Category Archives: Shadows of the Limelight

This is a world where fame grants powers. Dominic de Luca was a thief and a liar before entering into the apprenticeship of Welexi Whitespear, the greatest hero of modern times. Now he must navigate the world of the Illustrati, the famous and the infamous, as he tries to secure for himself a place among the gods.

Shadows of the Limelight, Appendix: On the Nature of the Domains

On the Nature of the Domains

In Meditations, the earliest work of its kind, Lyander first divides the domains into two groups: material and immaterial. At first this might seem wise, in the ways of the old masters, but the problems are immediate, even at that first division. If we believe that there is a domain of fire, as Lyander did, where do we imagine that Lyander would have placed it? There are arguments to be made either way, none of them definitive. There is a little-known tract issued forth by Lyander which attempts to clarify the definitions he makes, to draw lines in the sand so that none could argue, but of course this weakens his system immensely, which is the reason that printings of Meditations so rarely include that tract. Lyander concludes that fire is immaterial, while notably stating that rust is clearly material. Alchemists now know that both are part of the same process, which would seem to invalidate his reasoning.

Other, more modern systems are fraught with their own difficulties. It has of late become fashionable to use Herrus’ system, which divides the domains into elemental, organic, bodily, ephemeral, manufactured, metallic, and animistic, with derived elemental sometimes included as an eighth grouping or bodily folded into organic to arrive at six groups (of special significance to the people of the Southern Plains). Herrus contends that this system of groupings is descriptive; he has placed them such that like domains are next to each other. Variants on his arrangement move the pieces around, but they only serve to make clear the fact that the groupings are arbitrary. Given the failures of Lyander and others, we have moved from believing that we might find a True Structure to accepting that there is a Convenient Structure which is useful despite not being wholly correct.

Here I will attempt something different; an examination of the domains as they exist, along with a hypothesis as to their nature, one which we might arrive at through the strength of analysis alone


To start, we must define what we mean by a domain. In the broadest sense, a domain is:

  1. A set of abilities a person possesses, which increase with fame.
  2. A set of things on which those abilities may act

Lyander’s classification of abilities has fared much better than his attempted classification of domains, and though we might quibble, I do not believe there is one better. I will endeavor to be exhaustive here; the more learned among my readers may wish to skip ahead, for I believe I say nothing that offers sufficiently new illumination of this subject.

domain genesis: the ability to create more of a domain

Things get tricky right from the start. When referring to the material domains, it is clear what we mean when we say “more”; two pounds of iron is more than one pound of iron. Yet there are what we might call process domains, which are usually split between ephemeral and elemental. What does it mean when we say “more” sound? Sound is composed of waves, so we might say that in that case, domain genesis is the creation of a sound. Yet what of fire? We know that fire is a process, a reaction which occurs. In that case we sometimes say that domain genesis is merely the beginning of a process.

There are two other prominent exceptions in addition to this duality of process domains and material domains; heat and cold. These together form a third group, which we might refer to as the state domains. What does it mean to create more heat? It means only to change the state of an object. But we have just said above that a domain is the set of things upon which those abilities act! If the domain of heat can affect the property of any object, what does that mean? I hope to one day have a better answer, but as yet I have none.

Genesis follows several rules, though whether those rules illuminate something important about the nature of the domains is as yet unclear.

  • It is easier to create a material which is simple rather than complex. Creating a pound of flesh is much slower than creating a pound of stone.
  • Speed appears to depend largely on mass, rather than volume. A pound of gold and a pound of copper are equally complex, but would take the same amount of time.
  • It is far easier to create from an existing source. An illustrati of water fully immersed in his domain will be able to create a gallon of water much faster than one stuck in a desert. For this reason it is common for illustrati to be locked away without access to their domain, where possible, and for that reason it is common for illustrati to hide small slivers of their domain about their person.
  • A powerful enough illustrati can make more of their domain from nothing. It is unclear whether this is simply a function of raw power, as Bellsthwill suggests, or whether there this is a function of there being unavoidable contaminants in supposedly sterile environments which we cannot yet detect.
  • The animal domains have thus far proven incapable of domain genesis.

domain kinesis: the ability to move a domain

At first blush this ability is simple. The apple is often used as a stand-in when teaching about the domains, so we imagine the illustrati moving that apple using an unseen force which responds to their will. When we speak of range extension, we can imagine an illustrati touching one apple, then causing a second apple which the first is touching to move.

Apples were chosen because there is an orchard close to the Kellos Summit where many of the early scholars had the first discussions of what we might imagine about the domains. However, as I hope I have said clearly enough above, there are non-trivial differences between the domains. The physical aspects of being able to move a piece of iron do not properly map to some of the other domains.

There is an interesting study to be made in the domain of heat. Heat was always a troublesome domain for those who had it, because while it was fearsome in its own right if let loose, the process of cooling back down was quite slow. Heat did not, of course, harm the illustrati, but it made a large number of things very difficult for them, mostly in regards to interacting with anything made of a flammable material or even another person. A hundred years ago, Calor the Bold, the third man to carry that name, came to understand how to move heat.

He began by looking at how this phenomenon called heat behaved, much in the way that I now look at the phenomenon of the domains. He noted that when a hot object is placed next to a cold one, the hot object transfers its heat. This is a rather facile observation, but he asked a question that must have been asked relatively few times before. If movement was one of the domain abilities and the property of heat could move, why was the domain of heat as experienced incapable of that movements? The answer was that it was possible, though this movement is far different from the others. Calor provided descriptions of how to properly conceptualize this technique, which is now used by illustrati of heat the world over.

Domain kinesis is likely the mechanism by which a few domains are capable of creating the so-called “solid ephemerals”; because kinesis is an unseen force which acts on the domain, it might be that the solid ephemeral merely acts as a vessel through which to apply that unseen force.

domain alteration: the ability to change a domain

Alteration is one of the less understood of the abilities. It is also one which is varies widely from domain to domain. The key piece of understanding that brings unity to this ability is that most domains do not have a singular focus. There will be more to say on this later, but a domain can encompass many different things; the domain of stone includes onyx and marble, for example. Domain alteration is then the changing a domain material into another domain material that is nevertheless within the same domain. Curiously, some of the domains appear to be entirely singular and thus have no access to domain alteration.

domain immunity: the passive ability to prevent personal injury from a domain

It has often been remarked that without immunity, many of the domains would be useless. The ability to light anything on fire with a touch would quickly result in serious burns; being able to scream loudly would quickly make a person deaf. It has been suggested by those who favor a Creator that this is a matter of necessary protection, but I think that this is unlikely. Domain immunity applies to every domain, even those which hold no natural danger to their users. An illustrati of iron cannot be pierced or cut by iron, but we can hardly say that he would be useless without this ability.

As with most abilities, this one scales with standing. Someone with negligible standing will have no protections, while a middling illustrati would take a reduced hit; a sharpened dagger of glass might bite into the skin as though it was blunt rather than sharp, for example. Because of this, illustrati must be careful, especially the minor illustrati. An illustrati typically cannot push his domain so far that he will hurt himself, but it is well possible for an illustrati of flame to start a fire which grows beyond the protections conferred to him.

The homeostasis provided by domain immunity is not complete, nor is it uniform among the domains. Illustrati of water are able to breathe beneath the waves, but an illustrati of wood with a branch shoved down his throat would not. Immunity protects against most attacks which might be made with a weapon of that domain. When the phenomenon is closely observed in controlled conditions, as was done by Pynthos, it appears to follow naturally from the other abilities. We might think of a sword stabbing into the belly of an illustrati of iron as undergoing a subconscious version of domain kinesis. This notably continues to function even in situations where the illustrati is not aware of the threat, as well as when the illustrati is simply unconscious, and indeed even when the illustrati has been rendered insensate through methods such as lobotomy.

domain intuition: the ability to understand a domain

Of all the abilities, domain intuition is the most philosophically troubling. It would very much appear that there is something different within the minds of the illustrati which allows them to use their abilities in full. I have seen illustrati of water make sinuous whips without any apparent thought given to the matter. I have heard tales of illustrati making a sword of shadow with no training or formal education. We have examples of annealed and quenched metals from long before those techniques were in common use.

The intuitions are as varied as the domains themselves. Illustrati of steel have been able to forge far better weapons than even the greatest of blacksmiths, not just because of their control of the material, but through an intuition about what makes a metal hold its sharpness. Illustrati of flesh are able to fix complicated flesh wounds without having to know or even understand how the individual muscle fibers connect to each other. Intuition offers information which is sometimes unknown to humanity, which offers us a window into what might be possible as we expand the scope of true understanding.

Yet we must also look to cases like Calor’s, where a capability was uncovered through experimentation and knowledge. I have said that an illustrati of iron is more capable than the greatest blacksmith, but if an illustrati of iron learns smithing he can become more capable than his compatriot who remains ignorant. Why are certain things intuitive to illustrati and while others are not? We do not know, and I am not so satisfied by any of the explanations on offer that I feel the need to reprint them here.

domain sense: the ability to sense a domain

Domain sense takes many different forms. While ophthalmoception (the visual sense) is the most common, I have found numerous examples of extension into the other senses as well. Of particular note is proprioception, which seems nearly as common as ophthalmoception; a illustrati touching a material of their domain can often feel it as an extension of the self. I have done tests with a willing subject, a young woman with the domain of copper named Quiver, whose only condition was that I mention her by name in any publication which featured the research we performed together. She was able to accurately describe several different images stamped onto copper plates with only a finger touching the material.

A better understanding of domain sense might regrettably be had from the foul experiments of the Iron Kingdom. It was commonly known that the visual sense did not strictly depend upon the eyes, given that illustrati maintained their sense even with their eyes closed. The experiment done by the misbegotten surgeons of the Iron Kingdom was to progressively blind an illustrati in increasingly damaging ways in order to find when the domain sense would be lost. Even after the entirety of the eyeball was destroyed, domain sense verifiably remained. It was not until the optic nerve was destroyed that ophthalmoception was verifiably destroyed. What this result might mean is anyone’s guess, though more ethical modes of experimentation which specifically investigate the nervous system seem promising.

domain form: the ability to take on aspects of the domain

I have so far been silent on the animal domains, but they must now be given their due. Domain form has thus far been shown to exist only within the animal domains, though it has long been predicted that it is somehow possible for other domains as well, in the same way that Calor proved heat capable of movement through diligent study. Domain form is characterized by a shift in physiology, usually subtle, towards being similar to an animal in question. This process is directed by the illustrati, usually so that the changes are cosmetic in nature. The benefits of this transition tend to be minor and depend almost entirely on the domain. More radical changes are often accompanied by changes in diet. I have heard it said that there are changes in cognition as well, though verifiable evidence for this is lacking. As always, we must be wary of motivated misinformation.

It is important to note that domain prostheses is something different entirely. An illustrati might forge an arm of gold to replace one which he has lost, but while he might, through practice, be able to move this arm as though it were one of flesh and blood, this is simply a combination of domain sense and domain kinesis, not an example of domain form. Domain form has an element of transformation to it which prosthesis lacks.

Internal Sensations

Based on the interviews I have conducted, the illustrati themselves do not feel much of a distinction between these classifications of their abilities. That is to say, an illustrati of iron of course understands that there is a difference between moving a piece of iron and changing the shape of that piece of iron, but to him these “feel” as though they are quite similar actions rather than being modal. It is therefore difficult to claim that any classification of abilities is legitimately useful; it might be that with a better understanding of the mechanisms involved, we would come to the realization that they are all part of a singular whole, which appears to be how the illustrati perceive it.

One central question that has appeared through the ages has been whether the domains are singular or faceted. If Able and Beth are both illustrati of water with equal amounts of standing, will they necessarily have access to all of the same abilities? Or might it be the case that Able would be capable of some things which Beth is not? I believe that this confusion to be incidentally created by the illustrati as part of their strategies in the pursuit of standing; every interview I have conducted and every trustworthy primary source I have read has indicated that all illustrati of a given domain are equal in their abilities. Oh, some might have trained themselves more in some specific discipline, or they might know some trick which they arrive at through either training or deep knowledge, but I have found no evidence that these aberrant behaviors could not in principle be obtained by others. The seeming differences between illustrati seem to stem mostly from their need to appear distinct in order to raise their standing.

A Theory On The Makeup of the Domains

The question we must now come to, having described the domains, is the central question of why some things are domains and others are not.

The first prong of my theory is simply a variant on Lyander’s formulation. Where he said that the domains are all vital to humanity, I will instead say that all of the domains are compelling to humanity. There are ten animal domains. Of those, six (feline, canine, avian, piscene, equine, and ruminants) are either domesticated animals or, in the case of fish, a nearly universal source of food. Lyander believed wholeheartedly in a Creator, and beyond that, a Creator which held humans to be paramount, so he viewed the domains through that lens. Yet there are domains which fit poorly with Lyander’s idea of vitality, such as the domain of lava, which has not once been vital to humanity no matter what Lyander’s supporters say.

When we look across all the domains, we can see that each of them is compelling to the human race in one way or another. There is nowhere that this is more clear than in the metallic domains. Tin and brass are both domains, though brass is an alloy of tin and zinc, and zinc is not a domain. Why? There have been many answers to this question, but with the discovery of zinc in its pure, irreducible form, I believe we must raise an eyebrow at those who claim that the domains are somehow basic to the world.

There is another word I might use instead of compelling: famous. The domains themselves have their own variety of standing which is distinct from the notion of standing as applied to humans. The only question which remains is the question of how this “domain standing” might function.

So far as we can tell, the distribution of the domains is in exact proportion to the number of domains. In every instance we can find where a random sampling of the population was available, we saw no domains which were more likely than others. If our sampling is not random, such as a sampling of illustrati rather than the general public, we find much more of the “useful” domains, those which offer superior manufacturing, superior combat ability, or have some other aspect which creates the virtuous cycle of utility increasing fame and fame increasing utility.

Yet this still leaves us with some of the perennial questions about the domains. We might easily imagine that brass has passed some threshold of human interest which zinc has not, but why are the divisions where they are? Why is there not a domain for simply “metal” instead of the variety of metallic domains we see? Why not simply a domain of “animals”? We know that domains can include many things which are sufficiently similar. On that point, why is there a domain for “stone” instead of a dozen stone domains, which might include volcanic rocks, sandstone, limestone, and so on? Why is the domain of wood not split into birch, oak, and so on? Why are there distinct domains for so many animals, yet for humans there is instead a number of bodily domains which do not fully encapsulate the entirety of the raw materials which make up a human?

Let me explain the second prong of the notoriety magnitude theory of domains by way of a set of observations and a set of predictions.

Whether the domains are static or variable is, unfortunately, a matter of historical record. Sadly, written records are rife with unreliable legends which the illustrati understandably propagate in order to increase their own standing. We must treat any historical reports of new domains as extremely suspect. As just one example, a shaman named Al-Shira from the Patrean islands claimed to have the domain of life, which allowed him to kill with a touch and bring the dead back to the realm of the living. His repeated excuses for why he could not bring the Patrean queen back to life led to him being executed by the Patrean king. I have seen more credulous historical scholars accept this account as being true, but singular instances of domains do not fit within any extant framework, nor do we have any rigorously studied examples. We cannot trust individual accounts, but I believe we can trust broader trends.

Steel has been known for all of recorded history, from back until the times of the first post-Harbinger civilizations. In many cultures, however, there was a strong implication that steel was something which only illustrati could make; in Garrund, steel is still called simo sidero, which roughly translates to fame iron. It would appear that there was a period of time during which steel was exclusively (or at least primarily) produced by illustrati, up until roughly five hundred years ago, until better bloomeries and crucibles brought steel production into the realm of the mundane. At that point, steel moved from being a tool of the elite to something much more common. It is then that I believe we see a fairly clear split. The century before then, there is no note made of illustrati of iron being unable to create steel. A century after, this distinction is common. I believe what happened is that iron and steel were once the same domain and following the proliferation of steel, the domains were split in two.

The theory does not rest on any specific piece of evidence though; there are many examples we might give. Though we have long thought of cats as being a staple animal domain, there is no evidence for anyone having held the domain of cats prior to six hundred years ago, at roughly the time they were imported to the civilized world and began their madcap proliferation. I have heard it remarked that of course someone could not have a domain if none of the domain animal was present, but I find that theory to be dubious given a few historical examples of illustrati who never exhibited control over any domain. Furthermore, we would expect that if the feline domain only depended upon the presence of felines, we might find some illustrati among the natives who were noted for their command of said animals. Though their records are woefully incomplete and subject to much the same unfortunate pressures as our own, neither I nor my colleagues in occidental studies have uncovered anything of the sort.

Yet it would be easy enough for even a rigorous scholar to pick and choose the pieces of our fragmentary, unreliable history in order to make a compelling argument for any one particular theory. Instead I shall endeavor to do something much more difficult and far more reliable as an indicator of my correctness; I shall make a prediction. There are three predictions which my magnitude theory of domains might make. The first is that a domain might split in two, as I believe iron and steel did at some point in the past. There are no domains which I think are particularly ripe for this, whether because the domain contains two concepts which are distinct from each other, or because there is some ongoing shift in perception. The second is that two domains might collapse into a single one, or a domain might evaporate entirely. There is little historical evidence for this ever having happened, so I cannot speculate on whether it might happen again. Lastly, a domain might form from whole cloth. This, I believe, is the most likely scenario, so here I will stake my reputation. We know that the world is changing. We are in an era of unprecedented progress. There is one element to this progress which I believe is ripe to become a domain of the illustrati; gunpowder.

Gunpower has already changed the face of war. A well-aimed pistol can threaten all but the most powerful of illustrati, and I have heard of none for whom it would not result in injury, even if that injury is minor. All across the civilized world, the gun is becoming a symbol in its own right, transformed from a tool into an icon. For this reason I predict that the next change we will see to our map of the domains will be the addition of gunpowder.


Where I have held close to the established schools of thought, I hope that I have provided a useful overview for those with only passing familiarity with our study. Where I have made novel arguments, I hope that I have proven persuasive. Yet if there were one thing I should hope that the reader will take away from this tract, it is that we can only approach the subject of the illustrati to the extent we have reliable knowledge with which to do so. Too many of my colleagues have based their thoughts on stories which have no foundation in reality; the same mindfulness of ways and means which now marks so many fields of human endeavor must thrust its way into the last bastion of legend and superstition.

Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 23: The Way Forward


Vidre had felt a gnawing pit in her stomach when Dominic made his entrance. The plan was balanced on a knife’s edge. If Welexi didn’t take the bait, the other options were grim. If Welexi took the bait and moved in with full killing intent, in complete disregard of narrative instincts honed by a lifetime as illustrati, then Dominic would almost certainly die. She was counting on knowing Welexi well enough to predict him, but the truth was that she was ignorant of the inner workings of his mind. Most likely not even Gaelwyn knew who Welexi truly was.

When Welexi began striding forward to meet Dominic, Vidre moved to Gaelwyn with her daggers drawn. There was a brief moment of fear in his eyes, but she turned her back to him and put herself between him and the fight.

“How is he alive?” hissed Gaelwyn as Dominic and Welexi traded their barbs.

“I couldn’t go through with it,” replied Vidre. She swore beneath her breath. Most people were watching the fight, but there were still eyes on Gaelwyn. “Didn’t think he’d be dumb enough to come back.”

They watched together. The dialog was passable, but whatever the outcome the bards would have some work turning it into an enduring legend. Welexi moved with confidence. He was using only light, his signature domain, the one he’d spent a lifetime with. It had been unlikely that he would use anything else, but that was one of the risk points. They spoke with each other, taking their time.

“Welexi’s playing with him,” said Gaelwyn. He sucked his teeth. “He should kill him and be done with it.”

Vidre moved to Gaelwyn’s side. “Project strength,” she said. “Welexi is defending you, pretend that it’s because you ordered it. Chin high. The battle won’t be a contest.” Vidre lowered her daggers and stood next to Gaelwyn as though she was simply part of his entourage, not defending him at all. “If Dominic charges us, be ready to take him down.”

“Not you?” asked Gaelwyn. His wide eyes were watching Welexi move.

“You’re king,” said Vidre. “You need to cement your place.”

Her glass dagger was held tightly in her hand. She’d thought about how to kill Gaelwyn many times before. A single strike to the head was the only real way to do it. If it came down to an actual fight, he would press his hand against her armor and strike at the flesh beneath it with his domain. They’d tested his striking limit while out at sea and come up with three inches as the maximum he was capable of. Vidre had tested wearing four-inches of glass armor the next night. It was bulky but serviceable. It was also entirely unusable in the current situation. Gaelwyn would see what she was doing and strike before she was done. Vidre had no real option but to stand tense and ready, waiting for either some crucial misstep in the primary plan, for Gaelwyn to connect the dots, or for everything to go off without a hitch.

Vidre’s heart was pounding hard when she saw Dominic take the spear of light to the chest and fall over with a seemingly mortal wound. They had practiced it meticulously, until Dominic could sell it. She’d put even odds on Welexi making a thrust for the heart, since it would provide a natural bookend to the spear that Dominic had put through Zerstor’s heart, but it was possible Welexi would try something else. She and Dominic had practiced faking hits to the arms and legs, but if Welexi deviated too far from the script they’d prepared, the whole thing was likely to unravel. Welexi was faithful to the narrative though.

Gaelwyn was triumphant. He had been taking joy in Welexi’s triumphs, though they were usually achievements of a less violent nature. He seemed to suspect nothing. Vidre waited, biding her time. Welexi needed to take the bait. He picked the Harbinger artifact up from the ground and slipped it onto Dominic’s hand for just long enough that it made the sound, one perfectly shaped by Dominic. Welexi lofted the artifact into the air. A sharp pang of anxiety ran through her.

Her nightmare was that Welexi would say, “And here we have a fitting gift for the new king,” whether because he thought that matched the narrative better, or because he’d cottoned on to the plan. Things would also become difficult if he waited now, setting the artifact aside for later. They had good contingencies for that though; Vidre would simply stay by Welexi’s side until he used the artifact, while Dominic would commit to playing dead for long enough that his body could be stashed somewhere out of view. Yet by some miracle their plan threaded one last needle. Welexi made to take the power for himself.

Dominic was on his feet from the first tone of the artifact, moving quickly. Vidre stepped back as he moved, so that she was just out of Gaelwyn’s view. There were many places that one person could stab another through the skull, but not all of them were immediately fatal. Vidre had seen men walking around with six inches of steel sticking straight into their brain, sometimes slurring their speech or acting like drunkards but still alive. Such a thing couldn’t be allowed to happen with Gaelwyn, not with his power. Vidre made her move just as he began a tormented howl. She worried he would sense the movement and duck out of the way, or that his clothing would explode outward to reveal a mass of red tentacles. While Gaelwyn had killed thousands in his hospital, torturing prisoners to death in the name of progress, he had no formal or informal training in combat. Vidre’s dagger drove straight into his skull, just below the ear, with smooth efficiency. When he hit the ground, she was ready for a second strike, one that would ensure his death. If there hadn’t been people watching, she would have stabbed him in the head a half dozen times just to make sure there would be no complication.

The first screams started shortly afterward, along with the movement of the masses of people. The illustrati in the audience were arming themselves. Some of them must have started from the moment that Dominic made himself known, because Vidre saw full suits of metal that even the more powerful illustrati couldn’t make in a matter of seconds.

“There was a revolution!” shouted Dominic. His voice cut through all other sound, bringing everything to a silence. The artifact in his hand was still counting off its tones, giving a list of everyone whose link Welexi had taken. Dominic was letting that sound through, but no other. Some people had stopped to look at him, a few of them armed. “When the Iron King died, the Allunio slipped into his place, not just to rule in his stead, but to change the very working of the world. When Welexi learned of this, he launched a revolution of his own, one that would ostensibly restore the Iron Kingdom to the old way. Yet it was plain to anyone who looked that Gaelwyn was not the Iron King’s son. It was plain to see that Welexi only craved power for himself.”

The artifact kept making its sound into the enforced silence of the courtyard. That was a nice bit of showmanship. Dominic could have silenced it, but it underscored the point, that each of those was the sound of someone’s domain being taken from them. It was an exaggeration, of course, since most of the links Welexi had held belonged to commoners from the village below, but to those who could understand what was being signified, it would be powerful.

“We will have a third revolution,” said Dominic with his amplified voice, just as the crowd began to stir again. “The Allunio were driven by ideals that could never withstand the pressures of the real world. Welexi was driven by lust, both for power and attention, thinking only of himself. The Iron Kingdom must now take a third path. It must rebuild.”

There were murmurs in the crowd now, murmurs that Dominic was letting through. When people realized they could talk again, the murmurs grew to full arguments. Some had left already, fleeing the moment Dominic had won, but more of them had stayed. A sizable fraction were creeping slowly around Dominic now, not with any seeming intent to fight and kill him, but merely as a precaution. Dominic slipped his hand into the artifact so deftly that few people would have caught it, but it made no noise; there was no sense in Dominic revealing himself to be a hypocrite so early. Vidre felt a small pang at seeing Welexi’s power slip from her grasp, but they had already agreed that it would go to Dominic, if only because otherwise they’d have to defend the artifact from everyone who wanted to steal it.

“We’re going to write a constitution,” Vidre shouted to the crowd. Dominic was watching her, focusing on her words and helping her be heard, but not quite snuffing out the conversations around them. “We want to ensure that the kingdom can continue. If you want to have a say in what we decide, we will converse on the matter in the throne room. You are otherwise free to leave.” Vidre laid eyes on every person of importance she could see. Welexi would simply have turned and walked back into the castle without looking behind him to see who would follow, but Vidre had been witness to more than enough dramatics for one day.

“What’s important is that the Iron Kingdom remains intact,” said the Minister of Agriculture. She was not much past twenty years old, a successor to the successor of the man that originally occupied the position. Her hair had been done up with bits of wheat decorating her braid. She was young, ambitious, and exactly the sort of person who would seize on the opportunity.

“The Whore of Abalon has no rightful claim to the throne,” said a tall man in purple clothing with white trim. He was a duke, whose duchy lay to the north, bordering the Highlands. The Iron King’s rule had not been kind to the nobility; those who remained in control of their lands were tough and lean. But the duke wasn’t attacking, which was something.

“I am the Queen of Geswein,” said Vidre. “I have no interest in joining the two countries in personal union. I have no interest in ruling. Yet after a hard-fought war, along with the need to put down an old friend who had gone mad, I find that I cannot leave this kingdom to its own devices. Dominic and I will oversee the writing of the constitution. We will lend whatever aid is needed in negotiating what is best for the country. But we will not stay, nor will we try to take any power for ourselves.”

“She’s right that the Iron Kingdom needs unity,” said the Minister of Legends. If he thought poorly of Vidre for slitting his predecessor’s throat, or for the damage they’d done to the Ministry of Legends some two months prior, he didn’t show it. “The Highlands threaten revolt, Torland must certainly see our weakness, and the gears of trade have stopped turning.” He nodded to another man, the Minister of Trade, who nodded gravely. “Lightscour is right as well. We must hammer out a new path.”

The duke who had spoken up shifted slightly. “We will have to reach some accommodations,” he said. “Those of us with land and resources will wish compensation, or a say in the direction this kingdom will take.”

That decided it, more or less. There was no one to lead an opposition, no one with a vested interest in sowing chaos. They would split into factions when it came time to write a governing document, and they would squabble about treaties and tariffs, veto powers and quorums, but unless the process of negotiation fell through, they would have a country at the end of it.

“I thought they would be more upset about Welexi dying,” said Dominic. He sat with Vidre on the roof of Castle Launtine, where the legend said he’d tried to betray Welexi. He had sat there experimenting with his new powers, looking out at the horizon with eyes that seemed to see everything now. Welexi had taken a large amount of power for himself; now it was Dominic’s. There was so much of it that he almost didn’t know what to do with it. Vidre had come up after a few hours of overseeing negotiation to sit next to him.

“The commoners will hate you,” said Vidre. “Even if we managed to get out ahead of it with the right story, one that showed Welexi as an absolute villain, many of them would refuse to believe it. You would still be the villain in their eyes, and he would still be the hero. Some of them will hate you for the rest of your life.” She let out a sigh. “But those people down there, they’re possessed of some basic savvy. I’m not sure you realize how brutally we fought the Allunio … how brutally I fought them. The Iron Kingdom has been deprived of too many illustrati now, but anyone with an ounce of sense sees that there’s room for new flowers to blossom.”

“The artifacts are going to be a problem,” said Dominic. “Maybe it would have been possible for people to move in after a purge, in the old days, but now? It’s going to end with one person holding all the power.”

“Maybe,” said Vidre. “I think I’ve done enough for one day though. We can wait a bit before we start worrying about a tyrant taking all the power for himself. Speaking of which, how is Welexi’s collection treating you?”

“It’s odd,” said Dominic. “There are so many senses available it seems like my head shouldn’t be able to contain them all. But the wind on my cheeks, the light of the stars, the feel of the flagstones beneath me, sounds and shadows, metals and insects in the air … I feel like I could run a million miles. Maybe later tonight I’ll cut loose and test the limits of what I can do.”

“Be careful,” said Vidre. “You’re still no good with a sword.”

“I know,” said Dominic.

The air was still and silent around them, but if Dominic pushed the domain of sound, he could hear people talking far below them, both conversations wafting up from the bedrooms and what sounded like revelry from one of the storerooms that had contained the Iron King’s supply of wine.

“I need to go see the Zenith,” said Vidre. “Last I checked it was held in port, but that was a month ago. I wouldn’t blame the crew if they’d taken the ship for their own, but if they haven’t, I need to see about getting them paid again, however we’re going to manage that.” She paused. Dominic could hear her swallow. The sun was setting, but he could see her face in crystal clarity, with every emotion that was etched there. “I mean, however I’m going to manage that.”

They hadn’t talked that much about what was going to come after this gambit. Vidre had kept saying there was a good chance that both of them would be dead. They needed to spend their time planning and practicing, trying to figure out what they would do if Welexi didn’t behave as they’d expected him too, trying to work on the proper wording of what Dominic would say. What would happen after had been sketched, not painted, with none of the details that a true plan needed. They were in uncharted waters now.

“I’m going back to Gennaro,” said Dominic. “At least for long enough to see my friends and family. The links are going to make me a target for anyone who has an artifact. I don’t know that I want to put my sister in harm’s way by being around her for long. I can’t really pick up where I left off either, even if I wanted to.”

She could have offered him passage aboard the Zenith. He could have asked her. The silence stretched on though.

“I have a favor to ask,” said Vidre. “Before you go.”

“Yeah?” asked Dominic.

“There’s a man I need brought back to life,” said Vidre.

They stared at the body of Lothaire, watching him breathe. He was in a small cell, laid out on the mattress in a position that was clearly posed. His hands were folded together over his chest and his feet were together and pointed straight at the ceiling.

“Gaelwyn put him out,” said Vidre. “Afterward, he claimed that something had gone wrong. He said he wasn’t able to bring Lothaire back out of it. The deception involved a lot of terminology that I didn’t listen too closely to. It was obvious that he was lying and that Welexi was complicit in it, even if he didn’t outright order it. You have the domain of flesh, I need him revived so that I can get the answers to a few pressing questions.”

Dominic touched the body. He could feel the domains of flesh and blood, the former as relaxed fibers and sheets of fat, the latter as a constantly-moving fluid moving from the heart to the extremities and back. The body wasn’t healthy, that much was clear just from looking a the man, but there was something wrong with the muscles as well, something that Dominic’s domain intuition didn’t quite tell him how to fix.

“What did Gaelwyn do?” asked Dominic.

“Something to do with blood,” said Vidre. “If blood pressure drops, people pass out, but it’s not the drop in blood pressure that actually causes it, it’s something somewhere in the neck. He told me once, but I listened less than I should have. There’s a … a nerve, something that tells the body blood pressure is low.”

Dominic closed his eyes and tried to feel the domains again. The neck had too many muscles in it. He tried to use the domain of flesh to feel his own neck, so that he could compare it with Lothaire’s, but that didn’t help much either. “How did Gaelwyn even figure this out in the first place?” asked Dominic.

“Vivisecting hundreds of people,” said Vidre. “Not something you could learn on short notice. I’m sure that there’s a book somewhere that describes exactly what to do to which muscle group in order to alter a very specific nerve in some particular way.”

“What do you need from him?” asked Dominic. He looked down at Lothaire, who was breathing shallowly. The man was old, seemingly untouched by the healing that illustrati could provide. It was hard to imagine him as the leader of the Allunio.

“He knows things,” said Vidre. She touched a piece of her armor, where a bulb of glass parted for her. She pulled out a ring that immediately announced itself in the mind. It was a Harbinger artifact, one taken from Welexi’s body when they’d carried him into the castle. “The artifacts are a problem. Lothaire is the one who uncovered them, or at least knows their provenance. If there are more … what the artifact does is very specific, but if the Harbingers could do one thing, we need to allow for the possibility that they can do others. If Lothaire knows, we need to know too.”

“He said something about your father,” said Dominic.

“I don’t care about my father,” said Vidre. “I might have been able to forgive everything else, but he sold me, like … like I was something he owned and no longer wanted. I don’t care what happened to him. I don’t care what triumph or tragedy Welexi was covering up.”

Dominic focused on Lothaire’s body and the shape of its muscles. Something somewhere in the neck was being squeezed. Dominic first tried relaxing all the muscles there, then when that had no apparent effect, he started shrinking the muscles. They seemed to melt beneath his touch. Lothaire stirred and opened his eyes.

“You’re not Gaelwyn,” he said slowly. He tried to move for a moment, then paused. “I can’t move my neck.”

“Sorry,” said Dominic. “I’ll try to fix it, but there are too many complicated things there that I don’t understand. I can’t promise I wouldn’t pinch another nerve. But for now, we need answers.”

“What does the ring do?” asked Vidre. She held it up to his view.

“I need food,” said Lothaire. “The Red Angel told me that the body begins to cannibalize itself after long enough without food. He found no problem in simply adding more flesh to my bones rather than going through the work of feeding me.”

“Later,” said Vidre. “Answer my question.”

“It’s a question I’ve been asked before,” said Lothaire. “I take it something has happened to Welexi then? Am I seeing the moment before a betrayal or the moment after?”

“After,” said Vidre. “Tell me what the ring does.”

“When I told him that I didn’t know, Welexi didn’t believe me,” said Lothaire. “I doubt you will either.”

Dominic worked at repairing Lothaire’s body. It wasn’t inconceivable that Vidre would want him alive at the end of their conversation.

“Where was it found?” asked Vidre.

“A cave,” said Lothaire. “More of a subterranean structure, in truth.” He licked his lips. “If not food, then water?”

“I can do that,” said Dominic. Water was one of his stronger domains; he conjured a single drop onto his palm, then expanded it until it filled his palm. With his other hand, he touched a piece of metal on his armor and formed it into a cup. He slipped the water into the cup and handed it to Lothaire.

“How many do you have?” asked Lothaire as he took the cup. His hands were trembling.

“I don’t know,” said Dominic.

“Where was this cave?” asked Vidre. “What else was in it?”

“Harbinger things,” answered Lothaire after taking a long drink of water. “Everything we touched was branded by them, its identity delivered to the mind directly. Nothing else though. The cylinders were the only ones with any obvious effect. We tested everything else, but there was never any change, whether it be good or bad.”

“I’d have to see it all myself,” said Vidre.

“We need to negotiate,” said Lothaire. “What can I give you that would ensure my life? The location of the cave, certainly. I already told Welexi as much as I knew about the locations, identities, and movements of my compatriots. That matter seems to have resolved itself.”

“You sent assassins after us,” said Vidre. “After me.”

“I knew that Welexi would come, sooner rather than later,” said Lothaire. “I feared him. Perhaps you wouldn’t have done the same in my shoes. Perhaps you would have acted with a decade of training and accomplished your goals. We were thinkers and dreamers, not the sort of people who were trained in death. I do write some beautiful agreements though. I doubt you’d accept the offer, but if Welexi is dead, you might need someone to ensure the continuity of this kingdom.”

“It’s taken care of,” said Vidre. “Even if it weren’t, you’re right that I would reject your help.”

“Very well,” said Lothaire. “Is there anything else you’d like to know before you kill me?” He seemed calm, despite the words.

“Can I ask a question, for my own curiosity?” asked Dominic.

Vidre nodded.

“You were in Gennaro, the day that Zerstor attacked,” said Dominic. “Wealdwood described you coming to him. I don’t understand why you were there.”

“It was always about more than the Iron Kingdom,” said Lothaire. “We wanted to change the world. The Zenith was in Gennaro to spread legends and manage finances. We were there to see how much it would take to turn the Sovento States. Those plans are stillborn now, it seems. Perhaps if I’m allowed to go free, I’ll write a book on what went wrong.”

“I can save you the trouble,” said Vidre. “Weakness was part of your ideology. If you’d stacked domains into a single person, you could have torn through any opposition with ease. You doomed yourself to failure from the start. You should have picked some better way of thinking, something equally seductive that would hamper you less.”

“Do you think it was for show?” asked Lothaire. “Do you think I chose the difficult path because I was trying to arrange a pleasant scene? I am not an illustrati. As one of the king’s advisers, I had only enough fame to know my domain, nothing more. I never dealt in narratives, never spent effort on pursuing appearances. We chose not to make one man into a titan because we thought that path would lead to ruin.”

“And now it all lays in ruin anyway,” said Vidre. “If you don’t win, then your ideals don’t have much meaning to anyone.”

Lothaire had no response to that.

“I have one more question,” said Dominic. “What happened to Vidre’s father?” Vidre shot him a dark look, but Dominic only shrugged. She could pretend as much as she wanted, but he didn’t see what she had to gain from presenting disinterest.

“Your father became an illustrati,” Lothaire said to Vidre. “He took his own power from the stories about you. There were only scraps to go on, but in Geswein they invented tales about him.”

“I don’t care,” said Vidre. Her face was perfectly blank, so much that it had to have been a mask she was presenting.

“He parlayed that into greater fame, under an assumed name,” said Lothaire. “He called himself Ursi. He wore a bear’s pelt. He was a villain, but a minor one, useful enough that no one was in any great hurry to put him down. He spoke of you to no one except his closest friends and then only when drunk. He got better, as the years passed. You might call it a redemption arc, but I believe it was true redemption. He was never terribly pleasant, but he became a hero in his own right, if a minor one. Four years ago, he made it known that he was trying to track down the Zenith. That was the last that anyone heard of him.”

“And that’s it?” asked Vidre. “That’s the entirety of what you know?”

“The rest is conjecture,” said Lothaire. “If Welexi is dead, you would have to ask Gaelwyn, but if he’s dead as well, which I imagine is the case, then I don’t know who would know the truth. It’s possible that your father happened upon them before he happened upon you, or that he went to them so that they could soften the introduction. All I have are guesses. Welexi was your father figure, it’s no real surprise that he would want that position uncontested.”

“He wasn’t a father figure,” said Vidre.

Lothaire shrugged. “Then I don’t know. I was trying to drive in whatever wedges I could find and Gaelwyn thought I was about to strike a nerve. Would you truly not care if your father was killed while trying to reconcile with you?”

“No,” said Vidre. She stood up and adjusted her glass armor. “I think I’ve heard enough from you though. Dominic, you can do what you please with the man.” She stalked out of the room without another word.

Dominic tapped Vidre on the shoulder from behind.

“I’m fine,” she said. She could cry about it later, if she really had to. Her father had taken himself out of her life early on. He hadn’t deserved to see her again. There was no reason to think that a reunion would have gone well anyway. There was no proof he was really dead, or that Welexi had done it, just the hearsay of a deceiver. It shouldn’t have hit her so hard.

“I know you’re fine,” said Dominic. He shifted. “Listen, I was thinking that perhaps we could stay together, at least for a time. I need passage back to Gennaro and you have a ship in port. I know you like to keep moving, perhaps you could chart us a course that would take you by there.”

“We don’t typically revisit a city so soon,” said Vidre. She had her hands on the glass daggers at her side. She changed their shape, so that they would be better for slipping between the gap in a suit of armor, then again so they would give her reach, then broad and thick so they would resist chipping or breaking. Glass was normally comforting to the touch. “Usually it’s two years, maybe more.”

“All the same,” said Dominic. “I’m in no rush to return home. It might be good if my friends and family had some time to absorb the news first.”

“You don’t have to stay with me,” said Vidre. She let out a sigh. “I’m fine. I said that I was fine. I’ve been through worse.”

Dominic shrugged. “I’d like to go home, but I’m not too picky about when. It just seemed more efficient this way.” He was looking at her with kind, gentle, understanding eyes.

Vidre was ready to accuse him of putting up a facade, but if that’s what he was doing, what would have to be said of her? Had she actually said that she’d been through worse? She’d been traveling with Welexi for nearly her entire adult life. She’d killed the closest thing to family that she had left. Her future hadn’t been this uncertain in a very long time. What good would it do to pretend that she didn’t want a companion? Dominic was perhaps the only person in the world who might understand her.

“Alright,” said Vidre. “We’ll be here another day, then we’ll go to Bordes and see whether the ship is still there. There are more pressing stops than Gennaro though, I have to warn you. It might be some time before we say our goodbyes.”

“That’s fine,” said Dominic. “I was thinking that some time at sea might be good for learning more etiquette.”

“Better that we work on combat,” said Vidre. “There are troubled times ahead of us. We have a substantial fraction of the artifacts locked away, but there are more, including the one you gave to the Bone Warden. If the wrong person tries to do the wrong things …” She trailed off. The problem seemed insurmountable. The world was simply going to change; there was nothing that they could do about it, except perhaps by trying to stop the worst of it.

“We’ll have to be ready,” said Dominic.

“Yes,” replied Vidre. “We will.”

The first appendix will be posted by 10/17/15.

Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 22: Impressions


The first bath had been tinted with dried blood and dirt. It was an ugly color, the hue of battle, watered down. Vidre had scrubbed with pumice until she was clean and pink. She would have gone until her skin was raw, but mere pumice was no longer enough to abrade it. She sometimes thought back on wounds of old, ones she was too powerful to suffer from anymore. Falling from the Ministry of Legends would no longer be cause for alarm.

The second bath was one of soaps and oils, boiling water that could no longer burn her flesh, and a real attempt at relaxation. The oils were from the vast stock of the Iron King, brought in from distant lands and hoarded in great quantities. It brought Vidre back to earlier, better times, when it had seemed like the Zenith would sail the world forever, stopping at every port of importance to forge new legends and spread the old ones. The smell of jasmine was one she would always associate with Erbos. She was romanticizing those times, but after a harsh battle she always felt some need to see the world in a better light.

She hadn’t escaped the fight unscathed. She was still deaf in one ear and the other ear made everything sound like it was underwater. Her hearing would return, but worse than before, as it had too many times in the past. Older illustrati had spoken of a constant sound of ringing or a dull roar of thunder that became their unwelcome companion. The other wounds had been dealt with by Gaelwyn. He had returned the chunk of meat that had been taken from her calf, complete with skin to cover the wound. He hadn’t had the domain of skin the last time she’d been back. She didn’t ask about it.

There were many things that Vidre didn’t ask about these days.

Welexi came into the room where she was taking her bath and cleared his throat loudly. There was a folding screen between them, a token piece of modesty left over from the Iron King’s time. An ancient memory came floating up, unbidden. Vidre had been twenty years old and freshly inducted as an illustrati on the Zenith. She had tried to seduce Welexi, first through flirtation and then, in a moment of bold stupidity, by shrugging off her clothes in his cabin. That moment was now so embarrassing that it was still capable of making her stomach do a flip. Welexi had thought she was only trying to increase her own standing by adding him as a conquest, which was precisely true. It was a wonder that they had been able to move past that.

“I am sorry that I was not there to greet you upon your return,” said Welexi. He sounded stiff and oddly formal, even for him.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Vidre.

“Gaelwyn tells me that you fought the remainder of the Allunio, five against one,” said Welexi. “He believes it to be a suicidal gesture.”

“He worries too much,” said Vidre.

“Did you transfer from those you fought?” asked Welexi. He never called it draining, though everyone else did. It was always a transfer, meant to call to mind an orderly handing over of power from one person to another.

“Two of them,” said Vidre. “Of the domains I can feel, I have …” She closed her eyes. “Steel, copper, gold, sand, rust, heat, cold, fire, birds, horses, insects, skin, hair, vines, wood, light, lightning, and glass. Lightning I have twice now. It’s more powerful for it.”

“Excellent,” said Welexi. For the first time some real emotion crept into his voice, an oozing satisfaction that Vidre found maddening. “Eventually we will find a way to return those links to their rightful owners.”

Vidre didn’t challenge that narrative. The Iron Kingdom was in complete disarray. They had rescued a number of men and women from captivity, including the nominal king Quill, but most of the drained illustrati must simply have been killed. There wouldn’t often be a person to return the link to, if they even had a way to separate out the links, which they did not. Vidre couldn’t decide whether returning the powers was something Welexi said to assuage his own guilt or a piece of fiction he intended to sell the world on.

“I have some good news,” said Welexi. “It is overshadowed by your own good news of course, the end of the Allunio will bring a conclusion to the civil war and no doubt be cause for celebration throughout the Iron Kingdom, yet I feel that I must chime in with my own success.”

Vidre laid her head against the porcelain of the bathtub and said nothing. If Welexi wanted to talk, he would get no encouragement from her, no witty repartee or leading questions.

“Quill has not taken to the throne,” said Welexi. “The loss of his domain hit him hard and his imprisonment did not agree with him. He never had any desire to rule.” He went silent behind the screen that divided them.

“We had said that we were going to find a replacement,” said Vidre, damning herself for responding. “Someone who wanted the job. Once the war was over.”

“I have found him,” said Welexi. “It took time to pore over the books, to untangle the bookkeeping of earlier eras. In his later years the records became immaculate, but I was looking in those years before the reforms had been enacted. Eventually I found the document that I had been seeking, the one which confirmed a nagging suspicion. All of the pieces of the puzzle clicked into place.”

Vidre wanted to scream at him. She had just survived a difficult battle. She had been using her daggers with extreme prejudice for the last few months. This was not a time for him to be delivering a story to her, no matter how well-crafted he might think it was. Instead, she asked the question that Welexi clearly wanted her to ask. “And what puzzle is that?”

“Sometimes the solution comes from small details,” said Welexi. “The puzzle isn’t even clear until the solution is nearly in sight. In this case? A child who was taken into the custody of the kingdom at a young age and brought to the attention of the king — but perhaps it was the king who cultivated the boy in the first place? And why would he have done that? The boy turned into a brilliant man. He was given more freedom than almost everyone in the kingdom. Yet there were more questions. Why, on his deathbed, would the king have spent so many resources in trying to track down yet another physician, where so many had failed before?”

Vidre wanted to slam her head against the bathtub, but she would have only succeeded in breaking it. “Gaelwyn,” she said.

“The Iron King sowed his seed widely,” said Welexi. “He would have been old when Gaelwyn was born, but not implausibly so. The Iron King was known to make trips to the Highlands on a regular basis, sometimes without much in the way of fanfare. He would have had the power and the authority to pull a woman into his chambers and have his way with her. It wouldn’t have mattered whether she was married. And then, once the child was born, the Iron King would keep an eye on the boy. He would ensure that the boy was selected for presentation at one of the stadiums, so that his domain could be known. He would ensure that the boy was sent to get an education, so that his mind could be shaped and his future controlled. It explains the resources that were devoted Gaelwyn’s way when he was running his hospital, the latitude that he was given. It explains why so many letters came from the Iron King while he was dying. The Iron King knew that Gaelwyn was brilliant. He knew that of all his bastards, there was one who was both intelligent and humble, one who would do what it took.”

Vidre resumed her silence. It was all lies, even if those lies came naturally to Welexi’s lips. She idly wondered how good the forgery of the documents was. Would they withstand inspection? They didn’t need to, not really, not with all of their enemies dead. Welexi’s command would become law. Gaelwyn would take the throne and behind him would sit the Sunhawk, pulling all the strings that needed to be pulled. If there were any way that Welexi could have claimed the throne for himself, Vidre was certain he would have taken it.

“I look forward to your support in these coming weeks,” said Welexi. “I’ve spoken with Quill already; the transition of power will be seamless.”

“This will mean war with Torland,” said Vidre. She moved her hand back and forth in the water, feeling the currents. “The parliament we installed there put Gaelwyn on trial. They won’t accept him as king.”

“They’re too busy consolidating power,” said Welexi.

“What better way to unite than a ready-made enemy?” asked Vidre.

“Gaelwyn is the rightful ruler of the Iron Kingdom,” said Welexi. He sounded slightly confused, as though he couldn’t understand her objection and was slightly put-out by it. That was one of his methods of manipulation that Vidre had once thought was base childishness.

“As you say,” said Vidre. She was too tired to argue, too emotionally drained to point out every reason this was a bad idea.

“This is the dawn of a new era,” said Welexi. “We will pull the Iron Kingdom to its feet and institute a new, just rule that corrects for all of the Iron King’s excesses. The story of rebellion is concluded; a new story must rise to take its place.”

Vidre made no response. Welexi gave a polite cough from behind the screen that separated them, but certainly even he would be able to realize that she didn’t want to speak with him. It took some time for him to move away. Once he was gone, she climbed from the bathtub and dressed herself in clean clothes, slowly and mechanically, then began forming the lump of glass she’d removed into armor again. There was still work left to do. She needed to go wait for Dominic.

It would come down to violence. Dominic recognized that. There were other salient questions, like whether he could somehow bring Vidre to his side, or whether he would be able to face Welexi down somewhere that Gaelwyn wouldn’t be able to render aid. At its heart though, the problem was Welexi. There was no other solution than a violent one. There would be no way of talking Welexi down.

That left the question of how. If they had been of equal standing, with evenly matched domains, Dominic would still have been soundly beaten in any fair fight that he could imagine. Welexi had made his name as a combatant. He had mastered every possible technique. Dominic had a month of training in swordsmanship. He was rusty now, two months out of practice, which meant there would be no contest when he faced down what might have been the greatest spear fighter in the world. Dominic had no way of knowing whether Welexi had more than just light and shadow. That was something he would have to figure out before trying to get into Castle Launtine.

It wouldn’t be even remotely heroic, but Dominic could try to slit Welexi’s throat in the middle of the night. Sound was one of the five domains he’d taken from Faye, which would allow him to move silently around the castle and cover the noise of picking whatever locks were on the doors. Welexi had to sleep sometime. The thought of killing the man in cold blood didn’t sit right with Dominic, but it offered odds that were far better than trying a straightforward fight. Perhaps he could even find one of the artifacts and use it to steal his own power back from Welexi. That was a secondary goal, but one that Dominic would try for if it was feasible.

He tried to exercise his new domains as much as possible. The fifth one was weak, likely taken from someone whose fame had begun to wane, or had never fully developed. Dominic had almost laughed when he’d realized what it was: light. He could make simple constructs, but it was slow work and the details were difficult. Sound and blood were the most powerful of the two that he had received, but blood seemed as though it wasn’t going to be useful, given that there was little chance he would be able to make skin contact with Welexi. Still, Dominic practiced with both blood and flesh, making alterations to his own body and undoing them again. He tried to keep his experimentation to places that weren’t vital, just in case he did something which couldn’t easily be undone. Steel, blood, flesh, sound, and light, there had to be some way to use those.

Sound was the most distinct of the domains. It allowed for keen hearing and a differentiation of sounds, so that he could tune his hearing to different places or listen for different things. He could amplify the sounds around him and reduce them to almost nothing. He tried the amplified shout that he’d heard from Corta and found it to be loud enough to shake the trees around him. It would be a powerful attack, but that hadn’t saved Faye. He had no idea how she had managed to speak without the use of her voice, but he imagined that this was a matter of practice. Dominic tried, but he could only make sounds that had no relation to words. He finally made a single word by stringing sounds together, but that took far too much preparation and concentration.

A plan was beginning to form in Dominic’s mind, of silently stalking into the castle with the domain of sound to keep his footsteps from being heard. All thoughts of that were driven from his mind when he heard a human heartbeat coming from behind a small group of rocks some twenty feet away from him. Dominic’s own heart began to beat faster. He was still miles from Castle Launtine, too far for there to be patrols, but the person in question was only barely moving.

“Hello?” asked Dominic. He was ready to run at the first sign of trouble.

“Dominic,” said a familiar female voice. Vidre stepped out from around the outcropping. “You really are a fool, you know that?”

“I know,” said Dominic. “But something has to be done.”

“The Bone Warden’s people aren’t with you?” she asked.

“They didn’t want to upset the balance of power,” said Dominic. “I think they’ll probably stick around for long enough to establish ties to the new regime.”

“Typical of the Bone Warden,” said Vidre.

“Are you going to stop me?” asked Dominic.

“Welexi thinks you’re dead,” answered Vidre. “More specifically, he thinks that I killed you. You can imagine that I would have some problems if you showed up unannounced.”

“No one else is going to do anything about Welexi,” said Dominic. “I don’t know how many of the rumors are true, but … some of them are. He was going to kill me, like it was nothing. He’s hiding secrets. Not just from the world, but from you as well.”

“So you want to kill him for it,” said Vidre. “You’re taking something small and personal and turning it into an international affair. You really want to go up against the most powerful man in the world? Over pride? Over revenge?”

“Yes,” said Dominic. He felt the urge to deny it, to explain that his aims were somehow noble, but he’d been thinking about slipping into Welexi’s room and slitting his throat only moments before. He was confident that a world Welexi stood on top of was worse for it, but he doubted he would feel so strongly if there were no personal connection. If they had parted amicably, Dominic might have said that Welexi was unfit to hold his position of power, but no more unfit than any number of other rulers.

“Fair enough,” said Vidre. “And your plan?”

“I was still working on that,” said Dominic. “If I could get into his room in the middle of the night, act while he was defenseless, then maybe —”

“Let me tell you how I sleep,” Vidre interrupted with a wave of her hand. “I seal my door shut with every single domain available to me. I make a seal of glass around the door, then a second seal of copper and gold. I suppose I have steel now too, so I’ll be adding that to the barriers. I do the same for the windows, leaving only enough of a gap that I can still breathe. It is, in most other respects, a tomb. If I’m feeling especially paranoid, I deploy caltrops across the floor of the room, razor sharp so that they would slice straight through all but the thickest leather.”

“You’re a multistrati,” said Dominic. He had known that, but it was another thing to hear it come from her so casually.

“Yes,” said Vidre. “Welexi is too.”

“And so am I,” said Dominic. Vidre showed no sign of surprise. “There has to be a way. If I can use the domain of sound to keep him from hearing, it won’t matter how indelicate I am in getting to him. He won’t know I’m there until he’s dying.”

“You speak as though I’m going to let you by,” said Vidre. “As though I’ll stand to the side and let you do whatever you’d like to a man I’ve worked side by side with, day in and day out, for nine years.”

“I asked you whether you were going to let me by. You decided to play games with words,” said Dominic. “You already declined to kill me once, when Welexi gave you a direct order. I don’t think you’re going to kill me now.”

“It wasn’t a direct order,” said Vidre. Her voice softened slightly. “He was going to take matters into his own hands, I’ll give him that, but when I stepped forward he was happy to have me do it. Welexi would never give a direct order for me to dirty his hands.”

“He kept you around because you knew when to act without him having to say anything,” said Dominic. He disliked thinking of this line of conversation as manipulation, but it was, in a sense, even if he was trying to get her to do something that was in her own interests. “It made you the perfect cover for him. He could admonish you later, even though you’d done exactly what he wanted you to do. A better man would have been partner to the lies that needed to be told. He would have accepted his part in it instead of pretending to be a paragon.”

Vidre said nothing.

“Let me by,” said Dominic. He tried his best to sound confident.

“Let you by?” asked Vidre. “So that you can march to Castle Launtine and make your best attempt at killing Welexi?” She shook her head. “Do you think I’m so much of a hypocrite that I would allow you to dirty your hands while pretending that my own were clean? It’s what I would do, if I were Welexi. I would make a show of pleading with you, telling you not to do it but hoping that you would. I wouldn’t stop you, of course. Then, if you managed to strike the killing blow, I would have speeches and stories prepared, ones that might agree with your goal but not your method. That’s how I would do it, if what I cared about most was perpetuating a myth of myself as a good person. I could do all that without even doing anything that someone would mark as wrong. I could do it without ever seeming duplicitous.” She sighed. “Do you know, I still don’t know how much he thinks about these things? There’s a part of me that believes he’s cold and calculating behind the mask of himself. But sometimes it seems that’s truly who he is, a man who is fooling himself as much as he’s fooling the world, bound by the part he’s playing.”

Dominic stood his ground. The meaning of Vidre’s words wasn’t clear to him; there was discontent, but he wasn’t sure whether it was discontent that he could use. He didn’t even know whether he should be trying to use Vidre. She was a friend. She’d saved his life a few times and he’d never really gotten the chance to return the favor.

“If I let you by,” said Vidre. “It would be like driving the dagger into his back myself. The only difference being that my thrust would be weak and half-hearted, no offense. If I’m deciding I would rather see Welexi cast down, it would be better to do it properly.”

“Are you saying you’ll help me?” asked Dominic.

“Yes,” said Vidre. “Now, let’s build a better plan.”

Lothaire was awakened from his slumber with a touch, as he always was. The Red Angel stared at him with dispassionate eyes. This too was as it usually went.

“I’m going to be king,” said Gaelwyn Mottram. “Welexi has arranged it.”

Lothaire stretched himself out. “How long was I out that time?” he asked.

“Five days,” replied Gaelwyn.

“I need something to eat,” replied Lothaire. He clutched at his stomach, which was clenched in pain.

“I give your body fat and muscle to feed itself from,” said Gaelwyn. “If I gave you food there would be the issue of waste to deal with. You make a better prisoner when my upkeep is minimal.”

“I’m in pain,” said Lothaire. “A man isn’t meant to not eat.”

“I don’t hold with what is meant or not meant,” said Gaelwyn. “You’re the one who called me a monster, as so many have before. You should know I care nothing for your pain.”

“Why have you wakened me?” asked Lothaire. “I’ve told you all that I could about the Allunio. Before my capture I ensured that I would be useless when taken.” This was always how Lothaire opened their talks. He had been brought out of his unnatural slumber by Gaelwyn twice early on, both times for questioning, both times with Welexi present, but the third time had seen Gaelwyn by himself. Every time after, the physician had been all alone, not seeking any information, but instead looking for someone to speak with in confidentiality. Lothaire asked the same question every time though. He was pretending that they were adversaries so that he could soften as their conversation went on. That was better than pretending at familiarity from the start. It was part of the rapport he was trying to build with Gaelwyn, though he couldn’t tell whether it was working.

“I’m going to be king,” said Gaelwyn. He ran his fingers through his hair. “He didn’t ask me. He only presented me with the story of how my mother was raped by the Iron King and my father was a cuckold. How I had risen to my station through nepotism instead of merit. From anyone else it would have been an insult of the highest order.”

“Not from the Sunhawk though,” said Lothaire. He shook his head, grateful that Gaelwyn had offered him some mobility this time. He tried to ignore his aches and pains. “He who can do no wrong.”

“We could have plotted it together,” said Gaelwyn. “If we were trying to usurp the kingdom, all he would have had to do was to say it and I would have gone along with it. If we had sat down together and talked it over, decided to change my origin story … that’s the way that he is.”

“If that happened to me, I think I would come to the conclusion that I wasn’t trusted,” said Lothaire.

“No,” said Gaelwyn. “Welexi allows me to touch him. Welexi gave me Charnel’s link, along with others.”

“Did he steal it from her?” asked Lothaire. Gaelwyn gave no response. “Do you know whether he stole it from her?” Again, Gaelwyn was silent. “Or did he appear to you one day with an artifact, claiming some story of how the power within it came into his possession?”

“It was hers,” said Gaelwyn. “Who else could it have been from? She had left the castle only the day before. Did he think I wouldn’t make the connection? Or did he think that I wouldn’t question him?”

“Yet there is some part of you which believes that perhaps his story is true,” said Lothaire. “You are almost willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, as you always are.” It was a crack, one which Lothaire might be able to drive a wedge into.

“I killed for him,” said Gaelwyn. “Because he asked me to.”

“You killed my friends,” said Lothaire. “My disciples.” He couldn’t quite keep the bitterness from his voice, even though he was meant to be slowly warming to Gaelwyn, building a rapport between the two of them.

“Before that,” said Gaelwyn. “You knew, somehow. About the assassinations. You spoke to Wealdwood about them.”

Lothaire nodded. It had only been conjecture, something that was halfway toward being a lie. The Iron Kingdom had spies in many places, spies which he’d inherited, but the stories they’d told were always incomplete. If Gaelwyn was going to tell the truth, it was unlikely that Lothaire would ever speak to another human again, but he had given up the chance at living long before now.

“All I had to do was introduce a flaw,” said Gaelwyn. “I had worked on enough people with ailments to know what to do. I had decades of study behind me, mostly in the art of healing and the science of the human body. So many people with my domain understood breaking a person, tearing them apart, but that was easy in comparison to maintenance. Killing was beneath me. But I did it anyway.”

“Who?” breathed Lothaire.

“Rivals,” said Gaelwyn. “Not villains, not those who had pushed themselves to the extremes of wanton violence, just those who he could get me close to. Names that are lost to history now. Legends that faded away after an ignoble end.” Gaelwyn went silent and laid his head against the cold stone wall of the dungeon cell. “Afterward, he would be so pleased with me. Smiling, like I had paid him back double for every ounce of faith he’d shown in me. Yet we never spoke of it. He would mourn these people, these friends. And eventually … I wanted to be a better person. So I stopped. And again, we never spoke of it, I was left to read his moods and wonder.”

Lothaire leaned forward. “You still can be a better person. With or without Welexi.”

“Who would believe it?” asked Gaelwyn. “Would you?”

Lothaire opened his mouth to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. He had never abhorred lies; they were useful things. Telling a credible lie here, however, was beyond his ability.

“No,” said Gaelwyn. “I wouldn’t believe it either. I made an effort, but it was doomed to fail.”

“I can help you,” said Lothaire, trying his best to sound old and wise, as he’d done with his students. “If Welexi isn’t the foundation on which to build your house, so be it, but all rocks are not —”

“You’re only a sounding board,” said Gaelwyn. “You know that you will never see the light of day again. You will never see any face but mine.” He looked at Lothaire with cold eyes. “The last of the Allunio died yesterday. All your plans have crumbled. The next time I wake you, don’t try to convince me of your superiority.”

Lothaire opened his mouth to respond, but Gaelwyn’s touch was already upon him.

“Ambush isn’t going to work,” said Vidre. “We don’t know which domains he has. We don’t know how strong those domains might be.” They sat together in the forest, having found a place far from the road. Dominic was practicing his skill with sound by deadening their voices. In theory, it would be impossible for anyone to hear them. It was more paranoid than the situation warranted, given that Dominic would be able to hear everyone approach and these woods weren’t crawling with patrols in the first place. “Even if you were able to break into his room, past any precautions that he has, he’s going to have both the resilience provided by the highest standing the world has ever seen, and domain immunities stacked on top of each other. If you went for his throat with a blade of glass, it might be you’d find that he’s immune to glass. Same for any of the common metals.”

“I could have a knife forged,” said Dominic. “One made of platinum, or something more exotic. Besides, we don’t need to slit his throat. All we need to do is slip his hand into the artifact.”

“I’m telling you, it’s not going to work,” said Vidre. “Attacking in the middle of the night is the obvious thing that anyone would try. He’ll have laid defenses in place. Worse, he’s a light sleeper. That comes from decades on the battlefield. He knows he’s vulnerable while he’s sleeping, just like I do.”

“That will be our fallback plan then,” said Dominic. “You have a different suggestion?”

“The artifact,” said Vidre. “Until you slip your hand inside, you don’t know whether it’s going to give or take. We don’t need to break into his room, past whatever traps and warnings he has in place, we only need to trick him into giving when he means to take.”

“How?” asked Dominic. “All your same arguments apply. He knows the rules that the artifact operates under, just as you and I do. If you handed him an artifact … would he just put his hand into it without question?”

“No,” said Vidre. “That’s why we’re going to have to make him believe that there’s no doubt.”

“We need a story that will convince him,” replied Dominic. “He told me when we first met that thinking in stories was an occupational hazard. That’s where he’s weak. If we can get him in a public place, with hundreds of people around who will all be ready to spread their own version of the story, he’ll have to act like people expect him to act. We just have to manipulate it so that the pull of the story is too strong for him to resist.”

“We also need to manipulate the artifact,” said Vidre. She reached behind her back with one arm, pulling at a place where the plates of glass were more bulky. She pulled out one of the Harbinger artifacts, with its hexagonal hole and dull gray exterior. Aside from the pressure that it put on the mind, there was nothing that truly spoke of its power.

“You have one,” said Dominic.

“We have almost twenty of them,” said Vidre. “I was going to use this one to drain your traveling companions, if it came down to that.”

“Or to drain me?” asked Dominic. “If I wasn’t able to convince you?”

Vidre shrugged. “The thought crossed my mind, once I realized you had gotten power from somewhere.” She paused. “It was the woman I gutted, wasn’t it?”

“Faye,” said Dominic.

“Really?” asked Vidre. “The same woman who spoke to you in Torland? I had no idea.”

“She’s part of why I have to do this,” said Dominic. “Why I have to live up to the potential of the illustrati.”

“Yet you said that you barely knew this woman,” said Vidre. Her eyes narrowed slightly.

“I didn’t know her,” said Dominic. “She was asking the right questions though, even if I don’t think she had all the answers.”

“Questions like who to assassinate?” asked Vidre. “Whose throats to slit in order to obtain power?”

Dominic shrugged. “I can’t defend them. I’m not going to try.”

“Have you thought about what’s going to happen after we murder Welexi?” asked Vidre.

“We don’t necessarily have to murder him,” said Dominic. “Just stop him.”

“It’s entirely possible that a new civil war follows from this,” she replied. “Even if you’re justified in thinking that he’s not fit to rule. That’s especially true given the turmoil this kingdom has been through of late. Is it worth it?”

“Welexi is hungry for power,” said Dominic. “He’s hungry for attention. When the constitution of Torland was being written, he wanted to inject himself into that affair, even though he had nothing to add. It’s that impulse that’s going to be terrible for this kingdom. The Iron King didn’t seem to care about his people that much, not on the level of individuals, but I think the only thing that Welexi truly cares about is himself. It was much easier for me to see that once he tossed me aside. If he’s in control of the kingdom, that means he’ll be able to accelerate his bid for power. The artifact allows for a king to take from all his subjects, doesn’t it?”

“I want to go in with a clear objective,” said Vidre. “That’s all.”

“I do too,” said Dominic. “So. We have an artifact. I think I can mimic the sounds that it makes, given a bit of time to practice.” He focused on the domain of sound and let a single, solid tone into the air. It was more difficult than merely amplifying a sound that was already there, but he thought it was passable.

“We’ll have to craft a story,” said Vidre. “Something that Welexi will latch onto. He made this story about the two of you having a battle on the top of the castle. We’ll connect to something like that, make the story a continuation.” She sighed. “He talks about it like it actually happened. Listening to him tell it, I almost believe him. He never breaks character, not even in private. We could never have an honest discussion.”

“I’ve heard it,” said Dominic. “All we need to do, if we want to maneuver him into position, is find the right continuation of that story.”

The crowning of a new king was always an extravagant affair, even when a country wasn’t in turmoil. The people needed to be shown that the king was still in control of the country and still fit to rule them. The Iron Kingdom had appointed governors rather than dukes, but they still had to meet the new king and be made to believe that there was a need to toe the line. This was all the more important when the former king had not left a clear line of succession behind, or when there had been a brief war between two factions competing for the throne.

Vidre oversaw the arrangements. It had been years since Welexi had organized anything; she was the one who paid attention to the ledgers. The skill of double-entry bookkeeping was virtually unknown among the illustrati, but it was the only way that the system of bards could actually work. There were accounts held in the banks of two dozen countries, across twelve separate systems of currency, with news traveling at the speed of sail. Compared to that nightmare of coordination, the coronation was child’s play. As usual, the work went unnoticed.

She tested Welexi’s defenses in the middle of the night, to see whether the easy path might still be open to them. She came to his door and slammed against it with an armored fist, hard enough to confirm that there were inches of metal behind it. If the door itself were merely reinforced, she might have been able to break it from its hinges with that strike, but there was no such luck.

Welexi threw the door aside seven seconds later, fully armored and holding a spear of light in his hand that illuminated the hallway around him. There was something fierce in the cast of his face, one she had only rarely seen on him. It was a curl of his lip, a tightening of the brow, as though he were about to crush some insect beneath his heel. The look was gone in an instant, from the very moment he recognized her.

“I’ve been poisoned,” spat Vidre through clenched teeth. She staggered against the doorway and closed her eyes. She was ready with elaboration, but Welexi simply picked her up and threw her over his shoulder to take her down the hallway to the room that the Iron King had once occupied. Gaelwyn was still waking up when Vidre took his place in the massive bed. He tended to her with bleary eyes and a slack jaw.

“Nothing that will kill you,” said Gaelwyn. “I can put you out —”

“No,” said Vidre. “We need to be more careful with what we eat,” she said. Her stomach clenched and she writhed in pain. The poison wasn’t a lie; she had consumed a dose of mistletoe oil, enough that Gaelwyn would find something wrong, but an illness she could recover from within the day. “Even if the Allunio are gone …” she trailed off, more because the poison was working its way through her system than because she wanted them to imagine the threats.

“That story is supposed to be over,” said Welexi with a frown. He turned to Gaelwyn. “We will take precautions. I suppose a coda is acceptable at the coronation. It would be the opportunity to strike, if there are elements within these castle walls aligned against us. The feast following the coronation will have to be watched closely.”

“I’ll handle it,” said Vidre. She moaned again as her guts twisted, trying not to play it up too much. Gaelwyn still had his hand on her armor. He would be able to feel every twitch of her muscles, every contraction of her skin. “When will I be back on my feet?”

“I don’t know,” said Gaelwyn. “It depends on what you were dosed with.” He narrowed his eyes. “I worry that this is a trial run of some sort. Perhaps … it’s not too late to cancel.”

“No,” said Welexi. “You are the rightful ruler.”

Vidre caught the look shared between them; Gaelwyn had never been one to confide in her, especially not after Lothaire had done his talking. It didn’t take a savant to understand that Gaelwyn had his own reservations.

Welexi insisted on two large chairs for the coronation. The first was naturally for Gaelwyn. The second was for a new position to be created within the Iron Kingdom, the role of First Minister. In the days when the Iron King had occupied the throne, all of the various Ministries reported directly to him, with the ministers charged with carrying out his demands. The First Minister would serve as an intermediary step, a position appointed by the king to coordinate the ministers. To hear Welexi tell it, the Iron Kingdom had long suffered from one man at the top relying too heavily on his advisers, trying to engage personally in every matter of business. That the new First Minister would effectively usurp power from the king himself and serve as an adviser with unprecedented power went largely without comment. There was never any real question about whom Gaelwyn would appoint.

Vidre was to sit in the audience. She had done the largest part of the work in bringing the civil war to a conclusion. She had done most of the killing, when killing was what was called for. If Welexi had his way, the bards would sing a different song. It wouldn’t be the first time that Welexi had done something like that, though he was often hampered by the fact that he had given control of the purse strings over to Vidre early in their career. Things like that helped ease whatever misgivings she had about the plan she and Dominic had worked out.

There were two hundred people packed into the courtyard. Most of them had ridden quickly to get to Castle Launtine in time. The castle itself was filled beyond the capacity of its many bedrooms, spilling out into the town below for those too unimportant to rate a room. Vidre had dealt with all of it, from the announcement that had gone out to every remaining illustrati in the Iron Kingdom to the lilacs that adorned the chairs they were using. At every turn there was some new crisis to solve or someone trying to gain her attention so that they might increase their own fame by some token amount.

“I miss it,” said Quill, during a brief moment Vidre had to herself. “Being an illustrati.”

“You might gain your power back some day,” said Vidre. “Not every theft was accounted for. We might find the person who received yours and gain it back for you.”

There had been a time when Quill had a thickness to him, a ready smile and a twinkle in his eyes. They had found him in a dungeon, emaciated and sunken-eyed. Weeks of good eating and Gaelwyn’s ministrations hadn’t managed to return him to full health. Vidre had been in enough wars to know that sometimes people simply broke. “That wasn’t credible even when I was king,” he replied. “Tell me. We used to be friends once. Was I always to be a useful idiot? Someone to hold the throne while you three prepared to take it?”

Vidre had no reply for him. There were other, more important things to do. Yet she wondered whether he was right. Welexi had tried to spin a story about how Gaelwyn had been destined for the throne all along. If he were writing the tale, it would have been obvious from the start, with minor details threaded in early on. He had done the same with Dominic’s supposed betrayal, warping every small detail until it seemed inevitable. How long ago had Welexi formed his plans? Was he driving the story or was the story driving him? The answer to those questions was far from a matter of idle curiosity. In a few short hours, Dominic would lay his life on the line under the belief that Welexi would follow the path that the story demanded.

It happened shortly after the ceremonial crown of the Iron Kingdom was transferred to Gaelwyn’s head.

“Welexi!” screamed a loud voice that echoed across the courtyard. Dominic hadn’t amplified his voice with the domain of sound; that was one of the ones he would need to keep back. Every head turned towards him. The murmurs started rolling through the gathered crowd soon afterward.

Dominic wore armor of steel, with a thick steel sword held in front of him. He’d spent the days before the coronation training with it, enough that he could pull off something that looked appropriately theatrical. He and Vidre had agreed it would be more compelling and thematically appropriate if he had shadow at his disposal, but that simply wasn’t an option. They’d discussed whether he should perhaps go without armor at all, but decided that would stretch the bounds of plausibility too far. Dominic attacking Welexi was already reckless and foolhardy. Doing it without a visible domain would have appeared suicidal and belied the fact that he had a trick up his sleeve. In his other hand he held the Harbinger artifact that Vidre had given him.

“Lightscour,” said Welexi, from the coronation’s second throne. He stood up with his armor of light gleaming and held out his hand to produce a spear of light. Welexi turned to Gaelwyn. “One moment, your majesty, while I deal with this.” The aside was loud enough for all assembled to hear.

“You’re a viper,” said Dominic. “A venomous creature that has everyone convinced that he’s a hero. Have you ever done anything truly heroic in your life? Something not motivated by the need to better yourself at the expense of those around you?”

Welexi walked forward with the spear held in his hand. “You use steel these days?” he asked. “My apprentice has learned new tricks, it seems. You always were a thief. It was my fault for thinking that I could better you at my own expense.”

Dominic had stopped walking. He’d forgotten how imposing Welexi could be. Around him, people were moving away, only far enough that they wouldn’t be caught in the fight. They stayed to watch, of course. If Dominic had learned anything, it was that people liked to watch illustrati fight, even if it came at a detriment to their own survival.

“I killed Zerstor,” said Dominic. “You couldn’t stand the idea of someone else taking that accomplishment from you, that was the only reason I ever found a place on your boat. You had to find some way of taking that accomplishment for yourself. That’s all I ever was to you.”

“It takes a cynical mind to see the world like that,” said Welexi. He came to a stop some ten feet from Dominic. “You imagine that man could only be motivated by self-interest. It says more about you than it does about man. You were always naive, despite my best efforts. I take it you’ve come here to kill me?” He nodded to the artifact in Dominic’s hand. “You wish to take my power from me, as the Allunio did to so many in this kingdom?”

It was going well, all things considered. They were talking, not fighting, which meant that Welexi was still playing for the crowd. He was wearing and wielding light, not presenting other domains. Dominic wasn’t quite ready to breathe a sigh of relief, but this was more or less as he and Vidre had hoped for. There was no need to beat a hasty retreat.

“I mean to expose you,” said Dominic. He held up the artifact. “I mean to drain your essence and take back what’s rightfully mine.”

“Last time we fought, I was intent on letting you live,” said Welexi. “That was a bit of foolishness I won’t repeat this time.”

Around them, the crowd thrummed with murmurs. The play was going as planned. No one was interfering in the duel. Gaelwyn was still seated on the coronation throne, with Vidre standing beside him. That was her primary role; to keep him from entering the battle. Once Welexi was engaged in the fight, Gaelwyn wouldn’t steal the limelight, but there had been a chance that he would act decisively of his own accord. All that was left was the fight itself and the ruse that followed.

“Let us see whether the months have improved your ability with a sword,” said Welexi. He spun his spear of light around, tucking it beneath his arm so that it was held rigid in front of him. The point was so sharp it seemed to fade into nothingness. Dominic put his sword up to guard, knowing that was futile against a spear that could pass straight through metal. He began shedding his armor, curling the metal away from him in order to give greater mobility. It was a show of his power, proof that he was an illustrati, but it was also part of the plan; he needed to be ready to display the wounds he would receive.

They moved with shifting footwork in a way that was familiar from Dominic’s training. Welexi was exercising caution in the fight, either because he expected some trick to be coming or because he wanted to drag the fight out for as long as was dramatically appropriate. Dominic lunged forward, trying to strike with his sword, but Welexi spun away instead of using the opportunity to strike.

“Do you honestly think that you can beat me?” asked Welexi.

“I beat Zerstor with less,” snarled Dominic. He’d practiced that snarl with Vidre a few days before. It provoked a scowl from Welexi, along with a test of Dominic’s defenses with a thrust of the spear of light. Dominic moved back, slightly off his balance, but again Welexi didn’t take the bait. Instead, he held back, seeming unconcerned with pressing the advantage.

“You had so much promise,” said Welexi. “So much potential. Did I go wrong with you somewhere, or were you simply rotten from the start? Should I have known that our first fight together, side by side, would presage the last? Should I have guessed you would one day stare me down with so much hurt and anger in your eyes?”

Dominic attacked again, swinging hard with his sword and putting every ounce of power he could into it. Welexi ducked beneath it, moving faster than Dominic had thought possible, then moved forward to counterattack. His spear slid cleanly into Dominic’s torso, straight for his beating heart.

Dominic had practiced for this. He used the domain of flesh to rend a hole in himself, tearing his own heart apart, then let the blood flow freely. The domain of light prevented the spear itself from harming him, but to anyone watching it would have the appearance of a grievous, mortal blow. Dominic dropped the artifact to the ground beside him and screamed in real pain. This was the most dangerous part of the entire plan, the moment when Welexi might refuse his prize, when he might make a second strike through the head in order to ensure the kill, when any number of things might go wrong which would force Vidre to drive her dagger through Gaelwyn’s skull and then join in an unwinnable fight. They had planned for that, if things didn’t go the right way.

Welexi moved forward quickly, picking the artifact up from the ground. He slipped it onto Dominic’s hand. But the artifact was full, not empty, containing only a single link from a peasant far from Castle Launtine, so the only work that Dominic had to do was to silence the sounds it made and produce others in the air. The tones were different, the one for taking higher and shorter. Dominic had poured his own power into the artifact and then out again over the past few days, practicing until he could mask the sound for giving with the sound for taking, making sure that the moment was instant, that the artifact took its power all at once, that there were as few ways for this to fail as possible. This was another dangerous moment, one where Welexi might see through the ruse, but Dominic’s half-lidded eyes saw a satisfied smile play across Welexi’s lips. Dominic’s role was then, for the time being, to lay on the ground and bleed. He knitted his wounds back together, leaving on the surface of the wound presenting damage to the world.

“He was reckless,” said Welexi to the watching crowd. “I was mistaken in rewarding him for that. I took the risk for courage and conviction. I took it for justice. Yet as all men, his nature was his undoing. Make no mistake, for the story of Dominic de Luca, the man I named Lightscour, is a tragedy which only now finds its conclusion.”

Dominic was on his feet from the moment he heard the first tone of the artifact. Welexi had a serene look on his face that was only just breaking. Dominic had a sword of light formed in his hand as Welexi began to open his eyes; by the time the artifact emitted the second tone, Dominic was thrusting forward. The sword of light went through Welexi’s neck and out the back, spraying blood onto the courtyard that joined Dominic’s own. Dominic grabbed the artifact from Welexi’s hand as he fell, in time for the third tone to sound. Dominic stood there, breathing heavily, knitting his flesh together while holding the artifact in his hand. Welexi gurgled blood from the flagstones of the courtyard. Dominic had done it. The plan had gone off perfectly. The artifact continued its tones, marking every link that Welexi had taken.

Gaelwyn began to scream from the throne as he stared at the scene, but Vidre was beside him with her glass dagger in hand. She drove it into his brain with enough force to flip him sideways; he was dead before he hit the ground.

The courtyard erupted in chaos shortly afterward.


Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 21: Revolutions

Previously …

It was all falling apart.

There was a flaw in the artifact which they had run into early on. When someone with a link placed their hand inside it, the artifact would draw that link out, taking the domain and standing with it, an ephemeral connection to the stories and interest of the masses. Once the artifact contained the link, it would be dispensed to whoever reached inside it next. The problem was that it was indiscriminate in what it gave and took; a person with two links would have both taken. Lothaire had confided in Faye that this would be trouble. He had talked at great length about how rules would invariably determine results, even before he had birthed the group that was now calling themselves the Allunio — the Reshapers. Lothaire thought that simple rules were the heart of society. Understanding what emerged from those rules was the difficult part.

Lothaire had been full of stories. Before he was one of the secret leaders of the Iron Kingdom, he had been a scholar and an adviser to the king. In Quishto, to the far east, a supposedly wise king had wanted to stop people from stealing. He’d made a law that if you stole something, you would have your hands cut off before being trussed up like a pig and left to die in the hot sun. The king thought that would solve things, because no one would be so foolish as to risk the punishment. Instead, the criminals became more violent. If a guard was chasing after them, they would attack with sharp knives, because they knew that the penalty for theft was just as bad as for killing a guard. That wasn’t to say that this aggression was successful all the time, but a few guards were seriously injured, and some died. After some weeks had passed, the guards didn’t chase after the thieves anymore, or they ran at a jog instead of a sprint. That made it easier for thieves to steal without facing any consequences. All of this might have been predicted in advance, if you thought about what the rules were setting up.

Lothaire had loved games. He would bring out a wooden board with a grid marked on it to play games with new sets of rules. He didn’t play himself. He would explain the setup to members of the Allunio and watch them as they explored what those rules meant in terms of strategy. Sometimes the rules resulted in what Lothaire called a disordered game. One particular setup was eventually solved such that the white player could always win by following a specific pattern of moves which would result in black’s defeat. The metaphor was a powerful one, all the more so because Lothaire rarely stated it outright. If the rules had been set up improperly, the outcome might be undesirable, even if there was nothing wrong with the rules on first blush. When Faye wanted a happy memory, she would think back to those days, of playing games while Lothaire’s wise eyes looked on, listening to him hold forth on some subject of great importance.

Of course, laws and games were only the most obvious systems of rules. Lothaire believed that rules governed the world, in one form or another. Man needed food and water every day, which meant that cities grew in places with arable land and a source of fresh water. If you looked at a map of the Iron Kingdom, stripped of all information except the topological, Lothaire thought you would be able to make a good guess at how the population would be distributed, so long as you knew the rules of fluid movement and human biology. If humans could be untethered from the need for food and water, cities would naturally move to some other place which would be predicated on some other aspect of how humans function. Society was built on rules.

The artifact had rules. Lothaire had predicted those rules would have bad results. The artifact would allow power to consolidate more than it ever had under the reign of the illustrati. In fact, because of the rules which governed the artifact, this hypothesized disorder was what Lothaire had called the default state of society. Once there were multistrati, they would be able to take the artifact with them in order to steal from weaker illustrati. The powerful would grow more powerful, using power to gain more power, until eventually power would be concentrated in the hands of either a single individual or a small cabal which was capable of resisting the urge to devour itself like a pack of ravenous wolves. There had been an argument for burying the artifacts where they’d been found, a strong argument made among Lothaire and the others, lasting for days. Yet for all that Lothaire had believed it was the rules that gave rise to the nature of the world, he also believed that man was fully capable of creating new rules, those with the capability of enduring just as long as any of the rules of nature. The artifacts would allow them to forge a new path. Society was already in a state of disorder; there seemed to be no other way to change it.

Faye could imagine someone looking in on the meeting of the Allunio in Parance and being just as baffled as someone in Quishto watching a seemingly apathetic guard strolling after a thief.

“It should be mine,” said Boniface. The artifact sat on the table in the center of the room. Boniface had taken to wearing the armor of his domains, steel and copper braided together. There were feathers woven into it, black and white ones hanging down from the pauldrons, and a rolling steam of cold air where he walked. Faye could remember when Boniface had been simply dressed, when his curly black hair hid a round, pleasant face. Now there was something mean about him.

“I brought it here,” said Gauthier. “I should have just taken it then and there, if I had imagined there were any question of where it would go.”

There were five of them now. Two months before they had been three score. They were concentrated in Parance, where once they had been spread out across the nations of the Calypso. The Iron Kingdom was suffering as a result of the civil war, but there was little that could be done about that. Most of the illustrati had fled to distant lands, or to hidden places where they might lay low until the war was over. Others had gone to Castle Launtine, to join Welexi’s side.

“We should find someone to give it to,” said Faye. “We all have too much power.”

The others stared at her as though she were mad.

“Who would you find?” asked Boniface. He was holding his tongue; normally every other word was a curse. The incredulity on his face spoke volumes on its own. “We are beset by traitors. The Ministries only care about ensuring their own survival, no matter what they might say. You’ve seen the increasingly anemic response of Legends. You’ve heard the issues that we’ve had with Trade. People are angry with us for poaching the illustrati they depended on, even though what’s really happened is that those illustrati have been driven away by the conflict. We have allies of convenience, people tentatively betting on our success, putting forward only enough that when the dust is settled, they can claim they were stalwart in their support — or if we fail, they might claim that they only did what they had to out of fear and coercion. You would give this power to one of them.”

“We have become too few,” said Faye. “We had said that we would take no more than the power of two men each.”

“Who was the first to violate that?” asked Cherise. She had beautiful hair now, with sculpted, arched eyebrows. The vanity was unbecoming on her, in the same way that Faye had always found the vanity of the illustrati unpleasant.

“It was necessary in Torland,” said Faye.

“It is necessary now,” said Gauthier. “I know you have your hesitance, but if there were anyone we could trust with the power we would already have drawn them into our inner circle.”

Faye had no response. She felt hollow inside. Lothaire would have known what to say. He would have given a grand, eloquent speech about how they needed to not lose sight of their goals. She could imagine the speech that he would give, but she knew that if it passed her lips it would come out sounding as hollow as she felt, just as it had been the few times she’d tried to paint a scene she could see vividly in her mind.

Even if they won, what would they be? Multistrati replacing illustrati was no improvement. Lothaire had seen that path clearly laid out, engraved into reality by the rules themselves. His mistake had been to think that he was more clever than the rules.

Vidre watched the manor where the Allunio were meeting. She had slipped into a disused attic after following one of the illustrati — multistrati, they called themselves now. They were on the third floor, with the curtains drawn, but Vidre would be able to watch and learn their numbers. There couldn’t be many left, but these would be the survivors, those who she and Welexi hadn’t been able to pick off. Charging in now would give her the element of surprise, but if there were more than two it would be a difficult battle.

Vidre had spent too much time in her armor. She would have stripped down to nothing if she felt like she had the luxury. She smelled offensive and her hair was greasy. What she needed was a hot bath with copious amounts of soap, but she didn’t consider anywhere in Parance to be safe enough for that. All their allies had been extracted to Castle Launtine. Everyone else of importance had fled to the countryside, hiding until the dust of the civil war had cleared. There were perhaps a dozen illustrati left in Parance, fewer than there had been at any time in the last hundred years. Some historian would probably make note of that.

Vidre stretched and looked down at the artifact beside her. The thing still frightened her, even though she’d been carrying this one around for days on end. They had eight in their possession now, though that was more than they would ever need. Welexi held the others back at Castle Launtine, while Vidre kept this one with her.

She had drained three of the Allunio so far. The cumulative standing had made her faster and stronger than she had ever been before, even if her individual control of the new domains was weak. Glass was still what she favored, for reasons she told herself went beyond sentimentality. She’d had a lifetime of experience shaping glass, making it do her bidding, and thinking up new ways that she could use it. If she ever had some downtime, she would have to think seriously about whether daggers of glass still made sense. From the perspective of a bard, a single theme was ideal, but it was possible that she could change her costume to incorporate some of her new aspects. Crafting stories seemed far away now, as it often did when she was at war.

There was a slight chill in the air that bothered her for a moment before she realized that she no longer needed to worry about cold. Heat was the strongest of the new domains she had taken. All it took was a mere thought for her to warm up. She hadn’t had time to converse with the multistrati she’d taken it from, so Vidre had no clue who it had originally belonged to. More likely than not, it had been one of the illustrati who worked the forges of the Iron Kingdom, or heated water to boiling for the steam engines. Without knowing whose it had been, Vidre had no way to keep the legend going; the power would fade with time. It already seemed weaker than it had been a few days before. If the legend had been built artificially by the Ministry of Legends, it would erode quickly. For now though, it kept her pleasantly warm.

It was nice to imagine that this adventure in the Iron Kingdom would fade away as well, just another story among the many that littered her past. That seemed improbable. The artifact was too powerful. It might have been one thing if Welexi intended to collect every copy of it and throw them in the ocean, but he had displayed only a single-minded fascination with what the Harbingers had created. It was trouble. Perhaps more trouble than the civil war.

The wait was interminable. She wished that she had picked up the domain of sound so that she might be able to hear through the windows and find out what they were saying. The idea of a truce had been floating around Castle Launtine the last time Vidre had been there, but Welexi was firmly against it. He saw the detente in Torland as a resounding failure that couldn’t be allowed to happen again. Without being able to listen in on their conversations, Vidre had no way of knowing whether the Allunio might be amenable to a truce in return, and she didn’t want to push back against Welexi.

She perked up slightly when she saw someone approaching the manor. He had darker skin than was usual in the Iron Kingdom, but he would have passed a cursory look from the guards — those that were still at their posts, at any rate. He was wearing peasant’s clothing, with dark, curly hair was was cropped close to his skull. It wasn’t until he turned to the side that she recognized him as Dominic.

Their small party had landed on the coast to the north, anchoring the yacht out to sea before taking a small boat to shore. The yacht itself was sailing away by the time they had their boat flipped over on the sand; Tellula, one of the three illustrati that the Bone Warden had sent with him, took a half hour to cover it with a thick layer of rock.

“What if something happens to you?” Dominic asked her. “How will we return?”

“We have resources,” replied Finola. Her domain was ink. She had tattooed herself from wrists to throat, though she now had leather armor on that covered most of it. Neither of these women had shown a particular desire to talk to him, in part because they were something approaching family. The man didn’t seem to talk at all.

They had ventured south to Parance, moving slowly and stopping often, especially to converse with the locals. They heard stories as they went, though Dominic didn’t credit most of them. Quill was the new king of the Iron Kingdom, an illustrati of ink who would usher in a new era of peace through diplomacy, wielding the pen just as his father had wielded the sword. It was an overwrought narrative that Dominic thought was likely to be Welexi’s work. There was another story about the day the Minister of Legends had been killed, mostly involving the innocents that had lost their lives as a result of the frantic escape. The Minister of Legends himself was given short shrift in the story as it was relayed, but Dominic couldn’t tell if that was how the conspiracy wanted it or if that was just how it had been filtered by the common folk. It made sense that they would care less about an important man; it was difficult to imagine yourself as a hand of the king but easy to imagine walking past one of those tall buildings and being sliced open by falling glass. The conspiracy had a name now — the Allunio, the Reshapers, an unimaginative callback to some of the oldest stories about the making of the world.

The worst thing Dominic listened to was the story of how Lightscour had betrayed Welexi.

“They stood on top of Castle Launtine,” said the innkeeper. “They’d just found out the Iron King was dead, having routed those Allunio bastards right quick, tearing through them together, a team, like Darchere and Lummi, light and shadow playing across that grand courtyard. Together there was nothing that could stop them, but they couldn’t put the Iron King back together, could they? So they went up to the top of the castle together and stood there on the ramparts, looking out on the kingdom and trying to figure out their next move. Only, Lightscour knew that it was now or never. His ego had been growing the whole time they’d been traveling companions. He’d coveted Welexi’s fame from the start. He stepped back, just a touch, and drove his blade forward to stab Welexi. It was cowardice, hubris, and betrayal all rolled into one. For all that he thought he was cock of the walk, his aim wasn’t true. He slid that sword of inky black shadow straight through Welexi, but did no more than pierce a lung.”

The innkeeper was watching the stony faces in front of him and smiling like they were egging him on. “They fought with swords clashing, back and forth across the parapets. Welexi could have killed him in an instant, even with only one working lung, but the boy was like a son to him. Welexi never had children, he was always traveling and too much of a gentleman to leave any bastards behind. Lightscour was supposed to be the Sunhawk’s legacy, his rightful heir, if only he could have waited. They fought for a half hour with neither landing a decisive hit, the Sunhawk because he didn’t want to and Lightscour because he couldn’t. Finally the Queen of Blades comes up to see what’s going on and begs them to stop fighting. Once she saw how it was going, she started begging for Lightscour’s life, openly weeping for the first time in years.” He grinned at Dominic. “Of all the men she’d had, it was a boy not much older than you that broke through the hard mask she’d made for herself.”

“In the end it came down to exhaustion. Lightscour couldn’t score a hit. His sword work became sloppy. He spent more energy than Welexi did, until eventually Welexi knocked him to the ground and put the tip of that spear of light right at the traitor’s throat. ‘Surrender,’ he said. ‘We might still repair things between us.’ But the street rat they’d picked up in Gennaro was too hot-blooded for that, too consumed with the image of himself. He turned to his domain and beckoned it forward, until the shadow touched his very soul. He gave himself over to it, until his physical body began to melt away. When Welexi saw what was happening he tried to blast it away with light, but by then it was too late and the transformation was complete. They say he’s still out there, a man made of shadow, ready to exact his misguided revenge.”

The Bone Warden had spies in the Iron Kingdom. Dominic shouldn’t have been surprised.

They met their contact in a small cottage outside Parance, one hidden away in a copse of trees. The woman inside had the same dark hair and pale skin of Finola and Tellula. Dominic had no trouble imagining that this woman was another of the Bone Warden’s many descendants. She didn’t seem happy to see them.

“I’m not surprised that she sent someone,” said the woman. No one had given Dominic the courtesy of an introduction. “What I want to know is what aim she had in mind.”

“No aim,” said Finola. “We’re here to advance her interests in whatever way we see fit. She suspected that events might have progressed at a fast clip, fast enough that discretion would be required. We need information.”

“It’s hard to say,” replied the woman. “The Iron King was killed by Welexi, or Welexi found the Iron King just as the Allunio murdered him, or the Iron King had been dead for years, or … well, the stories get wilder and less credible from there. Perhaps there never was an Iron King, or he’s in hiding, or some other such thing. Welexi has gone insane, or revealed an insanity that was there all along, or perhaps Gaelwyn has descended back into his vile experiments, or Vidre is taking every man she can find to bed, or none of that and it’s all lies spread around to discredit them. The Allunio have some artifact that allows them to steal the domain of anyone they touch, or maybe it’s Vidre who has one, or they both do, or it’s all a story that got spun out of control and the Allunio only have some secret techniques they bought from Maskoy. There are too many people telling too many stories to make much sense of it. I’ve been in the city enough to give some credit to the possibility that there’s something involving the Harbingers.”

“What is the disposition of the ministries?” asked Dominic.

The woman stared at him. “You’re not a relative.” She looked to Tellula. “And he’s not hired muscle?”

“This is the man once known as Lightscour,” said Tellula. “Dominic de Luca, this is Etain.”

“The ministries are in holding,” said Etain, as though Dominic’s legend were meaningless. “Everyone is waiting to see who will win, whether they admit it or not. From what I can gather, the Allunio had been using the Iron King’s authority, whether he was already dead or not, but with Welexi saying that the Iron King is no more, that lever’s got nothing supporting it anymore. Parance moved on the Iron King’s authority. Now it’s ground to a halt. It’s terrible for trade; people began to starve a week after the news broke, because no one wanted to ship food into the city when there wasn’t a guarantee that they’d get paid.”

“We need one of the Harbinger artifacts for great-grandmother, at least for a start,” said Finola. “The conspiracy has one. How do we get it?”

“You’re in luck,” said Etain. “One of my informants gave me the location of their hideout just yesterday.”

“Dominic,” said Finola. “This is your part in the plan. You know someone in the Allunio. We’ll try diplomacy first. Talk to them, find out their aims, and find out where we can get an artifact.”

“I know a single person,” said Dominic. “We have no guarantee that she’s still alive. I don’t know whether they’ll give me a warm reception if some terrible fate has befallen her.”

“This is your part in the plan,” repeated Finola.

“I know,” replied Dominic. “Tell me where to go.”

Parance was different. The streets were empty and the posters that had hung on the walls were now mostly torn down. There was a smell that accompanied the emptiness, a lingering, rotting stench that hung over the city. Dominic couldn’t account for the smell; by the account that Etain had given, most people had fled the city to seek refuge elsewhere. The fights had been between illustrati, two or more people with incredible power battling it out but all the same, small in number. There were few signs of these battles, only a charred wall or shattered cobblestones. For the most part, the city looked the same as it had before, only devoid of people. Dominic felt eyes watching him as he walked though. The city was less deserted than it looked.

The Bone Warden’s people were following him. They had escorted him to the edge of the city then sent him on his way, but he wasn’t under the delusion that he was anything but bait. They planned to use him to get inside Faye’s organization, or to force Vidre to make an appearance, possibly both if they could manage it. He was expendable. They’d never treated him as anything but that.

The manor he’d been told to go to had the same haunted feeling that the city did. The curtains were drawn on all the windows and the wrought iron gates were halfway open. Several of the windows were broken as well. If the illustrati had fled or been killed, this house had probably belonged to one of them. If the commoners had been looting, this was one of the first places that would have been hit. If not for the very faint sound of voices drifting through the shattered windows, Dominic might have thought that the manor was abandoned. He steeled himself for a confrontation, knowing that he couldn’t possibly win any physical contest against illustrati, then knocked on the door.

It was Faye who answered.

“Our third meeting,” she said with a sigh. “Do come in.”

She seemed to have aged years in the space of two months. She still held that same self-assurance that she’d had in both their prior meetings, but if she was not broken then she was at least bent. There were bags beneath her eyes and she walked with a slight stoop. She wore a tight dress that showed signs of reinforcement. It was halfway to being armor.

Dominic stepped inside, where Faye appraised him.

“They’re telling stories about you,” said Faye. “We have no way of knowing whether it’s a deception. I thought that perhaps you had tried to make your move against Welexi and been killed, but the others thought it more likely that the whole story was a lie concocted to raise your standing to ever greater heights. A rooftop battle, master against apprentice, while the love interest looks on? It was too picturesque to be true, we all agreed on that. We just couldn’t agree on who had created the story.”

“Welexi stole my power,” said Dominic. He considered for a moment before saying more. “They have the artifact. One of them, if Lothaire was telling the truth about there being multiple.” Faye seemed to flinch at the name.

“You’ve come at a fortuitous time,” said Faye. She started down the hallway, then paused for a moment. “If you’re lying to me, or mean to betray me, know that I have more power now than when we last met.”

Dominic nodded.

When they came into the sitting room, he was met with cold stares. There were four people arrayed around a table, with a Harbinger artifact sitting in the middle. Their bodies were all turned towards it, even as they watched Dominic. Their clothing was almost typical for illustrati, though the make of it was less fine than Dominic had come to expect. It was common for the illustrati to be clad in their domains; here, multiple domains were represented. Faye was the only one among them that could pass for a normal citizen of the Iron Kingdom.

“This is Lightscour,” said Faye. “He will be the one taking that power.”

“Hell if he will,” said a man with feathered armor.

“Welexi’s protege?” asked a woman with arched eyebrows.

“It needs to stay within the group,” said another woman.

“We are nothing if we concentrate our power!” shouted Faye. Her voice was enhanced, just as Corta’s had been, loud enough to bring everyone else up short. “We would be no better than the people we’re fighting against! We might as well go join them if this is the path we’ve chosen to take!” The room was deathly silent after her outburst. It was so quiet that it had to be the effect of her domain. Faye slowly let sound bleed back into the room, so that Dominic could hear his own heart beating again. “Am I the only one who remembers why we started this? The iniquity of the illustrati, the problems in the balance of power? Is it I alone who still thinks of Lothaire?”

“You’ve built up a story in your head about him,” said the man in feathered armor. “You listened in on conversations and saw some spark of naivete that you thought mirrored your own, back when this was innocent fun.”

“You don’t know me so well as that, Boniface,” said Faye through clenched teeth.

“Perhaps,” he replied. “Lothaire knew you though. He told me to beware your idealism. There’s a power in those who truly believe, he said, but that’s no argument against practicality.” He lunged forward, toward the artifact on the table.

The other man moved forward at the same time, swinging a fist with a grimace on his face. One of the women, the one with arched eyebrows, moved forward to grab at the artifact as the men grappled each other, but she was kicked to the side by one of the other women. They moved quickly, with the speed of illustrati, using force that would have broken Dominic’s bones if he tried to get between them. The thought crossed his mind as he watched them fight amongst themselves, but Faye laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. Her face had fallen; she made no attempt to stop the melee.

The fight didn’t stop until the artifact began emitting its low tones, four of them in all. Dominic had only heard it do one at once, but from the triumphant way that the illustrati pulled his hand from it, he could guess at what it meant; four links, taken all in one fell swoop. The man had a feral, triumphant look in his eyes, the kind that Dominic remembered seeing on Vidre’s face when her dagger was dripping red with blood.

“Well that’s settled,” he hissed.

“We are ruined,” said Faye. They stood at the entryway of the manor. She held the spent artifact in her hand. Her face was hollow. “We have failed. You came to us too late, but I don’t think it would have been any different if you had arrived earlier. If the pressure on us had been less overwhelming, if you had succeeded in killing Welexi —”

“I never tried,” said Dominic.

“Oh,” replied Faye. She closed her eyes.

“What comes next?” asked Dominic.

“After ruin?” asked Faye. “I have no earthly idea. Mere survival, I suppose, if we can figure out what that entails.” She pursed her lips with her eyes still closed. “You should go.”

“I came here to help,” said Dominic. “To see what could be done.”

“There’s no help needed,” said Faye. She finally opened her eyes. They were limned with tears.

“The Bone Warden sent me,” Dominic confessed. This brought no reaction. “She has an interest in the artifacts. If we could get the artifacts into the right hands, people who wield power softly instead of monsters like the Iron King, maybe we can mitigate the effects of them being unleashed. If we want to change how the world works, it might still be possible, even if the Allunio have failed.”

Faye shook her head. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t trust a woman like that to wield power justly.” She sighed, long and low. “I’m surprised you’re still talking as though changing the world might be possible, after what we saw in there. Perhaps it’s because you didn’t know those people like I did, didn’t hear the same high-minded speeches, or see the enthusiasm they once had. We were going to be the successors to the old ways. We talked about the line that would be drawn in the history books, how they would separate the old era from the new. Perhaps it’s better that you were never part of it.” She shook her head. “You should go.”

“There’s a cottage to the north,” said Dominic. “Follow the Miller’s Way, it’ll be hidden in a copse. If you want to talk to the Bone Warden’s people, you might find an alliance there.”

“I didn’t say we were ruined lightly,” said Faye. “We cannot recover. In truth, we were doomed from the start, unable to recover from the moment we began. Go.”

Dominic went.

He had expected the Bone Warden’s people to leap out of hiding and grill him on what he had discussed the moment he was clear of the manor, but the city was silent and still, just as it had been. He tried to put an argument into order, one that would convince them that something needed to be done about Welexi, but it was looking like his former mentor was only a few days from securing the Iron Kingdom. The Bone Warden seemed unlikely to contest the result; just as the Iron Kingdom’s ministries were, she would sit back and wait for a winner to be declared, playing defensively until then. Dominic heard a sound from behind him and turned, ready to explain, but instead of Tellula or Finola, or even their silent partner, Dominic found himself facing a woman armored in glass from head to toe.

“You’re quite inconsiderate,” said Vidre. “I saved your life and you came walking right back toward danger.”

Dominic stared at her. She seemed taller than he remembered, though perhaps it was the armor. The shards of glass were sharper, each edge reflecting sunlight. She was no less beautiful for the time that had passed, even if she had been slaughtering dozens of people in the meantime, as the stories suggested. Her voice was casual, overly so, as though this were just a matter of happenstance. That had always been a sign of anger.

“You’re still working with him,” said Dominic.

“Yes,” replied Vidre. “And who is it that you’re working with?”

“You were always the cloak and dagger to his shining breastplate and gleaming sword,” said Dominic. “But if he’s not the paragon of heroism, why stay with him? What binds you so closely? In the beginning I thought it was about convenience, that maybe you were just increasing your fame, but … is that all there is to you? You stay with him so that you can share the cost of bards? So that you can remain one of the most powerful women in the world?”

Vidre calmly pulled a glass dagger from her armor. “Tell me who you’re working with.”

“Calligae took me to the Bone Warden. I sailed back here on one of her ships, with a few of her people,” said Dominic. “And if you’re here, then there’s no point in pretending I didn’t meet with the Allunio. I don’t know that either of them would want me telling you, but I’m tired of lying to people. Vidre, the Allunio aren’t bad people. Or at least, I don’t think they started out that way. They just wanted a world were rulers couldn’t live in a narcotic stupor, where kings couldn’t buy young girls to marry —”

“This is where I say they tried to assassinate me and you say that we’re not so different given all the people I’ve killed,” said Vidre with clenched teeth. “We’ve cast our lots. This is pointless. How many of the Allunio were in that house?”

“You saved my life because you knew that Welexi was in the wrong,” said Dominic.

“I’m losing my patience,” said Vidre. “How many? What domains?”

“There’s no audience here,” said Dominic. “It’s just you and me.”

“Better men than you have tried to redeem me,” said Vidre. Her voice had a hard edge to it. “Better men have thought they saw a broken bird that needed mending, or a whore they could somehow purify, or tried to convince me of the one true path to salvation.”

“That’s not what I’m trying to do,” said Dominic. He felt for the patience he’d been forced to cultivate while he was paralyzed. “You’re not pleased with this life. You’re not pleased with Welexi. I’m not even saying that you need to change, just that we can talk to each other as friends. There’s no need for posturing, not with me. I already know who you are.”

“You betrayed us,” said Vidre. The dagger hadn’t left her hand. “The enemy came to you and you said nothing.”

“I know,” said Dominic. “I’m sorry.”

Vidre hesitated. Dominic imagined that she was going to say that an apology wasn’t enough. “I’m sorry too.”

“Then we can find somewhere to sit and talk?” asked Dominic.

“No,” said Vidre. “I’ve got a war to win. After that, I need to talk with Welexi. Maybe afterward, I’ll try to find you.” She turned away and ran, fast enough that calling after her would have been pointless.

Faye sat at the entrance of the manor, holding one of the artifacts in her hand and only half listening to the ongoing discussion in the other room. They were fighting again, but with words instead of fists. Gauthier had won the battle for the artifact and now he was stronger than any of them. He was going to make a play for a position of leadership over the five of them. It was possible that was what he was doing now. Faye couldn’t bring herself to care. The inner circle would contract sometime in the next few days, following some question of loyalty or personal dispute that escalated quickly towards violence. Five would become four. It was predictable, readily visible in her mind’s eye. They were finished. She had told Dominic that all that remained was survival. She wasn’t sure that she had the will for that. Lothaire would have told her to keep going, to keep her goals in mind and move forward with deliberation, but her goals had been shattered before her eyes. Most likely they had been shattered weeks before and she was only now realizing it.

There was a knock on the door. Faye turned to her first domain, the domain of sound, and listened closely. She expected it to be Dominic, but the rhythm of the heart was different, not to mention positioned lower. She hadn’t been paying enough attention, hadn’t thought to listen for footsteps. There was no sound of armor, but that meant nothing when the person wasn’t moving. It was as Boniface had said; they had no allies, not anymore. Faye placed her hand on the doorknob, ready to speak with whoever it was. She wasn’t in any condition to fight, not with such a deep pit of apathy and despair.

She had only opened the door partway when a gauntleted fist came crashing forward. If it had been properly aimed, she would have died then and there. Instead she was showered with splinters and pushed down to the ground. The bits of wood stung at her skin. It took a dazed moment for her to realize that they were burning.

It was Vidre. She paused only momentarily, long enough for Faye to see that the glass armor was glowing bright orange with waves of heat rolling off of it. Vidre didn’t have her famed daggers in her hand, just molten glass in the form of long claws.

Faye screamed, pouring all the power of her domain behind it. Vidre staggered, but only for a brief second before moving forward. Faye’s bodily domains were useless against molten glass from head to toe; there was no way to grapple, no way to force her fingers through to flesh. All she had was sound, but Vidre didn’t seem to care about that. Her ears were fully covered, permitting no sound to enter, so the only option would be for Faye to amplify her screams so that Vidre’s heart would burst, even beneath the layers of armor.

Faye never got the chance. A long claw of molten glass sank itself into her stomach. There was a plume of acrid smoke as her organs were boiled. The reinforcing steel in her armor was doing nothing for her; the glass had slipped between the ribs of steel and now it was burning ribs of bone. Vidre’s face couldn’t be seen behind the hot glass helm she wore.

There was a noise as a bolt of lightning stuck Vidre squarely in the chest. She shrugged it off as though she were immune, then revealed shortly afterward that she was, as her own lightning began to course and swirl around her molten glass armor. She withdrew her claw from Faye’s midsection and darted towards the others. Faye couldn’t move to look. She could only hear the screams of agony, screams that she would have echoed if her diaphragm and lungs weren’t punctured clean through.

It was Kendrick Eversong that saved her from passing out. His story was still going strong in Torland, even after two months had passed. Access to the domain of blood meant there was no need for her to die from blood loss, no need to endure the dizziness of her blood pressure failing her. She tried to stand up, to move, even through the pain. It took quick, sloppy repairs with the domain of flesh for her to be able to move at all. Vidre was fighting the others in the next room over. That they were still fighting meant that Vidre was winning. At four against one, they should have been able to kill her, but she had domains of her own, standing stacked on top of standing, just as they did. Any one of the Allunio that had fallen in the last eight weeks might have added their strength to hers.

The molten claw had dug deep into Faye. It had touched her spine. She couldn’t move her legs. She had the domain of flesh though, a poor mimic of Gaelwyn’s, but capable of miracles all the same. She didn’t need a spine, so long as she had that domain. She could stand with only that, no need for nerves at all. Her legs kicked helplessly the first time she tried, but then with a push against the wall she was able to lurch to her feet. When she did, hot liquid spilled from inside her and onto the ground, coating the front of her dress. She nearly threw up, but there was no time for that, even with the smell of her own boiled intestines in the air. She spared half a thought toward trying to help the fight, but a single glance showed that Cherise’s head was laying in the hallway, beautiful hair coiled around the burnt stump of her neck. Even if Faye offered her meager assistance, they would not win.

Faye staggered to the door, stopping only long enough to pick up the artifact before heading out into Parance.

They did Dominic the courtesy of pretending that they hadn’t followed him. He was sure that they had heard his entire conversation with Vidre. Tellula asked him for his report nonetheless. Perhaps they thought he was stupid enough to try to lie to them. He repeated his conversations back to them, as faithfully as he could.

“It’s good there’s to be a victor,” said Finola.

“Perhaps,” replied Tellula. “It depends on who ends up ruling here.”

“You can’t trust Welexi,” said Dominic. “How many domains do you think he’s claimed for himself? How much has his standing grown by now?”

“We’re not in the habit of murdering people for crimes they might have committed,” said Tellula. “You’re also not in a position to make demands.”

“It’s not a demand,” said Dominic. “I’m only giving advice.”

“Somewhat less advice would be appreciated,” said Finola.

“They’re positioning Quill for king,” said Etain. “I don’t like that. I don’t think our dear great-grandmother would either. He’s an idiot, palatable to the masses but not much more.”

“We were never heavy hitters,” said Finola. “The four of us combined probably wouldn’t have stood a chance against Welexi even before whatever the Harbinger artifacts have done to him.”

“He has my domain,” said Dominic. “Likely others.”

“A civil war is the opportune time to make our own man king,” said Finola. “But I doubt that we have the power to accomplish it. We might be able to talk Welexi around, if he’d listen to reason.”

“Quill will have lost his power,” said Tellula. “That’s why he disappeared. My guess would be he’s a stopgap. Someone to keep attention elsewhere. He might treat with us. The new king will be much better off if he’s got the Bone Warden’s backing.” She looked to the silent man they’d brought with him, the one Dominic had heard perhaps three words from in the entire time they’d been traveling. “All the Iron King had were bastards. Easy enough to claim someone convenient was a bastard, isn’t it?”

There was a knock on the door, the sound of scraped knuckles. The Bone Warden’s people moved into position, ready for a fight, but when the door slid open they stared in shock.

“I am dying,” said Faye. Her hair was wild and matted. One hand clung to her stomach, where viscera had leaked out. The other held a Harbinger artifact, its existence pressing on the mind and announcing itself to anyone whose eyes landed upon it. Her voice sounded strange; she wasn’t using her mouth to speak. “I come with an offer for the Bone Warden.” She stumbled forward, into an empty chair that one of the women had been sitting in. “A trade,” she said. “I give this artifact in return for Dominic’s freedom from whatever scheme he’s wrapped up in. Dominic, I give you my powers in exchange for bringing order to this world.”

“She’s the walking dead,” said Tellula. Her mouth was agape. “She’s keeping herself together with her domains alone, the moment she stops to sleep …”

“Do you accept?” asked Faye.

“Yes,” said Dominic.

The Bone Warden’s people exchanged glances.

“I would ask you to leave,” said Faye, making the noise appear from thin air. She wasn’t breathing; it was possible that she’d permanently lost that ability. Her piercing eyes were on Tellula. “So that you would have no chance to steal from Dominic before I make him more powerful than you. Know that even now I could slaughter you all. Try to steal from me directly and the noise I make will be more than enough to kill you.”

“Not without killing him too,” said Tellula.

“So be it,” replied Faye. The sounds came into the air from around her. “I am in pain. I am dying. I could prolong it by a day, two at most.”

The Bone Warden’s people shared a look again.

“Deal,” said Tellula. “We will take our leave until the transfer is complete. Dominic, you are released from your bond to us, but this development will need to be discussed.”

They filed out of the small cottage without another word. Faye watched Dominic the entire time, holding the Harbinger artifact close to her. When they had closed the door behind her, Faye leaned forward, watching Dominic closely.

“I don’t know that I can bring order to the world,” said Dominic. “Better people than me have tried.”

“I need to believe I have a legacy,” said Faye. “That my life was not a complete waste. Take this power. Go into hiding, become a despot, die in horrible agony when you next cross paths with Welexi, do anything you please. Just lie to me. Tell me in my last moments that I am doing a good thing.”

“Okay,” said Dominic. “I’ll bring order to the world. Or at least I’ll try.”

Faye laid the artifact on the table and slid her hand inside it. By the time it was done beeping five times, Faye was dead. Dominic took her hand from the artifact and replaced it with his own. The surge of power was instant, a feeling of not just health and vitality, not just speed and strength, but a fullness of the senses as well. He could feel his blood thumping in his veins. He could feel every fiber of his muscles. His hearing changed completely, so that every sound was clear and distinct, from the smallest creak of the cottage to the sounds of his own body. He was more powerful than he’d been as Lightscour. He wished that he had asked Faye more questions, gotten some details about the people whose legends now provided him with strength.

The door to the cottage swung open slowly. Tellula and Finola looked in at Dominic.

“The artifact is yours,” said Dominic. “Take it to the Bone Warden.”

“And you?” asked Tellula. “Where should we tell her you’re off to?”

“Castle Launtine,” said Dominic. He looked at Faye. “To try to make the world a better place.”

Next …

Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 20: The Bone Warden

Previously …

Vidre should have just watched. She had turned away before knowing whether Calligae would act, before knowing whether Dominic would be saved. She had even said a prayer. It was nothing more than an ill-timed bout of maudlin sentimentality. She would learn what had happened later anyway, once she went looking for his corpse. It would have been better to watch, to remove any doubt and allow her to focus on other things. She tried to take her mind off of Dominic’s unknown fate and watch Welexi instead.

Welexi intended to keep Castle Launtine. Their assault had driven all of the staff away, not to mention the dozen illustrati they’d killed and the score of guards they’d put to the sword. The central question was now who had the legitimate right to rule the Iron Kingdom. The Ministries were located in Parance, but power had always been held by the Iron King himself at Castle Launtine. That had been true for as long as most people had been alive. Keeping the castle meant keeping a claim on legitimacy. To do that effectively meant calling back the common people who had been driven away.

“It puts us at risk,” said Vidre. “We’ll have to be wary of assassins in the night for as long as we stay here. We have no money to pay guards. Even if we had the money to pay guards, we would have no way to ensure that they were loyal to us.”

“We’ll plunder the Iron King’s personal vault,” said Welexi. “If I recall correctly, it was some distance from the powder room and should be intact.”

“On whose authority?” asked Vidre. “It might be one thing if we were backing a particular bastard for the Iron King’s throne. We’re free agents, working on behalf of the idea that there should be a king or queen instead of whatever they were trying to put in his place.” She gestured to Lothaire’s unmoving body. He was unconscious and drooling slightly, with the Harbinger ring still on his finger.

“We already assaulted this castle in the name of the divine right of rule,” said Welexi. “Taking money is nothing in comparison to that.”

“Then who are we handing power to?” asked Vidre.

“The rightful ruler,” said Welexi. “There are papers to look through here; I believe that the Iron King kept careful track of his bastards. It is well possible that if this conspiracy did not destroy the evidence entirely, we might find concrete evidence of who is meant to sit the throne.”

“Do you understand we’re up against the Ministry of Legends?” asked Vidre. “We need to get the story straight. We need to be backing a real, actual person instead of a nebulous principle. We need it today, tomorrow at the latest, because whoever gets moving first has the advantage. I’m sure our names are already smeared thanks to the attack at the Ministry.”

“I will look through the papers then,” said Welexi. “Begin thinking about what we might tell the bards.”

It was going to be more complicated than that, of course. Vidre made her way back to the Iron King’s bed chambers, both to give herself time to think and so that she could be away from Welexi for a while. Of the two of them, Welexi was better at framing his actions; it was something that he did without any seeming thought, twisting around what had happened so that it was presented in the best possible light. It was one of the reasons that he was revered the world around as a hero. He also acted heroically, Vidre had never denied that, but it was his gift for presentation that had put him so far ahead of everyone else. Someone — one of Vidre’s early lovers, whose bed she’d shared when she’d first come aboard the Zenith — had called it a pathology of presentation. The phrasing had always stuck with her. The concept of a story was like a sickness to the man.

Presentation wouldn’t be enough. They would need to build up lies, both about what they had done and what had happened. They needed to be acting on the authority of their chosen heir from the moment that they were assaulted in the Ministry of Legends, not after the fact. It needed to be a story which would survive scrutiny.

Vidre got to work, happy to have something to occupy her.

The sound of the chimes was slowly driving Vidre mad. The artifact had two tones, one it gave off when a link was taken and a second it gave when the link was given. The first was slightly lower than the second. When they’d begun the day, Vidre had taken some amusement from trying to figure out which notes they were hitting. She’d had music lessons as part of her extensive tutoring, as music was the sort of thing that any noblewoman was supposed to have a passing interest in, if not a complete mastery. Vidre had a pleasant singing voice that she rarely used. She hummed along with the artifact as it made its tone, trying to narrow down the exact pitch. After she was satisfied with that, the sounds of the artifact continued on, wearing at her nerves.

They’d pulled in the commoners from the village that sat below Castle Launtine. Many of them had worked at the castle prior to the change in ownership and now wished to return; all claimed ignorance of what had been going on. Welexi had flown down into the village and gave a rousing speech, proclaiming that the Iron King had died some weeks ago and that the Sunhawk had personally worked against a cabal of people intent on usurping the royal line. All that was true enough. Vidre had expected that the response would be anemic, even with the announcement of increased pay, but the people had come all the same.

Loyalty was an issue. There was a very real possibility that one of the illustrati that fled would try to come back to the castle, especially if they heard that workers were being taken on. There was no way to lay claim to the castle without guards and servants though, so Welexi had proposed a solution.

The commoners came into the large dining room beside the throne room one by one. Each was made to place their hand into the artifact, which gave off its low tone. Then the artifact was placed on the hand of Welexi, Gaelwyn, or Vidre, giving off its second, higher tone. This was repeated for every person they meant to hire on. It wouldn’t stop anyone from sneaking in, nor would it stop an assassin with a mundane blade, but it at least ensured that no illustrati were secretly working for them. They would have to sleep with their doors latched firmly shut, always planning on someone trying to slit their throats in their sleep, but that was a necessary cost of their new position.

“How many more?” asked Vidre as she withdrew her hand from the artifact. She rubbed her wrist, though there was no sensation involved. The young man she’d taken the link from looked uneasy as he left the room. The young man had no standing, so the link would do little, but he would ever after be deprived of even the chance of becoming an illustrati.

“A dozen,” said Welexi. “Are you so eager to depart?”

“I should have left yesterday,” said Vidre. “We still have no clue what’s going on in Parance. Better that I set the record straight sooner rather than later.”

“You’ll be safe on your own?” asked Welexi. He seemed worried on her behalf, but that was part of the character he played.

“I’ll be fine,” said Vidre. “It’s only scouting for now, with perhaps a few visits to whatever allies we might still have. My experience in going unnoticed is considerable.” She had demurred when Gaelwyn had offered to change her face, saying that she wanted some proof of her identity in case she needed to leverage it. In truth, she wanted to keep Gaelwyn’s hands as far from her as possible. She had never enjoyed the sensation of his alterations. Recent developments had amplified her distrust of him, for all that they were still working together.

They had taken Lothaire’s ring from him. Welexi had immediately put it on, defying all sense of caution, then declared that it didn’t seem to have any effect. He still wore it though, perhaps for the same reason that Lothaire had; it was mightily impressive just for the effect it had on the mind, a nagging insistence that came whenever it was in view. They had put the artifact on Lothaire’s hand after that, in order to deprive him of whatever powers he had, but it hadn’t made its tone. Welexi had concluded that Lothaire didn’t have a domain — that his link had already been taken from him. Vidre had immediately seen that this was a power in its own right, a way for the old man to mark himself as serving the cause above all else.

Lothaire had still not woken up. Gaelwyn had said there was some difficulty with the process. He had spewed medical terminology when Vidre inquired further, enough to let Vidre know that he was lying to her. Lothaire hadn’t woken up because Gaelwyn didn’t want Lothaire to wake up. The reason was obvious enough; Lothaire knew things he shouldn’t have, enough to drive further wedges between them. The only reason to keep him alive was that he might let slip some useful information, but he was dangerous when he was talking. Lothaire knew something about Vidre’s father, something that Gaelwyn had thought would substantially change her attitude. Vidre had always thought that if someone was keeping a secret because they thought you would be angry if you knew it, that was reason enough to be angry, but she found herself not pushing too hard. It was a weakness that she recognized in herself, but not one that she was eager to correct.

Six Weeks Later

Dominic was miserable. His anger and despair had faded as the weeks went by, leaving only a pit of anticipation that had turned into a sour knot. He hadn’t moved of his own volition in six weeks. He hadn’t spoken in six weeks, though he and Calligae had gotten quite good at communication. Calligae liked to talk, both about the life that he’d led and the stories that he’d heard over the years. The conversation never strayed toward names familiar to Dominic, which he imagined must have been by design. Calligae was a friend to Vidre and Welexi, but he never mentioned them, not even in passing. The topic hadn’t been broached since the day that Calligae had caught Dominic.

“I’ll be happy not to have to be your caretaker,” said Calligae. He had booked passage for them aboard a ship, paying with a promise and a demonstration of his power. Calligae could whip up winds around him, strong enough that he could prevent a small ship from being becalmed. The crew had taken the old illustrati for a good omen; they thought that Dominic was an invalid, which wasn’t far from the truth. Calligae did everything for him. Providing food and water was the least it. Whenever Dominic had to go to the bathroom, Calligae had to pull down his pants and position him over a chamberpot. In the beginning it had been utter humiliation; now it was simply an unpleasant part of the rhythm of the day.

Dominic wasn’t above deck when they sailed into port. He was only brought up once the ship had docked, which meant that he missed the grand view. Calligae had told him it was nothing special; where Torland was an island nation dominated by a large mountain with Laith’s visage carved into the side of it, Xeo was flat and rocky, barely fit for human life and incapable of leaving anyone in a state of awe.

Calligae hired a litter which took them to the palace. He seemed cheery enough, though he was spending the last of his money. Dominic hadn’t thought about money during his entire time with Vidre and Welexi. He hadn’t needed to. Even before then, he’d gotten so much money from the races that it was almost meaningless, so long as he wasn’t being too extravagant. Now Calligae was paying mostly with his reputation and expending what little resources he had in order to get them to someone who might actually help. Calligae looked out the window of the litter that carried them with a faint smile on his face. Dominic couldn’t help but recall the trip he’d taken with Welexi, back when this had all started. It left an unpleasant feeling in his gut.

When they arrived at the palace, Calligae pulled Dominic out and carried him over his shoulder.

“Less dignified than you might have hoped,” said Calligae. “But I suspect the Bone Warden will take some amusement from it.”

Dominic was given a backwards view of the palace as Calligae navigated his way forward, though it was mostly of the palace floors, which were smooth but unpolished gray stone broken up with threadbare carpets. The sound of footsteps echoed through the halls. Eventually they came to a room much smaller than Dominic had expected, where a set of cushioned chairs had been arranged. Calligae set Dominic down in one of them, putting him face-to-face with the Bone Warden herself.

She was a tall, spindly woman, with a face lined with wrinkles and two great horns coming up from from her forehead. For an illustrati as powerful as she was supposed to be, that was an affectation. She surely had the resources to find someone like Charnel to rejuvenate the skin and pull it tight. Yet she had chosen this appearance for herself. She was a crone, in much the same way that Hartwain was, a woman who had taken age and run with it. Her hair was as white as the bone of her horns. Her eyes were sharp though. She was watching Dominic, though he had little to offer her except for a meager attempt at facial expressions.

“It’s been too long,” said Calligae. “I often find myself wishing that you lived closer to the core of the civilized world.”

“What’s happened to this young man?” asked the Bone Warden.

“Has the legend of Lightscour reached you?” asked Calligae. “Most famous as the slayer of Zerstor, some months back, but involved in some business within Torland. He was instrumental in bringing an end to Torland’s internal strife, as I understand it.”

“Uhh huuuh,” offered Dominic, if only to show that he was aware of what was happening.

“I only rarely listen to the stories,” said the Bone Warden. She arched her eyebrows. “They’re so often false that they approach meaninglessness. He can’t speak?”

“He needs the attentions of an illustrati of flesh,” said Calligae. “I was hoping that you might provide such a thing. He has information as well; there is a story which he has not been able to communicate with only his grunts and groans.”

“An important story, for you to have brought him this far?” asked the Bone Warden. “Very well,” she said, without waiting for an answer. “I shall see what I can do about repairing his tongue.”

“And the rest of him,” said Calligae. “The boy has value beyond what knowledge is locked within his head.”

The Bone Warden sniffed. “I assume it was Gaelwyn that left him in this state?”

“That’s what I gather,” said Calligae. “The boy has lost the use of his tongue and though I’ve gathered a good amount of experience in interpreting him on the way over, communication has been spotty.”

Dominic said nothing. He only looked at the Bone Warden with hard eyes. He had been worried in the beginning that Calligae would simply leave him to die. He imagined that’s what most people would have done, if given such a burden. Perhaps a lesser man would have taken him to Parance and turned him in for whatever reward was on offer; after all, he was a wanted man there, in a manner of speaking. Yet Calligae had rightly divined that something greater was at stake. The fate of the Iron Kingdom — or whatever name it would go by now that the Iron King no longer ruled — hung in the balance. With it hung the fate of every nation that the Iron Kingdom bordered. That was without even taking into account the conspiracy that had replaced the Iron King and installed a new parliament in Torland, or the artifact that had the power to reshape the system of the world, if given a chance.

The Bone Warden wasn’t one for pleasantries. She sent a servant off to fetch her physician, then sat in silence. When Calligae spoke, she deflected him, turning his questions down. He did not try terribly hard. Dominic, having no other options, sat there silently as well while they waited. A small woman came into the room some moments later, looking nervous.

“Lolly, fix this man,” said the Bone Warden.

The woman reached forward with slender fingers, touching Dominic gently. She closed her eyes and pursed her lips. “Whose work is this?” she asked. “An illustrati did this.”

“Gaelwyn Mottram,” said the Bone Warden. “Fix his tongue first.”

Lolly swore silently to herself. Her ministrations were nothing like Gaelwyn’s. They were barely perceptible. After a few moments, Lolly reached her fingers into Dominic’s mouth without asking him, to physically touch the flesh of his tongue there. The change happened slowly. Dominic tried not to move or gag. Eventually Lolly removed her fingers from Dominic’s tongue, wiping his spit on her tunic. “Try to speak?” she asked. She kept a hand rested on his the bare flesh of his wrist and closed her eyes to concentrate.

“Calligae,” said Dominic. “Thank you.”

“I would say that it was my pleasure, but we both know that’s not true,” said Calligae.

“Tell us what it is that you know,” said the Bone Warden.

Dominic had gone six weeks without speaking. He did his best to make up for lost time.

The Bone Warden sat for a long time once Dominic was finished. Food had been brought in halfway through; Dominic ate small bites of hard cheese and smoked fish during brief pauses. Lolly had repaired his arms before she left, but nothing else. Dominic had started his story wanting to skip ahead to what had happened at the end, but the Bone Warden insisted that he start from the beginning. He had taken weeks to get to Xeo; delaying further wasn’t going to change anything. Calligae had taken to interrupting early on, asking for clarifying details, but the Bone Warden had given him a disapproving frown that kept him quiet. When Dominic was finished, there was only silence.

“You are an inexpert storyteller,” the Bone Warden eventually said. “You have told a story which does little to raise my opinion of you. For those reasons, I think it is safe to believe that most of what you are saying is the truth.”

Dominic sighed with relief.

“I’d guessed at most of it,” said Calligae. “Not the exact nature of the artifact, but a fair amount.” He shook his head and turned to the Bone Warden. “What’s to be done about it?”

“The news is six weeks late,” replied the Bone Warden. “A fast ship might make the trip back to Parance in a third that time, which means that whoever I sent would be operating on instructions made with information two months out of date. It isn’t entirely uncommon for me to give my agents wide latitude, but I’ve found the more latitude given, the greater the resources that need to be committed.”

“So there are no repercussions?” asked Dominic. “Welexi is allowed to steal my fame from me and just … continue on as though nothing has happened?”

“I care nothing for your fame,” said the Bone Warden. She steepled her fingers. “The transgression is alarming, but many illustrati have done alarming things before. In this case we have no precedent for the sin he has committed in taking your domain and standing from you. I am not certain that I agree with you when you say that he will do it again, though Welexi and I have spoken together only infrequently, given that I have no need of his services nor interest in advancing his story. No, Dominic, the two things that interest me are this artifact, the one which it is claimed there are dozens of, and this coup that seems to have no respect for national borders.”

Dominic’s face fell. The Bone Warden would act, but it wouldn’t be against Welexi. She would only serve her own interests. Dominic shouldn’t have expected anything more. His dreams, in the rare moments that they extended beyond being able to walk and talk, involved him leading the charge back to the Iron Kingdom, somehow disarming Welexi and then taking back what was rightfully his. It was a fantasy, but fantasy had been what he had needed for that long period he’d spent trapped in his body.

“Whatever you decide,” said Dominic. “I’d like to be part of it.”

The Bone Warden eyed him. “Do you understand how easily a mortal man can be struck down in a battle between the highest illustrati?”

“I was a mortal man when I killed Zerstor,” said Dominic. “Just before that, I saw him dispatch trained guards. I understand the risks.”

“Vidre saved your life,” said Calligae. “I would hate to think that the care I gave you was all for nothing.”

“I don’t plan on dying,” said Dominic. “I don’t plan on a headstrong rush into danger either. I’m not invincible, I’ve been made aware of that in the most brutal fashion that I could have imagined. But I need to see this through.” He turned to the Bone Warden. “If it’s the conspiracy you want, then I’m a useful tool. They’ll speak with me, especially because of what I can tell them about Welexi. More than that, if Welexi has been claiming that I’m dead, I can prove that he was lying. And I might be able to talk Vidre out of working for him, if she still is.”

“I believe you to be overselling yourself,” said the Bone Warden. “Yet the core of the argument, the one laid bare when the pulpy flesh of eager sentimentality is stripped away … well, it would cost me little to send you as well, if I were to send anyone. The only expense would be in the provisions that you would consume.”

“I took quite the effort bringing this young man to you,” said Calligae. “I think it likely that he has more worth than just his story.” He glanced to Dominic. “I don’t mean to tell you your business, but if what you’re after is revenge, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Not revenge,” said Dominic. “Just … a sense of completion.”

“I will consider my options,” said the Bone Warden. “The two of you are dismissed. I will have Lolly complete the repairs to your body, to the best of her ability.”

Dominic laid back on a bed with Lolly in a chair next to him. She had pulled off his shirt and rolled up his pants, the better to touch and prod his flesh. What Gaelwyn had done in a matter of seconds took her much longer. She had far less standing than Gaelwyn did, not to mention that she was almost certainly not a world-renowned expert in the human body. She didn’t seem too much older than Dominic was.

“How did you become an illustrati?” asked Dominic while she massaged his calf.

“I was born into it,” said Lolly. “The Bone Warden is my great-grandmother. Try lifting your leg?”

Dominic did as she asked. The muscle pulled to the right, which Lolly greeted with a frown. “Is it alright if we speak?” asked Dominic. “I would have thought after hours of talking I would be ready for a break, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I think once you’re done with my legs, I’m going to run until I collapse. I want to feel the wind on my face again … I was a runner. I don’t know whether you’ve heard the stories about me, but before I was an illustrati, that’s what I did.”

“I had heard you were a thief,” said Lolly. She smiled when she said it. Dominic winced, though there was no recrimination in her voice.

“I was that too,” said Dominic. He sighed. Lolly had him move his leg again, trying to make sure that the muscles were properly anchored. “Do you like being an illustrati?”

“To be honest, I don’t really think about it,” replied Lolly. “I’m not one of those titanic figures who goes off to war facing down dozens of armed men. I’m not even terribly good at fighting, though I do have some training.” She wiggled the fingers on her free hand. “Grappling, naturally. It’s difficult for me to work when I’m not directly touching flesh though, so even a layer of fabric could probably stop my assault. But to circle back to your question, I suppose it’s better to be an illustrati than not, even if only a minor one.” She hesitated slightly. “Which is not to say that your condition is, ah. You know. Lift your leg again?” She was blushing slightly.

“Do you ever wonder about the system of the world?” asked Dominic as he lifted his leg.

“In what sense?” asked Lolly.

“Just … kings and queens. The illustrati and the nobility. People paying each other with coins stamped with the face of whoever is currently at the top of the heap.” It was hard for Dominic to express what he was thinking, despite all the time he’d had nothing to do but think. “Whenever I see the marble hallways and gilded flourishes that decorate what should have been a simple table, I think about how much it must have cost. How much energy do the illustrati pour into being known? How much of their time does it consume?”

“This is nothing that hasn’t been said before,” said Lolly. “Not only that, it’s been said before by older and wiser people who were far more learned that either of us.”

“I know,” said Dominic. “But was this something that they solved? Or did they just talk in circles?” But it was more than that. The scholars of the past didn’t have an artifact that could change the structure of society.

“They talked in circles, obviously,” said Lolly. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have the world we do now. Okay, I think you’re good to go. The Red Angel was kind to you. He was very precise. It made things a lot easier.”

“I don’t think it was kindness,” said Dominic. “I think that’s just how he is.”

“Either way,” said Lolly. “Everything should be in working order now. Try walking around for a bit, touch your nose, and stretch yourself out.”

Dominic did as she asked, trying his best to twist and turn in order to stretch his muscles. It felt wonderful to move around and scratch at itches. More than anything, he wanted to go running, to pump his legs and let loose, but a small part of him knew that it would feel hollow after the speeds he’d been able to attain as an illustrati. It was hard to complain about being restored to wholeness though.

“I think it would be possible to find you a place here at Xeo,” said Lolly. “If you don’t have a trade, you’re still young enough for an apprenticeship. You might be able to put all the stories behind you. There’s no real need to worry about the system of the world.”

“Thank you,” said Dominic. “But I think I have to see this through.”

Dominic walked with the Bone Warden down a set of narrow halls. She’d come to his room in the morning, just after a servant had woken him up. She hadn’t said where they were going; Dominic kept his questions to himself.

“I do not trust easily,” the Bone Warden said when they reached a thick oak door near the bowels of the palace. The air was damp and smelled of wet dust. “In my opinion, no one should trust easily. I believe much of your story, at least those parts which seem most important, but that belief does not extend to you as a person.”

“I understand,” said Dominic.

“Are you aware of how I built my reputation?” asked the Bone Warden. Her horns had shrunk down from the last time he’d seen her, the better to accommodate the small doorways.

“You keep prisoners,” said Dominic.

“Keeping illustrati confined is difficult,” said the Bone Warden. “In most cases, it involves building thicker and more sturdy boxes. Pile up stone and iron, enough that a motivated individual with an absurd amount of strength can’t break through, then close it off entirely such that there is nothing more than a small hole for food and water to be put in and excrement to be removed. On the whole, this is horrifically expensive, especially when you take into consideration that oftentimes a prisoner must be kept alive and healthy for political reasons, as when the prisoner in question is a member of the royal line being held for ransom.” She stared at Dominic for a moment. “I take it you have already heard of my solution to the problem?”

“Make the body itself the prisoner,” said Dominic. “The same thing Gaelwyn did to me.”

The Bone Warden opened the door in front of them, then strode down forward. Dominic followed after her. There were a number of doors in this hallway; the Bone Warden went to one of these and opened it up. It didn’t appear to be locked.

“Christopher, this is the illustrati formerly known as Lightscour,” said the Bone Warden. “You are to keep your mouth shut in his presence and do nothing more than serve as an object lesson.”

The man’s bones were twisted into curls. He had been reading a book, though he put this down to look at Dominic. The bones of his arms looped in and around each other, limiting his movements. His legs were similarly bent and bowed. Dominic didn’t imagine that the man could walk terribly well, if at all. There would be no need for a lock on his door.

“My methods are better than Gaelwyn’s,” said the Bone Warden. “They are much more refined. In my youth, I was a traveling jailer. People all around the Calypso needed my services, so I would go wherever I was wanted. I could provide a lock to which I was the only key.”

“Only if there wasn’t another illustrati of bone,” said Dominic. He kept looking at the man’s arm, at a place where the bone spiraled like a corkscrew.

“I killed Oso, Ivory, and Asgwm in the space of a single month,” said the Bone Warden. “The Iron King was eleven years old, his grand stadiums not yet built. The world was a different place back then. I doubt that my scheme would have worked so well today, but back then it made me a particularly valuable woman, even after the rumors began to swirl about what I had done. I made myself part of how illustrati dealt with each other. Once an illustrati was jailed by me, both my client and my prisoner had an incentive to keep me alive, because only I could undo what had been done. I dined with the king of Lerabor while his son was held captive, his twisted bones keeping him docile despite his years of training and brutish strength.”

She was saying this in order to impress her strength and savagery upon him, Dominic had no doubts about that.

“As time passed, there came to be other illustrati of bone,” continued the Bone Warden. “These were younger, weaker than the ones I’d killed. I knew that my tiny empire couldn’t last, not if it required me to kill the competition. So instead, I became a landlord of people. Every time I heard of an illustrati of bone, I would pick up my skirts and make haste towards them, hoping to make a deal. I did not trust those men and women, I only trusted that they would act on the incentives that I provided to them. It was, after all, better for us to work as one, like a guild which shuts out all competition in order to drive up its prices. I was the Bone Warden; they became my acolytes. We would negotiate for our services as one. It gave these bony fingers a great deal of reach.”

“I’m not thinking of betraying you,” said Dominic.

“You are thinking of using me,” said the Bone Warden. “Just as I am thinking of using you. I want us to be clear on the incentives on offer. Play your part and everything will be fine. If you abuse my kindness towards you …” she gestured to the man with twisted bones. “From your story I am given to understand that you are bad with both contracts and honesty. It is my hope that perhaps you have gained some wisdom since those days.”

“I have,” said Dominic. “Just tell me what you want from me and I will do my best to comply.”

“I will be sending a small number of illustrati with a wide degree of latitude,” said the Bone Warden. “You will act as bait, not just for the conspiracy but for Vidre and Welexi as well, if need be.”

“Consider it done,” said Dominic.

“No matter what you find has happened in your absence?” asked the Bone Warden.

Dominic gave a firm nod.

Next …