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

It wasn’t the only way Kip and his Nightbringers, outwardly hailed as liberators, had been passively resisted, and carefully made to feel unwelcome. The Divines were either not half as clever as they thought, or they believed themselves to be untouchable. Kip hoped they weren’t stupid, but they were treating him like he was, and it was a burr under his saddle.

Regardless, until the woman finished her paryl scans, the Mighty couldn’t talk strategy.

Kip hadn’t appreciated how good Teia was at drafting paryl until Súil had given him a basis for comparison. She was nice, but she needed breaks every few minutes, and even when she was working, she was slow.

He considered taking over the scanning himself, but that would shame her. It would also reveal more of the full extent of his abilities to any spies who might be watching.

The Mighty missed Teia for a dozen reasons, but her speed was one they’d mentioned repeatedly. Kip had agreed with them but offered no more, telling them only that Karris had needed Teia. Paryl’s ability to see through clothing for hidden weapons was so useful for a Blackguard that Kip hadn’t needed to lie to them about Teia’s real work hunting the Order—that had felt like a secret that wasn’t his to give away and one too dangerous to share.

But the Mighty had brought up Teia’s absence more as they realized how important it was to trust your paryl drafter absolutely. In fraught times, how do you trust a stranger who can kill you without leaving any evidence, whose powers can’t be detected or countered except by someone who shares them?

No wonder paryl drafters had so often been hunted down throughout history, their arts no longer taught, but instead buried and for the most part happily forgotten.

But the biggest problem with having Súil around was that it made him miss Teia. And all that didn’t bear thinking about.

Kip had been lucky last night. The Mighty stopping two Shadows? How did that happen, really? The Mighty were good, but . . . the Shadows must have been inexperienced or lazy, underprepared, undisciplined. Would the Old Man of the Desert really spend two Shadows to send a message? Kip had said that, but it had been bravado.

You can’t admit that all of your best people together barely stopped two of the enemy, and only because they’d been incredibly lucky. So was it luck, or was the Old Man telling Kip he could kill him that easily, or . . . what was the alternative? Divine intervention?

Kip only wished he could believe that.

If it were a message, though, what was the message?

This whole city was starting to infuriate him. Not just the attempted eavesdropping. The passive resistance. The bureaucracy. ‘That’s not the way we do . . .’ ‘Ancient tradition dictates . . .’ ‘The people will be mortally offended, but if my lord wills it . . .’ ‘The priests are being summoned for a grand council to vote to allow just that, my lord, but so many of them are old, it’s taken longer than expected. Doubtless they’ll meet today. But I’m afraid if you preempt their authority . . .’

But there were things only he could do, and that he could only do if he stayed. Things only Kip cared enough to do. Things only he could get away with. That wasn’t even counting the things he should do that he could do better than anyone else. Worse, he didn’t know who he could trust enough to leave in charge.

The longer he stayed, the more fighters flocked to his banners and the better the intelligence he received. More time also meant more resources he could gather for his army.

But the longer he stayed, the more time he gave the White King to learn what Kip had accomplished and move to counter what he would do next.

He was going to go full Andross Guile on those old bastards.

He looked at the papers stacked on his desk. A year’s worth of commitments and decisions.

Two more days. I can give it two days. What can I accomplish in two more days? Enough?

“Breaker,” Cruxer said beside Tisis at the window, “there’s a crowd.”

“So? There was a crowd yesterday.” Kip started sorting the stacks into what he could possibly hope to do in two days.

“I went out there this morning again,” Cruxer said. “I recognized some of them. Same people. They’re not leaving after they see the ceiling.”

“They want to wait in the queue to see it again, that’s their business,” Kip said.

“They aren’t in the queue,” Cruxer said, troubled. “Yesterday they came curious. They left exultant. Today they’re . . . expectant?”

“I think they’re hoping to make you king,” Tisis said quietly.

“Uh-huh,” Kip said, not looking up. “Too much to do today, sorry,” he said.

He would meet with the merchant in the next two days. Definitely. His question was, how much of a fight did he put up over these shortages? Of course the discrepancies were never ‘surpluses,’ but he couldn’t be certain whose fingers had lightened the shipments. Men on his side, or on the merchant’s, or the merchant himself, swindling Kip? Contracts with ‘neutral’ traders were the worst, especially this asshole Marco Vellera.

Kip was pretty sure Marco Vellera was actually Benetto-Bastien Bonbiolo, one of the four Ilytian pirate kings. Or three kings and a queen at the moment, technically—there was a rumor that a king had been on the Gargantua when Gavin and Kip sank it. They still called them kings, though; apparently ‘the Ilytian pirate monarchs’ didn’t have the same ring to it. Kip’s problem was that Vellera was undoubtedly not selling supplies only to him but also to Koios, and to Satrap Briun Willow Bough as well.

He hated that, but there was no recourse for it. If you started seizing merchants’ caravans, you bankrupted the merchants. Bankrupt more than one, and the reasonable ones stop coming, leaving you to deal with the greedy who’ll gouge you, or the desperate who might steal from you outright; you end up paying with one kind of coin or another.

So far, Kip thought his own performance as a leader was decidedly lacking. He couldn’t win every game like Andross Guile, and he couldn’t break every game like Gavin Guile, so he was forced to do his best to rebound a loss from one game (the financial war) into a win in another (the shooting war).

Blubber bounces back, boys.

Kip was first on Marco Vellera’s trade route, so he was surreptitiously buying up the supplies he guessed the White King needed most.

Finding the coin to do all these things was what half the stacks of papers on the tables were all about. It involved a lot of bending the truth to a lot of very concerned bankers.

“Breaker, she’s serious,” Cruxer said.

Kip didn’t even look up. “Uh-huh. Happens to everyone who dabbles in the art-restoration business. Hazard of the trade, getting offered a crown.”

“Art?” Ferkudi asked.

“Fixing the ceiling?” Ben-hadad prompted.

“Oh, right! Right.” Ferkudi looked up. “What’s wrong with the ceiling?”

“Crowd’s not that big. Oh, they’ve seen us,” Winsen said, now beside Cruxer. “Crux? How does a High Magister wave? Like so?” He waved a devil-may-care wave, and Kip could hear the crowd go mad with excitement.

“ ‘Not that big’?” Kip said, suddenly rooted to the desk, papers forgotten.

“Nor that small,” Tisis said.

“How not small is ‘not small’?” Kip asked.

“I dunno,” Winsen said. “Maybe twenty thousand?”

“What?!” Kip shot to his feet.

“He’s joking,” Tisis said. “Maybe a thousand?”

“Nine hundred fifty-seven,” Ferkudi said.

They all stopped. They looked at him.

“You didn’t just count them all . . .” Winsen said.

“Huh? Of course not,” Ferkudi said, as if Win was crazy. “I was guessing. Why does everyone else always guess round numbers? They’re not any more likely.” He suddenly looked troubled. “They aren’t more likely, are they?”

But Kip suddenly remembered. They were worried about spies listening in. Tisis was only bluffing, trying to give the Divines something to worry about—to soften them up for what Kip planned next. She wasn’t serious.

“Breaker,” Cruxer said as Kip stepped up to the window himself, curious. There must be a small crowd at least, for Tisis’s play to have any teeth.

But Cruxer put a hand on his chest, stopping him. “Kip! Don’t you step into view unless you plan to become a king. With all that that entails. For all of us.”

“You’re serious,” Kip said. Since when did Cruxer call him Kip?

“Never more.” The look in Cruxer’s eyes was inscrutable, and Kip suddenly wasn’t sure what his friend would do if he tried to take that last step.

Ever righteous, would Cruxer see Kip taking a crown as treason?

But as if he’d just wondered the same thing, Cruxer dropped his hand as if Kip were burning white-hot.

“Where can I stand where they won’t see me?” Kip asked.

“Let ’em see you,” Winsen said. “ ‘King’s Guard’ has a nice ring to it. Lot better than ‘Winsen, Kip Guile’s Mighty Right Hand, You Know, the Suave and Dashing One.’ ”

“ ‘Right hand’?” Cruxer asked, eyebrows climbing.

Winsen shrugged, helpless. “I can’t stop people from talking, Commander.”

“ ‘Suave’?” Ferkudi asked.