ARE YOU READY?
Enjoy the first two chapters of THE BURNING WHITE.
I’ve edited and revised these opening scenes since we last published them here on the website (shiny!).
If you havenâ€™t read THE BLOOD MIRROR, please stop reading.
Seriously, stop. MAJOR SPOILERS below. No, really.
Wait â€¦ you havenâ€™t read THE BLOOD MIRROR? Go fix that. This will be here, twiddling its thumbs, waiting for your return.
ALL RIGHT! Now with all that business out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff!
LAST WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEADShow Spoilers
The White Kingâ€™s plan to destroy Kip Guile only began with an assassination. The assassination began with the scent of cloves.
â€œI love being in the Mighty, donâ€™t get me wrong,â€ Big Leo was telling Ferkudi, â€œbut sometimes the bodyguard duty is too much for only five of us, donâ€™t you think? The Blackguard always has at least a hundred warriors. Thatâ€™s like ten times as many. Fifteen? Dammit, twenty. You see? Thatâ€™s how tired I am. And sure, they gotta guard more people than weâ€”â€
Big Leo stopped. He took his eyes off the chattering nobles for the first time all night and glanced at him. Like most things he did, Ferkudi sniffed different, huffing in his air in little triads, short, short, long.
The two of them had pulled door-guard duty for the big dinner party hailing Kip (Breaker to the Mighty) as the Liberator of DÃºnbheo. After his initial chilly reception by the Council of Divinesâ€”and a couple of hangingsâ€”the nobles of Blood Forestâ€™s cultural capital were trying to make nice.
When Ferkudi said nothing, Big Leo took the sniff as agreement. He continued, â€œI mean, no oneâ€™s going to make a move on the cityâ€™s big savior tonight, right? It ever bother you no one seems to notice Lord Kip Guile didnâ€™t save the city all by himself?â€
Everything was fine, Leo thought. No one was acting strangely. Sure, there were some nerves as everyone was trying to figure out how to turn Breaker into an ally, but the noise of the crowd was right. People even seemed to be enjoying themselves.
â€œDonâ€™t tell me youâ€™re coming down with a cold,â€ Leo said, not looking over this time.
Ferkudi inhaled deeply, like a war-bound soldier carefully filling his mnemonic storehouses with the scent of his wifeâ€™s hair.
â€œWhat?â€ Ferkudi said blankly. â€œCold? Huh?â€
â€œYeah, all right. What was Iâ€”oh, yeah, I mean Breaker saves the city, distributes all our food to the starving? And fixes that ceilingart-whatever-thing? That meant something to these people. Heâ€™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. Theyâ€™d burn the noblesâ€™ heart trees, string up every last one ofâ€”â€
Ferkudi interrupted. â€œAnyone get added to the guest list late?â€
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. Kipâ€”Breakerâ€”had been turning Ferkudiâ€™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. â€œAbsolutely not!â€ 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 theyâ€™d learned from the Blackguardâ€”there were never to be late additions or surprise guests when they provided security, ever. If a Blackguard saw someone at an event who wasnâ€™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 Mightyâ€™s second night in DÃºnbheo, but Big Leo certainly couldnâ€™t. A flare of whiteknuckled rage shot through him. The five of them, being asked to protect the Lightbringer himself? Impossible!
Damn you, Cruxer, itâ€™s been a year. You should have recruited fifty of us by now.
But everything still looked fine.
â€œFerk?â€ he said.
â€œI talked with the cooks,â€ the big round-shouldered young man said, sniffing again. â€œThere were no dishes with cloves.â€
Cloves. Superviolet luxin smelled something like cloves. Big Leo felt a frisson down his spine.
â€œBreakerâ€™s the only declared superviolet in the room,â€ 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.
â€œA secret message?â€ 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.
â€˜Falsely declaring an assassination attempt is the worst thing you can doâ€¦â€™ Blackguard Commander Ironfist had once lectured them, â€˜â€¦ 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 fâ€¦ fornicate.â€™ Theyâ€™d laughed, but the point was serious: several Prisms had been murdered by cuckolded spouses and scorned lovers. â€˜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.
â€˜In a false alarm, you may see people die for no reason other than that you yelled. You may kill them yourself.
â€˜Given all that, some say calling a false alarm is shameful,â€™ Commander Ironfist had said. â€˜But I say a Blackguard who doesnâ€™t shout a Nine Kill once in their life isnâ€™t working on edge. We protect the most important people in the world. Work on edge.â€™
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 â€˜unspecifiedâ€™ and the most likely to be wrong.
Big Leo looked over at Ferkudi, praying heâ€™d say heâ€™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 shouldnâ€™t have anyone serving him, not in this city. But he might.
Big Leoâ€™s eyes met Ferkudiâ€™s. There was no hesitation there.
â€œNine Kill Seven!â€ Big Leo bellowedâ€”
Just as Ferkudi yelled, â€œNine Kill Naught!â€
What?! â€˜Naughtâ€™ wasnâ€™t superviolet. â€˜Naughtâ€™ 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 naÃ¯ve, all of them paranoid and powerful. And the black powder of history roared in reply.
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 TÃºsaÃonn Domhan, â€œA World Begins.â€ 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 thousandsâ€”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 wasnâ€™t looking to weave an emperorâ€™s robe for himself, for Orholamâ€™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.
â€œWith your discovery that the old masters used truly full-spectrum magic, Great Lord Guile,â€ Lady Proud Hart was saying, â€œnine colors! not seven! whoâ€™d have dared believe it?â€”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?â€ 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. â€œWith you leading the efforts, Conn Guileâ€”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 formalâ€”â€
Across the room, Ferkudi and Big Leo suddenly shouted, â€œNine Kill Naught!â€ and â€œNine Kill Seven!â€ simultaneously.
For an embarrassingly long moment, Kip didnâ€™t understand why theyâ€™d be so rude as to scream during a civilized dinner party. In one instant, Kipâ€™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 wouldnâ€™t destroy half of them if he tried. He was the fâ€™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 chairâ€™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.
When theyâ€™d practiced this, heâ€™d landed on his feet. One time.
Not this time. He crashed onto his hands and knees behind Cruxer.
By the time Kip stood, Cruxer had slammed an oblivious serving girl out of the way and off her feet with a hard shove and planted himself in front of Kip, whose back was now against the wall. Cruxer, with one side of his blue spectacles knocked askew, was staring at the blue burning lux torch on the table and drafting.
The tall bodyguard whirled each hand in circles, building a blue luxin shield, swiping left and right, painting the air itself with crystalline protection.
To not make a stationary target of himself, Kip dodged left and right within the space behind Cruxer, drafting as much off the lux torches as he could while trying to identify a threat.
Ferkudi and Big Leo were barreling through the wide common hall to get to his side. The music of lyre and timbrel and psantria fell silent.
Kip had asked for a small partyâ€”which meant (not counting those laboring in the kitchens and stockyards) a hundred lords and ladies and lackeys and lickspittles, thirty-some servants and slaves, fifty men-at-arms (who, on Cruxerâ€™s insistence, were allowed no more armament than a table knife), and a dozen performers.
All of them were shrinking back from the center of the room and the high table. Some of the men-at-arms were covering their charges with their own bodies or hauling them toward the doors. Other men-at-arms were still stupefied like blinking heifers, too dull to do the only work for which theyâ€™d been hired.
A hundred people in the room, and not one whom Kip could see as a threat.
In a far corner of the room, the petite Winsen had jumped up on a servantâ€™s sideboard to get a view of the whole room, his bow already strung, arrow nocked but not drawn, its point sweeping left and right with Winsenâ€™s gaze.
Then Kipâ€™s view was obscured as Cruxer finished the shield-bubble of blue luxin. It wasnâ€™t elegant work. Despite being made of translucent blue luxin, it was nearly opaque, but Kip knew it was strong. Cruxer did nothing halfway. â€œMore men,â€ Cruxer muttered. â€œWe need more men.â€
It was only then that Kip finally processed the last bits: â€˜Nine Kill Sevenâ€™ meant a possible assassination attempt by an unknown number of drafters, possibly involving a superviolet. With no one charging forward now, that sounded like a false alarm. Nine Kills were often false alarms.
But â€˜Nine Kill Naughtâ€™ meant a paryl drafter.
An assassin from the Order of the Broken Eye. A Shadow.
Which meant the assassin might be invisible, the kind of monster who could reach through clothes and flesh and luxin unseen and stop your very heart.
With a pop like an impudent kid clicking his tongue, Cruxerâ€™s solid shield-bubble of blue luxin burst and simply fell to dust.
Aghast, Cruxer hesitated, baffled at how something heâ€™d built to be impervious could simply fail, but Kip was suddenly loosed. Paryl was fragile. It could slide through luxin or flesh, into joints or hearts. But it couldnâ€™t stretch, couldnâ€™t cut, couldnâ€™t survive violent motion.
As some nerve was invisibly tweaked, Cruxerâ€™s knee buckled under him even as Kip dove away. Kip rolled to his feet and ran straight for the high table. Last thing he wanted with a paryl assassin nearby was to trap himself against a wall. Shouting, â€œParyl!â€ he leapfrogged over the head table between the great clay jugs of wine.
In typically flamboyant Forester fashion, there was a tradition at big parties for the conn to line up all the wine he intended to serve his guests in great jugs on the head table as a sign of his largesse and wealth. The guests, for their part, were expected to drink all of it. Naturally, the jugs got bigger as the egos did.
Here, for the man who had saved the city, some of the most brilliant examples of the big jugs ever crafted were lined up along the entire length of the high table like a rank of alcoholic soldiers.
In all the majesty of his gracefulness, the Turtle-Bear clipped one of them as he cleared the table. He rolled into the open space in the center of the big U of all the tables.
The priceless glazed clay jug painted with gold zoomorphic swirls and studded with precious stones tottered, teetered with the countervailing motion of the sloshing wine inside, tilted, toppledâ€”and smashed.
A fortune of wine and pottery sprayed in every direction.
Beyond the spreading of wine, Kip was already looking for the assassin in sub-red, maybe near Cruxer.
Everyone else had retreated toward the walls or bolted for the doors, creating a shrieking knot of humanity.
Even with a shimmercloak, it took a gifted Shadow to hide himself or herself from sub-red vision.
Like the fearsome twin tusks of a charging iron bull, Ferkudi and Big Leo rushed to flank Kip. Cruxer was still down, kicking his leg to restore feeling to it, breaking up the paryl. He was physically out of the fight for a while, but his eyes were up and he was already barking orders, no fear at all in his voice, despite his helplessness. â€œFerk, Leo, wide! Keep moving! Paryl!â€
Big Leo had already unlimbered the heavy chain he usually draped around his neck and tucked into his belt. He began whirring it in the air around him, sweeping it into a shifting shell of shimmering steel. No fragile fingers of paryl would make it through that. Because of Teia, the Mighty had an idea of what paryl could do.
Ferkudi, the grappler, had knots of luxin in and around each handâ€”a coruscating chunk of crystalline blue luxin in his right, and a spreading shillelagh of woody green in his left. He would count on deflecting any attacks with luxin just long enough to close the distance so he could seize an attacker.
Kip thought, if sub-red doesnâ€™t workâ€¦
Still moving erratically, still scanning, Kip began narrowing his eyes to chi.
It occurred to him a little late that the last time heâ€™d messed with chi, heâ€™d been blind for three days. Too late. The thunderclap of a pistol fired at close range rocked Kip. He saw fire gush from a barrel sweeping right past his face, heard the snap of a lead ball, and felt the concussive force flattening his cheek like a boxerâ€™s punch.
In the barren, total focus that answers the sound of Deathâ€™s footfall, the world faded. No sound. No people. There was only the pistol, floating in midair held in a disembodied, gloved hand by the invisible killer. As the pistol jumped, the Shadowâ€™s shimmercloak rippled with the shock wave, momentarily giving shape to the assassin.
A black burning powder cloud raced hard on the musket ballâ€™s heels.
The burning cloud stung Kipâ€™s face as he fell. Heâ€™d not noticed his feet tangled, but he definitely saw a second pistol sliding into visibility as it emerged from the cover of the shimmercloak.
Another boom and then a clatter. Kip hit the ground on his side and saw Ferkudi leaping through the air over him, trying to snatch the assassin, blue luxin and green forming great jagged claws to make his arm span twice as wide.
Ferkudi caught nothing, though, his sweeping arms and luxin claws snapping shut on empty air. He landed on his chest with a thump and lost the luxin, both claws breaking apart and beginning to disintegrate on the floor.
Big Leo followed hard on Ferkudiâ€™s attack, flinging his chain out to its full reach in a wide circle at waist height.
The last link caught the edge of the retreating Shadowâ€™s cloak and threw it wide. The sudden glimpse of boots and trousers and belt where the rest of the man was invisible gave the impression they were staring through a tear in reality. Disrupted by the blow, the magics in a section of the cloak sizzled out of sync with any colors in the room before settling again as the assassin spun out of reach.
Then the cloak draped down again, covering him with its invisibility.
As Kip pulled himself together, deafened but unhurt, Big Leo pressed his advantage against the assassin, charging after the Shadow like a hound on the scent. His chain whipped out again, hitting nothingâ€”
But there was a glimpse of boots as the assassin dove toward one wall.
This time, the whirling heavy chain came down with all the force in the warriorâ€™s mountainous body. It cracked the floor tiles and shot sparks, but hit no fleshâ€”the Shadow was fast.
People shrieked, cowering back in fear as Big Leo charged toward them. The Shadow must be nearly among them. If Big Leo struck again, he was going to kill or maim more than one of the bystanders.
But Big Leo pulled up short, flicking out the end of the chain just short of the crowd, who were panicked now, pushing one another through the nearest door as if pushing a cork down into a wine bottle.
With the easy grace of a squad thatâ€™s worked together so long they act like one body, Big Leo diverted the tornado of heavy chain for one instant as Ferkudi barreled past him.
Big Leo couldnâ€™t attack too close to the crowd. Ferkudi had no such compunctions. Again, with arms and luxin spread and all of his considerable bulk at a full sprint, Ferkudi made a flying leap at the portion of the bunched crowd where he guessed the Shadow was.
Ferkudiâ€™s tackle sent at least a dozen people flyingâ€”none of them the Shadow, and he went down in a tangle with all of them.
Which only left one way the Shadow could have goneâ€”right back in front of the high table.
Kip saw Ben-hadad, wearing his knee brace but still hobbled by his injury from when theyâ€™d fled the Chromeria, standing at the far end of the high table. He had his heavy crossbow loaded and aimedâ€”right at the crowd. But to shoot at the Shadow was to shoot at the crowd beyond it. The frustration was writ all over his bespectacled face.
Ben, Kip knew, felt useless. That all his brilliance was for naught. Couldnâ€™t fight. Couldnâ€™t help his friends who were in mortal peril. Couldnâ€™t shoot unless he got the perfect opportunityâ€”which he couldnâ€™t, with these panicked strangers everywhere.
Then, faster than Kip could think, Ben-hadad swiveled on his good leg so that he was aiming parallel with the tableâ€™s front edge. He fired his bolt at nothing Kip could seeâ€”
â€”and blew out the front of every one of the priceless wine jugs lined up on the high table. They jetted rivers of wine onto the floor in front of the high table as if someone had opened spigots on all of them.
Then, in orderly succession, they tumbled and exploded on the floor.
The wide wave of wine washed every which way. Then the wave parted around two barriers, momentarily indistinct, then surrounded and revealed. Wine covered the floor everywhere, except in two, footshaped depressions.
Kip nearly unleashed the bolt of magical death heâ€™d gathered in his right hand, until he saw the stunned face of Lady Proud Hart directly in the line of fire behind where the invisible Shadow was standing. The noblewoman was still seated. Hadnâ€™t moved from her place, frozen by shock.
Then there was splashing as the Shadow realized heâ€™d been discovered, and bolted.
Wine-wet footprints marked his passage, but Kip had it now. If this Shadow was too good at his work to be seen in sub-red, thenâ€¦
Kipâ€™s eyes spasmed to an inhuman narrowness as he peered at the world through chi. Faint skeletons grinned at him everywhere through their flesh suits. Metal in cold black and bones like pink shadows; all else was merely colored fog.
In chi, though, the shimmercloak flared with weird energies, magic boiling off it clouds like a sweaty horse steaming on a cold morning. The Shadow stopped running, his shoes finally dry enough not to leave footprints. He turned back into the middle of the room, checking that he was unseen, skeletal hands pulling the folds of the cloak in place.
Kip kept moving his head, as if he, too, were blind.
The Shadow drew a short sword, but kept it tucked down, covered by his cloak. He walked toward Kip, secure in his invincibility.
Orholam, he wasnâ€™t giving up, even though they were all on alert now. Kip couldnâ€™t decide if it was overweening pride or terrifying professionalism that the man thought he could still pull this job off against these odds.
Waiting until the Shadow was close, Kip suddenly looked directly at him. â€œYouâ€™ve a message for me,â€ Kip said. â€œWhat is it?â€
The Shadow stopped as suddenly as if heâ€™d been slapped. Kip could see the manâ€™s skull dip as he checked himself. No, no, Iâ€™m still invisible. Itâ€™s a bluff.
â€œYouâ€™ve got a message,â€ Kip said.
The skeleton-man paused, as if he thought Kip was trying to fool him into speaking and giving his position away. After a moment, he shook his head slightly.
â€œAh,â€ Kip said, gazing straight where the manâ€™s veiled eyes must be. The air began humming with Kipâ€™s gathering power. â€œThen you are the message.â€
The Shadow twitched as he finally accepted that Kip really could see him. He lunged forward, stabbingâ€”
And Kipâ€™s pent-up fury of tentacled-green and razored-blue death blasted into the assassin and threw him across the room.
The danger past, Kip released chi, and was immediately reminded why he hated chi. Drafting chi was like riding a horse that kicked you every time you got on, and every time you got off. In the face.
Kip fell to his knees, his eyes burning, lightning stabbing back into his head, tears blinding him. He squeezed his eyes tight shut, but when he opened them, they were still locked in chi vision, people around the room showing up only as dim shadows and skeletons and metal-bearers.
Chi was the worst.
Kip willed his eyes to open to their normal apertures, and mercifully, they did. This time, thank Orholam, chi hadnâ€™t stricken him blind.
Big Leo materialized, standing over Kip, as Ferkudi went over to make sure the Shadow was dead. Ben-hadad and Cruxer limped over, leaning on each other, Cruxer looking better by the step.
Only Winsen hadnâ€™t moved. He still perched on his table in the corner of the room, an arrow still nocked, never having shot. He wasnâ€™t usually shy about shooting in questionable circumstances.
Ferkudi stood back up. The Shadow was, indeed, dead. Very dead. Gory, donâ€™t-look-at-that-mess-if-
It was a mistake.
Not killing the man, but that heâ€™d obliterated him: Kip had destroyed a shimmercloak.
No one reproved him. No one said he should have done better, as Andross Guile or Gavin Guile would have. Maybe they didnâ€™t even think it.
But he did. Heâ€™d been out of control.
It was a reminder that heâ€™d been drafting a lot. In its unfettered strength, green had taken him further than he wanted to go. If nothing else killed him first, it would be green that got him in the end. Indeed, he hadnâ€™t looked at his own eyes in a mirror in a while, fearing what the bloody glass would tell him.
â€œWhat the hell, Win?!â€ Big Leo demanded. â€œWhere were you?â€
But the lefty still stood silent, a bundle of arrows held with the bow in his right hand for quick drawing, as if he didnâ€™t even hear them.
Big Leo blew out an exasperated breath, dismissing him. â€œAnd what the hellâ€™s with you, Ferk? You say you smell clovesâ€”and then shout Nine Kill Naught?â€
â€œMy goof,â€ Ferkudi said as if heâ€™d said he wanted wine with dinner but then decided heâ€™d really wanted beer. â€œSaffron. Not cloves. I meant I smelled saffron. Paryl smells like saffron. Superviolet is cloves. Always get those two mixed up.â€
â€œYou confused saffron and cloves? They donâ€™t smell anything alike!â€
â€œTheyâ€™re both yummy.â€
Big Leo rubbed his face with a big hand. â€œFerk, you are the dumbest smart guy I know.â€
â€œNo Iâ€™m not!â€ Ferkudi said, a big grin spreading over his face. â€œIâ€™m the smartest dumb guy you know.â€
â€œYeah,â€ Ben-hadad said, â€œIâ€™m the dumbest smart guy you know. I smelled saffron half an hour ago, out by the palaceâ€™s front doors. Didnâ€™t even think about it. Breaker, my apologies.â€ He knuckled his forehead. â€œI think itâ€™s customary to offer my resignation?â€
â€œNone of that,â€ Cruxer said. â€œThis is none of your faults. Itâ€™s mine. Youâ€™ve all been right. The Mightyâ€™s too small. Weâ€™re spread too thin. And thatâ€™s on me.â€ Kip had kept it secret that Teia was infiltrating the Order of the Broken Eye, but he had mentioned that Karris was afraid the Order had people even in the Blackguard itself, which had made Cruxer stop any talk of adding to the Mighty, fearing that whoever they welcomed in might be a traitor.
â€˜How can you be certain one of us isnâ€™t with the Order already?â€™ Winsen had asked. â€˜I say we add people. Might as well get a few shiftsâ€™ rest while we wait to get stabbed in the back.â€™
As if they werenâ€™t already sometimes nervous about Winsen, what with his alien gaze, total disregard for danger, and overeagerness to shoot.
â€œYou all did your part,â€ Cruxer continued. â€œAnd you all did your parts brilliantly. I mean, except Winsen, who I think might be angling for a Blackguard name. What do you think of Dead Weight?â€
The Mighty were all just starting to laugh, delighted, turning toward Winsen, when Kip saw something go cruel and hungry in the little manâ€™s eyes. Win had never taken mockery well.
Winâ€™s obsidian arrow point swept left as the archer drew the nocked arrow fully, pointing straight at Cruxer, who was standing tall, flat-footed.
There was no time for him to evade. Winâ€™s move was as fast as a man stepping in a hole while expecting solid ground. The bowstring came back to his lips in the swift kiss of a departing parent and then leapt away.
He couldnâ€™t missâ€”
â€”but he did. He loosed another arrow and was drawing a third before the Mighty dove left and right. Kip was throwing a green shield in front of himselfâ€”I always knew it would be Win. That saurian calm. That unnatural detachment.
Big Leo crushed Kip to the ground, disrupting his drafting and blotting out all vision as he offered his own body as a shield.
â€œWhoa! Whoa! Whoa!â€ Winsen shouted. â€œEasy, Ferk! Ben! Easy, Ben!â€
Kip unearthed himself from the living mountain that was Big Leo and saw Winsen with bow lifted high in surrender.
Ben-hadad had his crossbow leveled at the archer, his fingers heavy on the trigger plate. Ferkudi was slowing down, already having charged over most of the distance, closing off Winsenâ€™s view of Kipâ€”and therefore angle of fireâ€”with his own bulk. Cruxer had his arm drawn back, blue luxin boiling, hardening into a lance.
â€œI know one thing about the Shadows,â€ Winsen said loudly. He dropped the arrows from his right hand to show he was no threat. â€œThey often work in pairs.â€
There was a clatter behind the Mighty. Metal hitting stoneâ€”not three paces behind them. War-blinded by the threat in front of them, not one of them had looked back. But they did now.
A cloaked figure was shimmering back into visibility, Winsenâ€™s two arrows protruding from his chest. A Shadow. He pitched facedown.
None of them said a word as the Shadow twitched in death.
The Mighty fanned out, securing Kip, checking that the dead assassin was really dead.
Then Commander Cruxer cleared his throat. â€œDid I say Dead Weight? I meant, uh, Dead Eye.â€
They chuckled. It was an apology.
Except Ferkudi. â€œYou canâ€™t call him Dead Eye. Thereâ€™s already an Archer from a year behind us called that. Beat Winâ€™s score at the three hundred paces by four pâ€”â€
â€œFerk!â€ Cruxer said, not looking at him, his smile cracking. â€œDead Shot it is.â€
â€œOh, definitely not, Commander,â€ Ferkudi said. â€œThatâ€™s been used like seven times. Most recent oneâ€™s retired now, but still alive. Very disrespectful to take a living Blackguardâ€™s nâ€”â€
â€œFerk,â€ Cruxer said, his smile tightening.
â€œIâ€™d settle for you calling me â€˜Your Holiness,â€™â€ Win offered.
â€œNo,â€ Cruxer said.
â€œâ€˜Commander Winsenâ€™?â€ Winsen suggested.