The Burning White: Book Five of Lightbringer (Lightbringer #5)

She walked back to the ship as in a trance and climbed the gangplank with lead in her shoes.

There was no way out. Her thoughts of defiance had lasted less than two minutes.

Gavin Guile was amidships. The captain was removing his chains.

Teia shuddered with a slave’s visceral revulsion at the fetters. She eyed his wrists, looking for sores as instinctively as another woman might check a man’s fingers for a wedding band. There were none.

Wherever Gavin Guile had been held, he hadn’t been chained. The other possibility—that he might not have fought his chains—was unthinkable. Everyone fights the chains. Most, like Teia, gave up after a few cuts. When your own mother puts you in chains, you think maybe you deserve them.

To her shame, Teia didn’t even have scars on her wrists.

But thinking of that called to mind Ironfist in that terrible room, over the pooled blood of his sister, whom Teia’d just killed. Ironfist, tearing his chains out of the wall in his rage and agony. But even he hadn’t broken his chains, had he?

No one breaks the chains, T. You can only ask to be let out nicely. After you do what they demand.

She didn’t know what she was doing. She should go belowdecks. Hide like she was supposed to do until they were far out to sea. Obey. It was a strain to stay invisible for so long, to be so open and sensitive to the light, which was only swelling by the minute as the sun fingered the horizon. But she couldn’t pull herself away.

The Prism had always been the height of majesty, of virility, potency. She’d heard other Blackguards say in hushed tones, ‘Whatever else we do, whatever happens, we were Blackguards in the time of Gavin Guile.’ Here was a man who was emperor who actually deserved it.

Seeing Zymun get ready to step into his place had made Teia sharply aware of how rare that was. Gavin made you believe in the Great Chain of Being; that some humans really were one step below Orholam, that they were surely made of fundamentally different stuff than you were.

The man before her threatened to give the lie to all that. Haggard, pathetic, ill, in sloppy clothes over a body with dirt so caked on that it seemed a washing would foul the water without cleansing the man. He must have lost as much weight as Kip had in Kip’s time at the Chromeria, but Gavin hadn’t had the weight to lose.

But she saw a glimpse of the old Gavin Guile charisma like a glint of sunlight off a distant lighthouse as he shook his head at some comment Captain Gunner had just made and gave a lopsided grin. “ ‘Good furred muffins’? Orholam’s saggy nipples, man, never change,” Gavin said to Gunner.

The grin—that quintessential Guile grin that Teia knew so well from his son—exposed a missing dogtooth. That hadn’t been gone before his imprisonment. It made Teia touch her own, still sore even after Karris’s own chirurgeon’s ministrations.

Nor had his eye been missing before. Gavin now wore a patch on his left eye with an unsettling black jewel in it. Gunner was just relieving him of the black sword, carefully wrapping it in cloths and handing it off to a nervous sailor to take below.

“Speaking of change, you need to,” Gunner said. “No, no, you know I hain’t religious. I mean, I give my ’spects to the Nine Ladies and the sea witches and keep my friendly spat with Ceres”—he spat into the water—“ya shriveled, sandy old cunt—and naturally, I tip a bowl for Borealis and Arcturus and the Bitch o’ Storms, but that’s just salt sense for a man of my avocation. I weren’t talkin’ meta—meta . . . metanoumenistically. I meant your bestments. Vestments? See? I trya talk to you god-botherers and it gets me kerfaffled. Change your clothes, man. You stink to low heaven. Soap and a rag and a bucket o’ clean until you shine like you’re polished as frequent as your mama’s nethers. Only thing worse ’n a stanky sailor’s a stanky prince.”

“Technically, I’m an emperor,” Gavin said.

“So two things worse. Anyhoo, as our mutual fiend there in the wrappings wants this pale little gold beauty back on the waves two bells past. But there’s a way to do things when gettin’ a ship shipshape, things to check. Crew to kick in the pucker. So get yourself clean afore you come belowdecks. My new girl deserves the best. I’ll have a man bring you fresh clothes.”

“These are actually new. Generous guy. Gave me new clothes in addition to the starvation and imprisonment and the black eye. I—”

Captain Gunner gave him a flat, dangerous look. “They’ve got a miasma about ’em. Bad luck. You fold ’em nice and leave them on the dock. Five minutes.”

Gavin nodded agreeably, but Teia could see gears turning in his head, quick as Kip: So I’m being put in my place. Fair enough . . . Captain. He mumbled, “Was a joke. Little joke. Black eye. Never mind.”

“Tolerable sailors, this lot. All Order folk, though,” Captain Gunner said, looking at the men and women scurrying about at their tasks.

“Oh, good. Now I feel better about consigning them to certain death,” Gavin said. “I’ll clean up before I come below.”

“End don’t try en’ run.”

“Running’s not in my cards, I’m afraid,” Gavin said with some forced good humor.

Indeed, the man looked like he could barely stand. But as Captain Gunner departed, Gavin Guile climbed up the stairs of the sterncastle and accepted a bucket and sponge.

Teia watched him invisibly. She should go belowdecks, out of the way of rushing sailors. She was invisible, not incorporeal, and her presence was supposed to be a secret at least until they were on their way. But she couldn’t bear to be shut in with her self-loathing just yet.

No wonder the Old Man hadn’t told her who her target was. If he’d had even a sliver of a doubt about her loyalty, he couldn’t tell her. And no wonder he’d thought it would be a painful kill for her: it wasn’t that he thought she had any special personal connection with Gavin Guile; it was that she was a Blackguard. Her whole life, her entire calling, was dedicated to protecting the Prism. She had only ever wanted to be a Blackguard, and this murder asked her to betray the very essence of that.

That was the pain that would make her a Sharp. Teia Sharp.

But Gavin Guile wasn’t merely a Prism, was he? Not merely a figurehead emperor, or even a good man. He was Kip’s father. Karris’s husband. To the Blackguards who still searched the seas and the Seven Satrapies for him, he had earned the Name ‘Promachos,’ ‘The One Who Goes Before Us to Fight.’ The image it evoked was the point of the spear, the man who runs ahead into battle, who leads it from the front, who never shies from the danger he asks others to risk.

My father, for Kip’s.

My father is a nobody. Gavin Guile is a man who shakes history.

But my father . . .

Sailors were scurrying around, double-checking knots before Cap’n Gunner arrived to see that they’d done everything right. She dodged through the rushing men and made it up the sterncastle ladder.

Gavin was wasting no time. He’d stripped naked and was scrubbing vigorously at his arms and chest, rubbing his skin ruddy and flinging water about.

Teia realized she wasn’t embarrassed by his nudity. Perhaps it was because he looked sick, faded so far from his former sun-hot glory that she felt only pity. Perhaps it was because she, not yet eighteen years old and still never having lain with a man, had seen so many people naked now in using paryl constantly that nudity simply didn’t mean anything to her. Perhaps it was because she had to kill him, and you couldn’t let a target be fully human. A target was meat and blood and breath to be stilled, not a father, not a lover, not a leader you’d adored.

A year ago, she would have been embarrassed, regardless.

She’d been different then. Better.

“Grab me that razor?” Gavin said. “This beard.”

Teia looked around the sterncastle to see who he was talking to. There was no one here. The nearby sailors had all disappeared.

Gavin said, “I’m ragged and beaten and half-blind and melancholy and exhausted, but I’m not deaf.”

Teia had been damn near silent.

“And you stepped in a water drop,” Gavin admitted. He smirked, as if he knew his life was in danger but he just didn’t care. “Which shimmercloak is that?”

“The fox,” Teia said, defeated. “How would—”

“The fox? That’s the one burnt all to hell. That means you’re new. And short. Woman, by your voice. Who are you working for?”

“I’ve been sent to kill you,” Teia said. “I mean, after you do whatever you’ve agreed to do.”

“The Order itself, then?” Gavin asked, still scrubbing his face and neck. He barely moved his mouth, didn’t look toward her, and spoke in a near mumble to keep his voice from carrying. Not a dumb man, Gavin Guile. “There is, after all, more than one group that would like me dead. Though several of them might hire the Order, I suppose . . .”

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