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

Ben-hadad said, “ ‘Dashing’? ‘Dashing Away from the Fight,’ maybe.”

“Least I can dash, Hop-Along,” Winsen sneered. “Funny, I don’t remember the cripple complaining about my speed when I saved his gimpy ass last night. And I am suave, Ferkudi. Certainly compared with the village idiot of the Mighty.”

“Oh, I’m sure you are,” Ferkudi said. “I mean, if you say so. It was a real question. I don’t know what ‘suave’ means.” He cut off suddenly. “Hold the door! Who’s the village idiot of the Mighty?”

“Was that a real question, too?” Ben-hadad muttered.

Kip peered past the edge of a curtain—and then he understood what Cruxer had meant. Hundreds of people were gathered, yelling and waving crude little green flags and banners he couldn’t read from here.

“They might not look like much . . .” Tisis said.

“The banners or the people?” Ben-hadad asked.

Tisis went on quietly without answering. “But you encourage these ones, and they get excited. They spread the word that becoming king is what you really want but maybe you just can’t say it. Tomorrow the crowd’s bigger. If no one stops them, that day or the next, some disaffected nobles join in, hoping their early allegiance will curry favor. The next day, others are joining fast, no one wanting to be the last.”

“They can’t be serious,” Kip said. King?

“They believe,” Ferkudi said, like it was simple.

Winsen said, “I know we’re not supposed to say the magic words . . .”

“But you’re going to say them anyway?” Cruxer said.

Winsen said, “How are you surprised by this? Being a king? There’ve been hundreds of kings—”

“Not since the Seven Satrapies were founded,” Kip said.

“Being a king’s like barely the second rung on the ladder to the heavens, and you’re heading pretty near the top of it.”

Ben-hadad said, “Don’t say it.”

“You’re the Lightbringer, the Luíseach here or whatever,” Winsen said.

“He said it,” Ben-hadad said.

“He just had to say it,” Big Leo said.

“Win, the rest of you, too?! Are you serious with this?!” Kip said. “Setting that up—even talking about it with the kitchen staff or, or anyone!—it’s totally destructive for everything we’re trying to do here. If you encourage that kind of talk, we might do a hundred amazing things, but if we don’t do one thing from some stupid prophecy, maybe even one we don’t know about—or even if some idiot wrote it down wrong or translated it wrong three hundred years ago or whatever—then all of a sudden, everyone on our side loses heart, because I look like a fraud. Rather than being a leader who’s helping save a satrapy, I look like some delusional megalomaniac who thinks he’s Lucidonius come again! Do you really not see how that’s a problem?!”

“Right, we’ve heard it before,” Winsen said. “It’s too late. You’re asking us to pretend because you don’t like the pressure? Tough shit. People already are joining us because they believe in you. Sure, deny it publicly, play it however you want, but the cards are on the table, you—”

“Enough!” Tisis said. “Win, you’re a moron. Do you not remember why we’re here?”

“We invaded?” Winsen asked. “Liberated, I mean.”

“Here, here,” she said.

Kip saw it dawn on the slight archer: Oh, right, spies might be listening to every word. Shit.

“Kip,” Tisis said, “ignore him.”

Of course, all of them were trying to think whether Winsen—or Kip—had said anything that would be disastrous if it had been overheard.

Tisis went on: “The real reason the people here might dream of you as their king is simple. In their hour of need, Satrap Willow Bough did nothing for them. The Chromeria did practically nothing. You? You saved these people from the Blood Robes. And then you saved them from their own nobles, literally saved their lives when you fed them. And then you gave them reason to be proud of their city and their history when you fixed Túsaíonn Domhan. You gave them a new heart. You breathed new life into them; how can they forget that big empty throne in the audience chamber? Why would they not want you to be king?”

“Pfft. They’re desperate,” Kip said. “But they’re not desperate for me to be king. Me, so obviously a foreigner? I mean, who cares what my grandfather’s titles say? Look at me. Come on. They’re just desperate to be saved. I’m just a vessel to pour their hopes into.”

“Could do worse,” Ben-hadad said.

“That’s a rousing endorsement! I’ve got one cheek on the throne already!” Kip said.

“Room’s clear,” Cruxer announced suddenly. “One minute while our people put the luxin seals in place, then we can speak freely.”

“Finally,” Ben-hadad said. “I’m so glad Winsen will no longer have to hold back how he really feels.”

“We’re not so good at this being-devious thing, are we?” Big Leo asked.

He hadn’t meant it as a shot at Kip, but Kip couldn’t help but think it reflected most on him. He should have discovered if there were spies, and whose. He should’ve figured out exactly what lies to funnel to that person to make them do what he wanted.

Andross Guile would have.

Cruxer said, “Súil, thank you. Excellent work. You’re getting faster, aren’t you?”

She beamed through a sheen of sweat.

Cruxer was good at that, looking out for people. It was one of the reasons Kip loved him.

They all broke to get their packs and papers. Everyone in the room had responsibilities and reports to deliver.

As Tisis quickly donned nondescript clothing, then ducked out, Kip looked at his own papers for the strategy session, but he had no heart to go over them again. “You called me ‘Kip’?” he asked Cruxer quietly.

“Mmm.”

“That wasn’t an accident or a pretense for the spies, was it?”

Cruxer looked for a moment like he wanted to deny it, but a lie wouldn’t escape the cage of his teeth. “Our Breaker was a Blackguard scrub. Sure, he’d break some rules, break expectations, a bully’s arm, a chair”—he flashed a grin at that memory—“but I don’t think that boy would break the empire. I guess it slipped out. I guess I’ve been wondering if maybe you’re more their Lord Guile than our Breaker. Maybe it was an ill omen, that name.”

“You gave it to me,” Kip said.

“I hadn’t forgotten,” Cruxer said. “Lot of things about that year that I regret.”

“Ah, come on! ‘King Breaker,’ ” Winsen said. They hadn’t realized he was still close. “How can you not love that? Say . . . Bennie?”

“ ‘Bennie’?” Ben-hadad asked.

Winsen said, “Yeah. You think a man destined to kill kings might be called a king-breaker, Bennie?”

Ben-hadad looked at him flatly. He tested the heft of the cane he still used half the time.

“You know . . . Breaker would be King Breaker, the . . . king-breaker?” Winsen asked. “Because the White King is, you know, a king . . .”

“You’re only coming to this now?” Ben-hadad asked. “Ferkudi asked about that a year ago.”

Coming up to stand beside Ben-hadad, Big Leo rumbled, “Looks like maybe your earlier question’s a little more complicated than you thought.”

“Question?” Winsen asked. “Which question?”

“ ‘Who’s the village idiot of the Mighty?’ ” Ben-hadad and Big Leo said at the same time. They raised their eyebrows in unison at Winsen.

Big Leo put out a massive paw for a fist salute. Ben-hadad met it without having to look.

Winsen answered with a finger salute for each of them.

“Enough grab-ass,” Cruxer said, the phrase and even the intonation borrowed from old Commander Ironfist. “Everyone to the table.”

Somehow, Tisis had set up and activated the war map with all the most current updates already. She briefly kissed Kip’s cheek—they were trying to be less irritating with their affections around the Mighty—and left. Moments later, Kip’s drafters sealed the doors.

Everyone began examining the big map. Kip had been doing a little trick Súil had taught him, using a small amount of paryl, which was highly sensitive to other colors, to make a form of a small portion of the three-dimensional map, then quickly filling in the colors with other luxins to make a fragile copy of Green Haven and its surroundings. He turned it around and tilted it to get a sense of how the changes in elevation might affect sight lines, and the flow of horses and men in a battle.

But he was really just stalling.

Cruxer turned to him. “Over to you, milord. How bad is our situation?”

Kip squeezed his outspread fingers, and the luxin city in his hands snapped and fell into multicolored dust. “Asking it that way really implies that things are bad. And they’re not.”

“Oh, thank Orholam,” Ben-hadad said, “because with what we heard last night, and then when Tisis first came in this morning, her expression—”

“They’re appalling,” Kip said. “Awful, bleak, dire . . .”

“But surely not—” Ferkudi said.

“Hopeless?” Kip asked.

They all fell silent.