attack without the White King’s command.

A superviolet will-crafting compels only one’s reason, as an orange hex-crafting compels only one’s emotions, so anyone at all could have broken her webs with a shouted word.

But instead of noticing the artistry of her drafting that had allowed her to shift the vision of six hundred twenty-seven people and seventy-three wights, the people seemed impressed with their king instead. As if he had commanded her to be visible and she had no choice but to comply. As if it were proof that his magic was greater.

Her rage needed no help finding its name. It was quite well fixed to the condescending, pompous polychrome wight who now stood before an ivory throne.

Born Koios White Oak before a fire at his family’s mansion on Big Jasper had robbed him of his good looks and humanity and illusions, the White King was an imposing figure, she could admit. To his burn-scarred flesh, he added luxin and hexes. He’d refined his control of both in the time she’d been gone. He wore gold-edged white silk trousers of some flowing design that reminded her of something from an ancient woodcut, a fashion from the time of the nine kingdoms. He wore a matching tunic laced tight over his thin body with gold cords, with knots at ritual intervals. Rather than looking ruddy or pallid or freckled from his Forester heritage, his skin was now white as the noonday sun. His many and grotesque lumpy burn scars were somehow invisible, whether by the arts of cosmetics or will-crafting. She doubted he’d actually been healed; the White King was all about appearances, not changing underlying realities. His eyelids were kohled black so as to accentuate their many colors, and his ivory skin was studded with glued-on jewels and protruding luxin.

“You look well, Koios,” Aliviana said. “It seems I’m not the only one who’s changed since you sent me away with an assassin whom you ordered to either murder me or chain me up like your other pet djinn.”

“Daughter! Our new Ferrilux!” the White King said. “You speak like one who has become the goddess of pride indeed! You have blossomed into all I had hoped you might be, with a little additional cheek thrown in for good measure.”

He chuckled, and his people seemed to take that as a sign that it was safe to laugh, and they did.

It was an odd sound, laughter; one she had neither made nor heard for a year, twelve days and twenty hours, seven seconds. Only after it was gone did Aliviana think that she should have been listening to the messages that laughter carried. Was it the laughter of a people afraid of their king, or of people in awe of and in love with him?

Too late.

The unfamiliar emotional freight had gone unweighed, and her memory could no more call it back to take its measure than one could call back an insult carelessly offered.

“May I have a word? In private?” she asked.

Her jaw strained suddenly against her effort to open it.
Don’t grovel
, Beliol hissed.

No one else could hear him. Careful not to let her irritation show on her face, she slammed the thought down and even triggered her zygomatic major muscle. From this distance, the White King might take it for a pleasant smile. “Please,” she added.

Chapter 5

“Another nightmare?” Tisis asked. “You think the assassination attempt . . . ?”

“No. The other thing again.” Kip scooted to the edge of their bed. He’d left his side sweat-damp.

“I’d kind of hoped . . .” Tisis’s sigh echoed his own. He could tell she’d been up for a while, meeting with her spies or something. She’d even selected clothes for him. She thought he slept too little, and tried to protect him.

“How’d I ever find you?” he asked her.

“The first time, I was sabotaging your initiation. I think the second was when I was jerking off your grandfather.”

“Honey, I didn’t mean—”

“Just so you know, in case you ever thought I might make comparisons, you are—”

“No, let’s not!” Kip said.

Tisis was not a disinterested party when it came to discussing these particular dreams. Dreams of Andross Guile.

“Should I summon the attendants?” Tisis already had the small bell in hand, a sign that he was already late.

He held out a staying hand. “Can I tell you something? Something bizarre?”

Of course he could, but she didn’t put down the bell.

“I dreamed of him as a young man. He’s going to woo a bride and trying to save the Guile family as he does so, and he doesn’t even realize—for all his smarts—that he’s broken, utterly broken by his own brother’s recent death.” He paused.

“So far . . . not that bizarre,” Tisis said. Her own lack of sleep was making her shorter with him than usual.

Kip looked down at the Turtle-Bear tattoo on the inside of his wrist. The inks or luxins that made the colors were all still vibrant from the Battle of Greenwall a few days before; it would fade, in time. He’d been using every color of luxin recently. The wick of his life was burning fast. Maybe that had something to do with the dreams.

“They’re not dreams, exactly,” Kip said. “I think they’re dreams of a card.”

“But you forget most of what you see when you wake. Exactly like a dream.”

“Well, yes. I didn’t say it wasn’t a dream at all. Just that it’s a dream of a card.”

“You said you’d never touched the full Andross Guile card. That he was too clever to allow all of his experiences to be captured.”

He had said that. Janus Borig had convinced Kip’s grandfather to let her do two very partial cards, stubs, that showed only particular scenes, similar to what an untalented Mirror could make, or what a good Mirror would make of an item. The card needn’t show the maker of that item’s entire life story; the card’s focus would be limited to the item itself. Kip had only touched a stub card. So he thought. “And I believed it fully to be true,” Kip said. “But these dreams . . .”

“Nightmares,” she said. “And, as they’re of that creature, it’s fitting that your dreams are twisted. This is the man who hired an assassin to murder you—his own grandson—before you’d even met, who forced you to play literal games for Teia’s life and freedom, who has killed Orholam only knows how many innocents in his life, and not incidentally arranged for my future husband to walk in on the most humiliating moment of my life, after he’d convinced me to whore myself. Thinking you’re living that disgusting
thing’s
life? That’s a nightmare. And you never touched his card, so it’s also a delusion. And considering everything you need to do—yesterday—it’s a distraction, too.” Tisis rang the bell to summon the servants more loudly than necessary. “You’re going to be late,” she said.

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