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

“What?” Ferkudi said blankly. “Cold? Huh?”

“Yeah, all right. What was I—oh, yeah, I mean Breaker saves the city, distributes all our food to the starving? And fixes that ceiling-art-whatever-thing? That meant something to these people. He’s like a god here now. If the Council of Divines or any of the Blood Forest nobles makes a move against him, the people would riot. They’d burn the nobles’ heart trees, string up every last one of—”

Ferkudi interrupted. “Anyone get added to the guest list late?”

Ferkudi loved lists, all lists. When the palace chatelaine had shown him her immaculately organized ledgers, the look on his face had been a baggage train of astonishment, then disbelief, then rapture, and finally utter infatuation for the bespectacled sexagenarian and her perfect figures. Kip—Breaker—had been turning Ferkudi’s odd brain to good use in his now daily wranglings with traders and bankers and nobles. The Mighty mostly used it for humor: setting Ferkudi to ranking units of the army by sewage produced had been a recent favorite. (By weight? No, by volume. How long after excretion?)

But when you pulled door duty, there was nothing humorous about reconciling the guest list. “Absolutely not!” Big Leo said, stone serious. Something in his growl or his changing stance sent a few nearby nobles back a step.

It was a discipline they’d learned from the Blackguard—there were never to be late additions or surprise guests when they provided security, ever. If a Blackguard saw someone at an event who wasn’t on the master list, he or she had free rein to consider them a threat.

But that only worked when the Blackguards could identify every guest by sight. Maybe Ferkudi could do that on the Mighty’s second night in Dúnbheo, but Big Leo certainly couldn’t. A flare of white-knuckled rage shot through him. The five of them, being asked to protect the Lightbringer himself? Impossible!

Damn you, Cruxer, it’s been a year. You should have recruited fifty of us by now.

But everything still looked fine.

“Ferk?” he said.

“I talked with the cooks,” the big round-shouldered young man said, sniffing again. “There were no dishes with cloves.”

Cloves. Superviolet luxin smelled something like cloves. Big Leo felt a frisson down his spine.

“Breaker’s the only declared superviolet in the room,” Big Leo said. Kip sat at the head table, where he was chatting amicably with an older woman who was some kind of authority on cultural antiquities.

He was much too far away for the scent to be coming from him.

“A secret message?” Big Leo said. Superviolet was often used for diplomatic messages. This was precisely the kind of crowd that would carry those, and even a noble could get jostled, breaking some fragile superviolet luxin scrawled on a parchment.

Or the cooks could have added cloves to one of the dishes at the last moment. Right?

Hell, for all Big Leo knew, maybe some lady walking past had clove-scented perfume.

‘Falsely declaring an assassination attempt is the worst thing you can do . . .’ Blackguard Commander Ironfist had once lectured them, ‘. . . except stand over the body of your ward. Announcing an assassination attempt means throwing a burning torch into the powder magazine of history. You are the people trusted with guns and spears and drafting while the most powerful and paranoid people in the world sleep and sup and talk and f . . . fornicate.’ They’d laughed, but the point was serious: several Prisms had been murdered by cuckolded spouses and scorned lovers. ‘When powerful paranoid people see you burst into a room shouting, armed and drafting, you will see pistols somehow appear on people who you know have been searched and cleared. You will see munds somehow turn out to be able to draft. You will see people innocent of everything except stupidity give you reasons to believe they need killing.

‘In a false alarm, you may see people die for no reason other than that you yelled. You may kill them yourself.

‘Given all that, some say calling a false alarm is shameful,’ Commander Ironfist had said. ‘But I say a Blackguard who doesn’t shout a Nine Kill once in their life isn’t working on edge. We protect the most important people in the world. Work on edge.’

The code was shorthand for the number of attackers, the suspected intent, and capabilities. A normal shout might be One Kill Five (a solo attacker, attempting assassination, likely a red drafter) or Two Grab Ten (two attackers attempting kidnapping, armed with muskets). Nine was ‘unspecified’ and the most likely to be wrong.

Big Leo looked over at Ferkudi, praying he’d say he’d been mistaken.

Ferkudi was glowering at the room, his brain grinding forward as slowly as a millstone and just as implacably.

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 na?ve, 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.

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