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, Ch 19: The Childish Bride

Previously …

There were times when her father hit her. He wasn’t a cruel man, just given to fits of anger. Ros didn’t remember a time before her mother had passed, but she often imagined that her father had been different then. It was always the small things that would set him off. There was a floorboard in their cottage that squeaked whenever someone stepped on it. Ros’ father would snarl at it momentarily every time that happened, like a dog with its hackles raised. He’d go back to whatever he’d been doing soon afterward, seeming to forget all about the squeaky floorboard. His fits of anger came quickly, but they faded just as fast. When he struck her, it was always in those moments of brightly burning rage. He had gripped her by the throat once, raising her up until she was kicking her feet at him. She’d been able to watch as he seemed to realize what he was doing. Her father had set her back down on the floor and locked himself in his bedroom. He hadn’t apologized, but he made poached pears for her, which was her favorite. She pretended that it made up for the bruise that ringed her neck for a full week.

It had been months since her father’s last truly bad fit, that time brought on by the fact that Ros had burned chicken she’d been trying to roast. Things were better now. Ros kept telling herself that, while at the same time trying to avoid the small things she’d come to learn would bring his temper to a boil. She knew where to step so as not to make noise when she moved around the house. She knew when to ply her father with a bottle of cheap wine and when to slyly keep it from him. She could sense those times when he was more prone to anger and make herself scarce. She could bow her head and act meek when she had done something wrong, trying to make herself look small and vulnerable so that his anger wouldn’t overtake his sense. At nine-and-a-half years old, Ros thought that she and her father were finally getting along.

Her father didn’t trust her to go to the market on her own, but when they went together she was given a considerable amount of leeway. Her father would greet people with a warm smile, embracing them with open arms and engaging in long conversations on boring adult topics. As soon as he was occupied, Ros would go wandering the various stalls, taking in the colors of the fruits and vegetables, smelling freshly baked bread, and keeping an eye out for illustrati. There was an illustrati of birds who often swept through the markets. The woman had a dozen chickadees lining her shoulders, singing songs as she walked. Ros thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

Ros found the woman, Aviare, in the first fifteen minutes. The illustrati was walking past the market stalls, as she usually did, occasionally stopping to ask a question of one of the vendors or touch a finely made piece of merchandise. Even at a young age, Ros understood this to be something that was expected of the local illustrati. Today was somewhat unusual in that Aviare was taking her walk with a tall man in fine white clothing. They were carrying on an animated conversation; naturally, Ros slipped closer to listen in.

“I’ve heard that the kingdom of Lethant has an eligible princess,” said Aviare.

“They say that birds take on the character of whatever they eat,” said the man. He had an angular face that Ros recognized from the coins. She felt a thrill go through her when she realized that he must be the king. Her father hated the king, but her father hated lots of people. “The strawberries are in season as of late. Do you think that perhaps you might be able to feed some quail on fruits? Strawberry quail with a honey glaze, I think that sounds delightful, don’t you?”

“I will see what I can do,” said Aviare. “I’ll speak with your chef about what sorts of flavors might pair well with that; a quail can’t live on strawberries alone, not for terribly long at any rate. Just as a man cannot live on a diet of books, yes? There is a primal need for companionship.”

“I have companions,” complained the king. “And I have interests other than books, it’s just that the real world pales in comparison to the stories. None of the illustrati I know hold a candle to the greats of old. I often think we’re in the waning days of the world. It fills me with such melancholy.”

“I was speaking of female companionship,” said Aviare.

“Well, I have you, don’t I?” the king asked brightly.

“I’m not speaking of mere friendship,” said Aviare. Her mouth twisted into a strained smile. “I’m speaking of marriage.”

“I’m not daft,” said the king. “I simply don’t wish to discuss it. A man must be allowed to mourn one wife before he goes seeking out the next.”

“It’s been four years,” began Aviare. But at that moment the king went stiff, whatever interest he’d had in the conversation erased completely. His eyes were on Ros. She had been following along behind, listening in on their conversation, but they had slowed down and she had gotten too close.

“Well hello,” said the king. He turned to Aviare, though his eyes didn’t leave Ros. “Look at this little angel.”

When he approached her, Ros tried to run. She was stopped by a firm hand around her upper arm from a man who she only belatedly realized must have been one of the king’s men.

“I long for the innocence of childhood,” said the king. He crouched down so that he was on Ros’ level. “Days of wandering without a care in the world. Do you know who I am girl?”

“The king,” said Ros. Her arm was still being held tight.

“Such a pretty voice,” said the king.

“We shouldn’t dally,” said Aviare.

“No,” said the king. There was something foreign in his eyes. “No, I suppose that we shouldn’t.”

That might have been the end of it, in some other world. It would only be a chance encounter with royalty, the sort of thing that Ros might have told her friends about later on. She would learn enough to know that the king’s advisers would have tried to talk him out of bringing her into the castle. She would also come to know the king well enough to know that he couldn’t be dissuaded from his flights of fancy. Her father was given a small sum of money for her, a bride price that amounted to a purchase. In the stories they would tell later it was forty drams, but in truth Vidre never learned what price she fetched. Two weeks after they’d briefly met in the market, Ros was engaged to the King of Geswein. He adored her in a way that caused no small amount of uneasiness. The only part of her that didn’t meet with his approval was her name; once her domain was known, the bards picked something more appropriate. She was called Vidre, a corruption of the Merrkian word for glass. No one used her given name after that, to the point where she sometimes forgot what she’d once been called.

She never saw her father again.

Vidre had just finished a dinner party that was more bearable than most. Her husband had taken ill earlier in the day, which meant that she didn’t have to worry about what it was going through his mind. He had been both distant and jealous, which amounted to word coming to her through her ladies-in-waiting that certain men were no longer to be seated next to her during meals. A courtier had been sent away on a trip to the colonies as well, which had apparently happened because he had smiled at Vidre when the king was around to see it. The king’s absence at the party was more than welcome. Vidre could demure when dessert came without worrying about what the king might say afterward. She could speak with whomever she liked, with the only worry being that someone would talk about it later.

She was laying in her bed, thinking about chocolates, when the king’s adviser came storming into her room.

“Are you a virgin?” he asked.

“What an exceptionally rude and —” Vidre began. She was still in her blue and purple dress, waiting on the maids to come and help her out of it.

“Was the marriage ever consummated?” asked the adviser. “We know that you share separate rooms.”

“You may leave right now,” said Vidre. “If you do so, I will be kind when I report this incident to my husband. I am willing to ascribe this to a sickness rather than some fault of your character, should you respect the sanctity of my room and depart at once.”

“The king is dead,” said the adviser.

“Dead?” asked Vidre. “But I saw him this morning.” She felt faint but tried to keep her head about her. The corset she was wearing didn’t help matters.

“He suffered the stroke of God’s hand,” said the adviser. “Queen Vidre, you are now sovereign ruler of this kingdom, but I must know whether you are a virgin or not. They have been rumors one way or another from the day the marriage was announced. Was the marriage consummated? Or failing that, did you seek the comforts of a man outside the marriage?”

“I …” Vidre paused, trying to fight down years of training in proper etiquette. “We did,” she lied. “Only twice. He didn’t favor it.”

“Do not mention that,” said the adviser with a shake of his head. “They will ask for an inspection of your maidenhood, to ensure that you are telling the truth, there’s little chance that we can get around suffering that indignity.” He paused slightly. “Is there some man who has caught your eye in recent weeks, some man who might get you with child so that a bastard —”

“That is quite enough,” said Vidre. “I have tolerated your improper questions as long as I was able, but if my husband is truly dead then I am, as you say, the sovereign queen. I am certain that there are things which must be done, but I will not submit to any such examination, nor will I entertain the notion of, of, laying with a man out of wedlock and so soon after the death of my beloved husband.”

“You foolish girl,” said the adviser. His face had fallen. “They are coming to oust you. You need every scrap of legitimacy that you can gather up, no matter the cost in dignity and lies. A sixteen-year-old girl sitting on the throne would be bad enough if there were a regency council in place, bad enough if you were queen by blood instead of marriage, bad enough if you had a child by the king, bad enough if anyone liked you, bad enough if these were times of peace and plenty without enemies arrayed all around you — but I must tell you that you have precious few advantages to grasp onto here.”

“Very well,” said Vidre. She adjusted her dress; it seemed as though it would be some time before she was allowed to take it off. “If the situation is dire, we will meet it head on. My beloved husband lays dead. Let us prepare to continue the royal line.”

Vidre fought hard for her kingdom. She endured an endless series of meetings, trying not to despair at the mess the king had left behind. There were debts that couldn’t be paid and would have to be put off somehow. There were alliances that would need to be honored despite the sorry state of Geswein’s military. The state of her maidenhead was inspected by a physician, a humiliation far greater than she had supposed it would be. Yet it wasn’t enough; two weeks after the king’s funeral, Vidre found herself spirited away in the middle of the night, no longer the queen, only queen-in-exile.

Vidre stood in the cool air of Abalon, letting the breeze touch her naked skin. One of the vaunted Hundred Nobles lay in his bed, watching her. He had told her over and over how beautiful she was, as many of them did. Perhaps he had thought that was the most significant thing about her. Few of the nobles seemed to care that she was queen-in-exile of a large kingdom. Few seemed to care that the stories of her youth and her recent departure had made her one of the most powerful illustrati in the region. Vidre was stronger than the man she’d slept with, even though he was a minor illustrati himself. She could have pinned him to the bed and had her way with him, rather than the other way around. Either way, the pleasure was fleeting. It was the familiar rhythm of hunter and hunted that she enjoyed; the act of coitus was almost secondary to that, though it was always easier to remember that after the fact.

“What are you going to do when you’re done in Abalon?” asked the man. His name was Calrus, but Vidre had already decided that she would pretend to have forgotten it.

“Done in Abalon?” she asked. She didn’t look to where he was laying, only stared out the open window.

“You’re burning bridges left and right,” he replied. “Not an uncommon strategy when an illustrati is looking to move on in the near future. People remember a burnt bridge. Especially if the bridge was beautiful.”

“That’s a terrible metaphor,” said Vidre. “Unless you’re saying that the relationships I’ve ruined were what was beautiful and I’m nothing but an arsonist.”

“You’re a beautiful arsonist,” said Calrus. “But so much more than that. Did you know, when I met you I hadn’t expected so many layers to you? They’d said you were a creature of appetites. A hungry bear foraging around in the woods.”

“A beautiful bear?” asked Vidre with half a smile that Calrus wouldn’t be able to see.

“But you’re not bear,” said Calrus. “You’re quite austere. You take small bites at the dinner table. You refuse both mead and cake. Mead I could understand, if you were with child —”

“Is that the rumor these days?” asked Vidre.

“It has been floated,” said Calrus. “A young woman with wanton urges and a distaste for lambskin will not long remain so slender.”

“It’s not lambskin,” said Vidre. “It’s lamb intestine. If anyone should ask, let them know that I am perfectly unencumbered.”

The truth was that she had been expecting a pregnancy for months. It wasn’t exactly that she wanted a child, but she had some vague sense that it would give her a purpose that was sorely lacking. Vidre was dependent on the kindness of the nobility for the time being; she floated from one house to another as her hosts extracted stories and gossip from her. Her hopes of getting her kingdom back had evaporated within her first month in Abalon. She was rudderless. A child might have changed that and given her something worth fighting for. As it was, there was no grand purpose in her life, no challenge set before her. For all her so-called wanton urges, no child had been forthcoming, and Vidre had begun to suspect that she would never be a mother.

“So back to my original question,” said Calrus. “What are you going to do when you leave Abalon?”

Vidre’s life had first been dominated by her father and then by her husband. Now she was as free as she would ever be. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I think I might make a name for myself.”

Calrus had laughed, as though it had been a joke.

Welexi had gone insane, or perhaps he had been insane all along. Vidre had liked it better when the search for the Harbinger artifacts was only a flight of fancy, a framing device for their travels. Secret, forbidden knowledge was a perfectly fine thing to pin a story on, so long as it was like the Numifex, an object whose purpose didn’t really matter except to give motivation to the story’s characters. Now Welexi had found his Numifex; he was cradling it in his hands like a proud father holding his newborn child. Dominic was the first to have his power taken, whether it was justified or not. He was almost certainly not going to be the last.

Vidre had thought about the best way to fight Welexi. That was only natural; they were sparring partners often enough. His spear would pass right through her glass armor, which meant that she would have to fight from a distance, something that her domain had never lent itself to. Armor of light was weaker than steel, but it would be impossible to rip off and have no chinks in which to sink her daggers. It wasn’t hopeless — no fight was ever hopeless — but it would be very difficult. Vidre would have bet against herself, if the dead could collect winnings. She’d thought all that before Welexi had acquired the domain of shadow. On top of that, Gaelwyn would almost certainly intervene. That was an entirely different matter, one she’d given quite a bit more thought to; it wasn’t quite so hopeless, if she could make her armor so thick that she could barely move in it. Regardless, this was not the time nor place.

Vidre had seen Calligae coming up the path right when Welexi had begun talking about power falling into the wrong hands. She’d held her tongue. If Welexi had come up behind her and seen the same wandering figure, she would have given him a nonchalant remark about what the plan was, feigning boredom. Until then, she would have to hope that Calligae would turn back, or if he continued on, that he would be wise enough to ask them questions before trying to start a fight. Calligae was a decent man and the domain of air was one that lacked in offensive potential. Vidre would try to fight defensively against him if it came to that. If he didn’t listen to their explanations, they would have to kill him. Calligae tended towards reason though.

But when Welexi took Dominic’s power, as though it were nothing, Vidre began to feel a cold trickle of fear. Welexi had brushed off Lothaire’s insinuations. He often did that when unpleasant subjects reared their head. How much loyalty did Welexi really have to her though? Lothaire’s final words hung in her head. Has Welexi told you about your father? Vidre hadn’t seen her father in twenty years. Gaelwyn had acted instantly to silence Lothaire the moment the subject had come up. Everything else that Lothaire had said was true in one way or another.

“Spoils of war,” said Welexi.

“This was no war,” replied Vidre. She listened to his justifications, trying not to feel queasy. The artifact had been frightening in the abstract before. Now it provoked something more. It was one thing to hear Dominic say that Hartwain had been stripped of her power and another to see the same thing happen so easily to Dominic. Vidre watched the supernatural confidence with which Welexi held the artifact. She couldn’t imagine being so foolhardy as to stick her hand inside its maw after seeing Dominic’s shadow armor pop like a bubble. When Welexi was done speaking, Vidre answered in kind, giving voice to her part of the pattern that Welexi had started. It was easy and natural to frame Dominic as the young apprentice seeking to surpass his master, no matter what the cost.

When Welexi moved to kill Dominic, it was too much.

“Wait,” she said, before a plan had even formed. “Let me do it.”

If she could have gotten Welexi and Gaelwyn to leave the room, to give them privacy, perhaps there might have been something that Vidre could have done. She might have simply been able to say that she had killed him while leaving him in some other place that she could retrieve him from later. Without a skilled illustrati of flesh to knit his muscles back together, Dominic would never walk again, but there were other illustrati, if Vidre could find a way to move him. Welexi was having none of it though.

“Give me a moment to grieve,” said Vidre.

“I’m afraid there is much to be done yet this day,” said Welexi. He frowned slightly. It was the sort of frown that she had seen many times before. It was the frown that Welexi gave when the story had started to take a turn he did not like.

“All the same,” replied Vidre.

“I’ll be here to comfort you, should you need it,” replied Welexi. “You make take a moment to do what you believe needs to be done.”

There had been nothing for it but to throw Dominic off the balcony. It was a drop of more than a hundred feet, not quite the incredible drop they’d done from the Ministry of Legends the day before, but not something that an ordinary man could expect to survive. Calligae was down below, but not expecting to have to catch a falling man. What she was about to do was almost certainly the murder of a man who was, if not an innocent, then at least someone she’d confided in. Dominic had known her, past the surfaces and facets she presented to the world. They might have become true friends, given time.

Vidre blunted her daggers before the moment of impact, leaving the tip just sharp enough to cut into the flesh of the abdomen. In all her years of traveling, she’d never had cause to pretend to stab someone. It was almost like pulling a punch, something that she’d never been terribly good at. She made three quick cuts, enough to bleed and look suitably brutal, then kicked Dominic in the chest, sending him sailing over the edge. She turned away before she could see the result.

She had never been religious when she was a young girl. After her early marriage, she had learned the words and rituals, but her tutors were far more concerned with making sure that everything was correct and proper than instilling in her any sense of respect for gods. Later, when she had traveled the world, she saw too many religions preaching too many things; at the center of almost all of them was some monolithic figure who had claimed to speak with — or in some cases, be a physical manifestation of — a god. Praying was just a way of expressing hope; it didn’t actually do anything. Yet after Vidre had sent Dominic over the edge, she said a small prayer all the same.

Calligae watched Vidre carefully. She must have seen him, but she gave no shout of recognition. She had been in Parance the day before, assaulting the Ministry of Legends. Now she was at Castle Launtine, shortly after a large explosion had blown a hole in the side of it, leaving bedchambers open to the air and rubble down below. A fair number of the dead men at the iron gate were surely her work. Calligae had no intention of fighting her a second time, especially not if Welexi was with her. He had fought alongside them in the Peddler’s War, enough to see that they were killers. He stopped where he was, waiting to see what was going to happen next. If she dropped down to him, he would have to leave his horse behind. He was fairly certain that with the wind at his back, he would be able to outrun her.

When she propped a body up on the balcony, Calligae dismounted. The form was vaguely recognizable as the boy he’d chased the day before. His head lolled to the side; he was limp. Vidre was speaking to him, saying something indistinct even with Calligae’s efforts to still the wind. When she kicked the boy off the balcony, she gave a brief glance toward Calligae, watching him for an almost imperceptible second. The boy fell. Calligae raced for him.

His control of the domain of air extended three feet from his body. He ran at a sprint, working the air around him, thinning the air in front of him and pushing a wind at his back. When he reached the rough stone a hundred feet below Castle Launtine, he launched himself upward, using the wind to propel him higher. At the apex of the jump he pushed himself toward the stone with a gust of air, then kicked off from it with a second jump. His timing wasn’t quite right, but he managed to snag the boy’s limp arm in mid-air. They were both falling. Calligae pulled the boy in closer, generating the most powerful upward wind he could all the while. They still landed on the ground with a hard thud, but nothing an illustrati couldn’t shrug off.

Calligae sat up and shook his head. He hadn’t done a stunt like that in — well, not since the day before, when he’d taken a running leap from the twenty-fifth floor of the Ministry of Legends. Before that, it had been years. He looked over at the boy and noticed blood on his stomach. A brief check showed that the wounds were only superficial. That only raised more questions.

“Are you alright?” asked Calligae. “I get the sense that you and I have things to talk about.”

“Mmmmmrnn,” said the boy.

Calligae looked closer. He had worried for a moment that the boy was paralyzed, or that he’d been made insensate through a hit on the head, but the eyes were alert and the head at least was moving. When he saw the muscles beneath the skin moving without changing the position of the arms, Calligae felt a slight sickness in his stomach. That could only be Gaelwyn’s work.

“Can you speak at all?” asked Calligae. “Or was that taken from you as well?”

“Ehh hhoo,” said the boy.

“Come on then,” said Calligae. He got to his feet and brushed the dust from his robes. “Vidre had you at her mercy and chose to give you a superficial wound. It’s a message I’ll need to decipher.” He picked the boy’s limp body up from the ground, making sure to cradle the head like he would a child. Riding two to a horse wasn’t ideal, especially not with one of them unable to respond to the horse, but Calligae had taken the sick and injured off the battlefield often enough that he had some practice. It wouldn’t be fast, but he hoped that he didn’t need to be. It was the work of a few minutes to get the boy situated. Calligae sat behind him, with his arms folded around the boy’s waist. Throughout this, Calligae glanced up at the balcony where Vidre had been, but there was nothing to see there.

“Eh weh eh geh,” said the boy. His jaw moved, but his tongue was unsteady in his mouth in the same way that head seemed to not want to stay upright upon his neck.

“I can’t understand you,” said Calligae. “We’ll get you to someone who can fix you. I’m not sure that I owe Vidre that much, if this is indeed what she intended, but it seems as though the Iron Kingdom is no longer the safe place I had imagined it to be.”

Dominic had never imagined he would understand the expression “impotent rage” so well as he now did. His tongue could move, but only slightly. He could shape his lips and move his eyes. Nothing else was working. He sat on the horse, held in place by strong hands, not knowing where they were going. He had lost more power than most people could dream of ever having. Everywhere he saw a shadow he was reminded of that; when he closed his eyes, the darkness didn’t help him forget. It would have been a travesty if he had been reduced down to the level of a mortal man, but it was far worse than that. Perhaps some day Dominic would run again, but for now he was trapped within his own body, unable to speak or move of his own volition. He briefly wished that Vidre had killed him until thinking better of it. He now wished that he had fled on his own, racing away before he could face the moment of truth. Or better, that he had thrown his lot in with Faye from the start and slit Welexi’s throat in the middle of the night when he was supposed to be keeping watch. A part of him shied away from the imagined violence, but the anger was bubbling up in him with nowhere to go. It might have been easier to accept what had happened to him if so much of it hadn’t been his fault.

Calligae brought them to a stop for a midday lunch. Dominic didn’t recognize the roads they were traveling down, but he was certain that they weren’t returning to Parance. While the horse grazed at a nearby pasture, Calligae propped Dominic up on a rock and trickled water into Dominic’s mouth from a water skin.

“I didn’t plan on having to leave the Iron Kingdom today,” said Calligae. “Long habit taught me to bring more food than I expected to need, which I hope you’re grateful for.” He smiled slightly. “Now, I have a few questions for you.”

“Hrrr ah,” said Dominic. His tongue could only make marginal movement, not enough to speak any words.

“I’ll restrict it to yes and no,” said Calligae. “You can manage at least that, can’t you?”

“Ehh,” said Dominic. It came out as a low moan.

Calligae asked his questions quickly, keeping them simple. Some of it was merely to confirm what he’d already said he suspected. “Ehh,” it was Gaelwyn who had left Dominic in such a state. “Ohhh,” Dominic had no access to the domain of shadow. “Ehh,” the Iron King was dead. Dominic gave an emphatic “ehh” when Calligae asked whether Welexi had given Gaelwyn his orders. Dominic was frustrated by the process; there was so much more that he wanted to say, things that needed explanation, not just about the depth of the betrayal he’d suffered but the artifact that Welexi had used and the conspiracy that Lothaire had headed.

Calligae checked Dominic’s stomach, where Vidre had left her wounds. If Calligae was right, it was an odd way of saying that she didn’t want to kill him. He’d seen no tenderness in her eyes when she stabbed him. He tried to think of why she might have wanted to save him. He wondered whether she actually cared, or if this was only part of some plot. Perhaps she was hoping that he could be fixed, made whole again and turned useful. Whatever closeness there had been between them was obviously destroyed now. Dominic didn’t know whether they’d ever see each other again.

“Huhur,” said Dominic. He didn’t know what he was trying to express. Making noises with his mouth was only a way of giving form to his emotions. He would have screamed at the world, if he thought he could manage it.

“Not the best of times for you,” said Calligae. “Not the best of times for the Iron Kingdom either, if I have my guess.”

“Huhhh,” said Dominic.

“Welexi is at the heart of it,” said Calligae. He dug into his pack and pulled out some meat and cheese, which he ate as he spoke. “I’m fairly certain of that. Vidre handed you to me, a bit ungently, but I don’t imagine that she had many options. I could have watched you fall to your death. She had to have known that what she was doing was desperate. If I hadn’t been there, do you think she would have leaped with you? But with no way to cushion the fall, you might not have survived. I’ve heard of that happening before. An illustrati caught a man falling from fifty feet, but his neck still snapped on impact.” Calligae sighed. “Where was I?”

Dominic looked at the old man. “Ehh,” he said.

“Right,” nodded Calligae. “Welexi is at the center of it. Vidre was acting under some constraints. Of the rest of the members of your merry band, that leaves Gaelwyn. He’s always been Welexi’s lapdog, though I mean no offense by it. I had always wondered whether Welexi would take a turn towards villain. It happens often, among illustrati of particularly high standing. Waning glory pushes men towards unsavory acts. They know gossip and scandal can sustain them where good deeds did not.” He furrowed his eyebrows. “Yet I don’t think that’s the case for Welexi. There were always rumors about him, but that must be expected whenever there is someone widely renowned. When he began to call Gaelwyn friend, those rumors redoubled. You’re young enough that perhaps you never knew it to be any different. I’ll be interested to see what conversation we might have when we get you fixed?”

“Eh uhr uh huuh?” asked Dominic. He hoped the inflection would get his point across.

Calligae gave a soft smile. “You and I are going to pay a visit to the Bone Warden.”

What was Gaelwyn without Welexi?

He was asking himself that question again. Ropes of muscle were coiled within his arms, in a way that wasn’t natural to any creature that he’d ever touched. There were things that nature had never dreamed of. The construct beneath his collarbone was more conventional, as these things went, modeled on the long tongue of a frog and anchored to the bone so that a quick, hard twitch would send the muscle unrolling itself at a high speed, cracking forward like a whip. It was woefully imperfect, based on a design he’d thought up years ago but never tested, but it was enough to get the job done. Gaelwyn had looked at proper tentacles before, those which could provide for independent movement without skeletal support. They were far more complicated though; muscles could only contract or relax, which meant that different muscle groups would have to work against each other. Because he couldn’t create new nerves from whole cloth, Gaelwyn would have to rely entirely on his domain sense in order to control the tentacles and take sensory information from them. Worse, domain intuition was failing him; tentacles were instinctual to a squid but these new creations required thought. What he’d ended up making was laughably simple, even if it had proven effective. Given time, he could improve them significantly.

Gaelwyn didn’t know if he wanted to become a better fighter.

He had watched dispassionately as Vidre stabbed Dominic in the stomach and kicked him in the chest. It was a curiously cruel way to kill the boy. A slit across the throat with one of those startlingly sharp glass daggers would have been cleaner. The loss of blood would have left Dominic unconscious almost before he hit the ground. The stomach though, that was a longer, lingering death, even if she’d cut through to the renal artery. Gaelwyn took it for symbolic; he had little doubt that Vidre didn’t want Dominic to die, but when Vidre did unpleasant things she liked to make them as unpleasant as possible. She was a sow wallowing in the muck, immersing herself in it because that might allow her to believe that she was there by her own choice.

Lothaire had said that Vidre was going to kill him. He had little doubt that this was true. They had never quite gotten along. If Welexi weren’t there as a common bond, they might have amicably parted ways many years ago. Unfortunately, the fact that they were constantly in each other’s presence had turned what was perhaps a mild dislike into a lasting undercurrent of enmity. If Lothaire was telling the truth, then Vidre was going to be a problem.

Gaelwyn wondered whether Welexi had figured that out yet, or whether some action would need to be taken on his behalf.

Next …

Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 18: The Rule of Three

Previously …

Dominic tried not to watch the lengths of flesh slither back into Gaelwyn’s wrists. Dominic could see a faint impression of coiled flesh within Gaelwyn’s skin, as though the rope of flesh was coiled around the meat of his forearm. When Gaelwyn was finished, the wounds at his wrists bled slightly.

“It needs refinement,” said Gaelwyn when he caught Dominic’s glance.

“Do we need to worry about them getting back up?” asked Vidre. She looked down at the bodies.

“No,” replied Gaelwyn. His voice was hard.

They continued forward, into the interior of Castle Launtine, before Dominic could ask any questions. Gaelwyn had touched those men and women with his domain. Had he cut the muscles loose from the bones, like he’d done with Wealdwood? Or had he killed them? Dominic wanted to believe that Gaelwyn wouldn’t go from pacifism to murder in a single leap, but it wasn’t as though Gaelwyn had never killed before.

To Dominic’s surprise, the first room they came into was a large, cavernous throne room. The throne itself was several feet off the floor, with a series of low steps leading up to it. It was built of braided metals interlaced with other materials, including wood, glass, and rock. There were shapes sculpted into the sides, showing the domain animals and giving representation to the more ephemeral domains. The Iron King had once sat upon the throne. It was enormous, sized for someone eight feet tall then built even higher than that. Dominic couldn’t take his eyes off it. The others didn’t even seem to notice it.

“We need to track them down,” said Vidre. “Gaelwyn, you probably remember the castle better than I do. Where would the king have been kept for a supposed convalescence?”

“There were grand chambers on the fourth floor,” said Gaelwyn. “If we’d had more time, we might have asked, but in lieu of that, the grand chambers are where we should go.”

“Do we think they’ll still be there?” asked Dominic. “They know that this is an attack. They retreated.”

“The illustrati are immaterial,” said Welexi. “The artifact is the prize. Beyond that, we need confirmation that the Iron King is dead, or proof of malfeasance. Even if the remainder of the conspiracy has fled like rats from a sinking ship, they won’t have time to destroy all the evidence of their existence. There will be secrets to uncover in their personal effects. Letters signed in the Iron King’s name. We’ll find out who gives the orders, at the very least. We might be able to unravel the whole of it.”

Dominic wondered whether they would find any Harbinger artifacts here. Faye had been holding one, back in the wreckage of Hartwain’s manor, but it seemed unlikely that she had made her way to Castle Launtine since then. She hadn’t said whether it was a single artifact or multiple. She hadn’t told him how it worked. The unmitigated power of the artifact frightened Dominic; as much as he thought Faye’s people might have a point, the potential for some villain to become powerful beyond imagining was immense. Welexi had said that they would destroy it — that they must destroy it — and on that Dominic could agree.

“We need to move slowly,” said Vidre. “There are going to be choke points. Places where they could set an ambush.”

“With the four of us working together, there’s little to fear,” said Welexi.

“If they can combine their power into a single person, that person could beat us,” said Vidre. “Domain immunity for glass, light, shadow, and flesh would leave us fighting bare-knuckled against someone who wasn’t under any such constraints.”

“Domain immunity doesn’t apply to flesh,” said Gaelwyn. “That is, there is an immunity present, but the mechanism of attack is almost always domain alteration or domain kinesis, which are opposed by an equal measure of applied power from an illustrati rather than any innate protection.”

“In any case,” said Welexi. “Lightscour believes that they have philosophical opposition to such tactics.” He nodded in Dominic’s direction.

“It’s only a guess,” said Dominic quickly.

Vidre frowned. She didn’t look at Dominic. “If he’s right, we have nothing to worry about. If their artifact only provides for giving a second domain but not a third, we’ll be perfectly fine. We can’t plan on that being the case though. We need to move as though they’re immensely powerful and prepared to ambush us.”

“Very well,” said Welexi with a low bow. “Lead on.”

The castle wasn’t built along the same lines as the Ministry of Legends was. The Ministry building had mostly identical floors, laid out through elaborate designs which had gone through the thickets and warrens of its bureaucracy. Castle Launtine predated the age of cannons. It might once have been a simple thing, but it had been created over generations, through a series of architects and construction methods. They took the servants’ corridors, the small paths that maids and butlers took to stay out of the way of their master. Vidre said nothing about it, but she seemed to know her way around. They trekked up tight spiral staircases with worn down steps between periods of rushing down the hallways. Twice they had to turn back because part of a wall had collapsed in, or the floor was missing, but Vidre didn’t seem too concerned with this. The king’s bedroom had been quite far from the gunpowder room. The poles of iron laced through the rock ensured that the whole thing wouldn’t come crashing down.

They came out into a hallway sized for a giant. A man in plain clothing was touching the handle of a door. There was a momentary pause before he turned to look at them. In his hand was a Harbinger artifact, its presence written on the mind as soon as it was visible. It was the same as the one Dominic had seen Faye holding. The man bolted; Welexi threw a spear after him, straight and true. When the spear touched the man’s back, Dominic was prepared to see blood and viscera as the man toppled to the ground. Instead the spear passed through harmlessly; the man continued running.

Vidre chased after him, running at a dead sprint. She had daggers drawn and ready. One of these she threw in front of her, spinning it so hard that it appeared as a blurred disk. This struck the man in the shoulder, instantly staining his shirt with a blossom of blood, but he continued on and rounded a corner.

“What happened?” asked Dominic. He stood in the hallway with Welexi and Gaelwyn, looking at the spot where the man had been. “Your spear didn’t work.”

“Domain immunity,” said Welexi. “You’ve never fought someone with your own domain before, but I’ll tell you now that it’s rarely a pleasant experience.”

“Should we be chasing after him? Or her?” asked Dominic. “It could be a trap.” He was ready to follow, despite the sick feeling that was growing in his stomach with every moment they spent in the castle.

Vidre came trotting back only moments later though, with the artifact held in her hand.

“You shouldn’t touch it,” said Welexi.

“He was touching it,” said Vidre. She looked down and turned the artifact around.

“It might still be a trap,” said Dominic.

“We won’t do anything with it,” said Vidre. “But we do need to carry it with us.” She tossed it to Gaelwyn, who fumbled when he caught it. “Come on, the Iron King’s bedroom was through there.”

They stepped through the large doors and entered a bedroom larger than Dominic had ever seen. Everything in it was sized for a man of immense proportions. It felt slightly grotesque to Dominic. The four-poster bed in the center held a large figure sculpted of iron, which they approached cautiously, weapons drawn.

It was Gaelwyn who went to the figure first. “It’s the Iron King,” said Gaelwyn. He touched the face. “Not a trace of flesh. The likeness is perfect. He only rarely removed his helmet; whoever made this knew him with some intimacy.” He ran his fingers along the face. “It’s too accurate to have been cast. It was made by an illustrati of iron.” He frowned. “Dusty.”

“What’s the point?” asked Vidre. “If they’re pretending that he’s not dead, why do something like this? Obviously no one would be allowed in this room anyway. It wouldn’t convince anyone. That’s if there were still people in this castle who didn’t know the truth, which I doubt.” She frowned. “We might be looking at his corpse?”

“Try to restrain the next person we find instead of killing them,” said Welexi. “We might get answers yet.”

“The Iron King had a study he kept for his private contemplations,” said Gaelwyn. He looked down at the artifact in his hands. “We might find some papers there.”

They walked slowly, keeping their guard up. Vidre seemed ready to run at a moment’s notice; she kept her helm sealed at all times, breathing through the flutes of glass. Dominic covered himself in armor of shadow, though experience had shown him that it wasn’t so good at taking a hit as Vidre’s was. He kept his sword in front of him, ready to contribute what he could.

They reached another room with a large door. Vidre kicked it down with a single blow. She fell into a fighting stance just afterward, ready to deal with whoever came running out. Yet the room had only a single occupant behind a desk that was too large for him. He didn’t seem surprised by the sudden entry.

He was an older man. Dominic recognized him; it was the same man that had negotiated with the Flower Queen over several long, boring hours. He had gone by Chester Welling then. Now he was dressed in a clerk’s outfit. His sleeves were rolled back. A blocky ring sat on one finger, a Harbinger artifact displayed to the world. He had a wry grin that faded when he saw what Gaelwyn was holding.

“Vidre, don’t kill him until we have some answers,” said Welexi.

“I’ll do my best,” said Vidre.

“I had hoped we’d be fast enough,” said the man. He seemed unconcerned with the intrusion. “A pity we weren’t.”

“Who are you really?” asked Welexi. “Not Chester Welling, clearly.”

“Names are immaterial,” said the old man. Vidre’s glass daggers were in front of her, ready and waiting for him to make a move. “Yet they’re so important to the illustrati. Very well, if you wish to know a dead man’s name, I am Lothaire Corrant. I already know all your names, naturally.”

“What happened to the Iron King?” asked Welexi. “We came to his bed and found only a statue.”

“It’s something of a mystery to us as well,” said Lothaire. “He knew he was dying. As much as a decade ago he knew it. There are illnesses and injuries that even an illustrati —”

“He’s stalling,” said Vidre.

“No, my dear Queen of Blades, I am saying what I know. If I’m taking my time, it’s only because I don’t expect to live much longer than it takes for this conversation to reach its conclusion.” Lothaire spread his hands wide with palms up. “You have me at your mercy.”

Welexi dismissed the spear from his hand. “I believe him. If he acts against us, it will be with his wits, nothing more.”

Dominic felt his heart beat faster. He’d done nothing wrong, but he hadn’t yet told them about his conversations with Faye. He looked at Lothaire, trying to get some sense of what the man’s game was. Vidre’s nightmare seemed to be of a single man with all of the domains at his disposal, but Dominic didn’t think that Lothaire was that sort of man. If he had even a fraction of Charnel’s power, why would he still have wrinkled skin? The treacherous part of Dominic’s brain answered that Lothaire only wanted to appear weak, but it was hard to believe that it was a bluff.

“As I was saying,” continued Lothaire. “There are illnesses and diseases that even the king’s illustrati were incapable of curing. I am given to understand that they opened him up with scalpels, trying to find the root of the recurring sicknesses that their powers were keeping at bay. With an illustrati of blood gripping his head and providing him life, they could safely muck about with his innards, opening him wide to look at the places where tumors and polyps kept forming. The Bone Warden was brought in, but she could find nothing wrong in his bones.”

“What were the symptoms?” asked Gaelwyn. “How did the sickness present itself?”

“He asked for you,” said Lothaire. “He sent letters in secret, trying to get you back, despite the exile he had imposed on you. From the look on your face I suppose that you never got them?”

“He lies,” said Vidre.

Lothaire had eyes for only Gaelwyn. “Or perhaps you’ve seen enough of what people think of you that you have someone else sift through whatever letters come your way,” said Lothaire. “You travel constantly. If someone sends a letter, your bards will forward it to the next expected port of call, where other bards will hold onto it in anticipation of your arrival. But you never speak with the bards, that’s something that Vidre and Welexi do, is it not?”

“You won’t drive a wedge between us so easily,” said Welexi. “You haven’t answered my question either.”

“What do I care about the Iron King anyway?” asked Gaelwyn. “Who was he to me? After what he took from me I owed him nothing.”

“Do I have leave to address the question?” asked Lothaire, turning to Welexi. “Or do you wish to silence me in this as well?” Dominic could guess what Lothaire was going to say. Even if Gaelwyn didn’t care about the Iron King, he would care about the respect and acknowledgment. The Iron King could have offered Gaelwyn a new hospital, new printings of the books he’d written, all manner of things. When Dominic looked at Gaelwyn, he could see that Gaelwyn understood this too.

Welexi narrowed his eyes. “Tell us what happened to the Iron King.”

“He was dying,” said Lothaire. “Yet he was the most powerful illustrati the world had ever known. He had incredible resources at his disposal. As Laith had done before him, the Iron King tried to find a way around it. He sent archaeological teams all across his country and beyond its borders in an effort to learn more about the Harbingers. He diverted resources in order to bring in more illustrati of flesh and blood, hoping that one of them could be crafted into a prodigy that would cure him once and for all. He brought forth scholars to try to delve into the mysteries of his domain. It’s that last I believe killed him. The animal illustrati can take on minor changes from their domain when they have enough standing and engage in the proper exercise of will. The best guess is that the Iron King tried to become like iron.”

Dominic glanced toward Welexi. The Iron King had tried to become living iron, just as Welexi could become living light.

“When?” asked Vidre.

“He was found in his current state sixteen months ago,” said Lothaire.

“You’ve been running the Iron Kingdom for that long,” said Vidre.

“Longer,” said Lothaire. “We were his aides and advisers. And who is to be the new king? That’s why you’ve blown a hole in this castle and killed so many people, isn’t it? Prove the Iron King dead so that a new king can take his place?”

“Once the corruption has been rooted out, a new seed may be planted in clean soil,” said Welexi.

“Rooted out?” asked Lothaire. He gave a humorless laugh. “Oh, did you think that’s what you had done?”

“We have the artifact,” said Welexi.

“Fruit borne of an expedition to the Highlands,” said Lothaire. “Yet it is less of a melon and more of a grape; there were many fruits which came from that particular vine. We found thirty in total, among other things.” Lothaire tapped his ring against the table. “All that were in Castle Launtine have been scattered to the winds. I have no idea where my compatriots have taken them, but the corruption you believe you’ve rooted out has spread so far and wide that it is for practical purposes impervious to defeat.”

Vidre swore.

“What is your plan?” asked Welexi. “What is it that you are aiming to do?”

“The elimination of the illustrati,” said Lothaire. He said it without so much as raising an eyebrow at the audacity of it.

“Impossible,” said Welexi.

“By now you know what the artifact does,” said Lothaire. “You know that it’s perfectly possible. The question is whether we can accomplish our goals given this most recent setback. I must admit the prospect looks a bit grim at the moment, especially when you have one of the artifacts in your possession, but there are many men and women much younger than I am, strong in their convictions and not so willing to go toward death.”

“How is it activated?” asked Welexi. “How does it accomplish the transfer?”

Lothaire hesitated for the first time since they had come into the room. “If I elect not to answer that question, what happens then? You turn aside while Vidre does her best to torture the information out of me? Or you simply try to work it out by using it on someone expendable? I must admit to some curiosity. How much of a fraud is the Sunhawk? How much of the true core of himself is he going to reveal in his quest for power?”

“I will not allow Vidre to torture you,” said Welexi. “We will not kill you in cold blood. Yet you must understand that your time as our prisoner will be much more pleasant if you cooperate in all ways, not only those you find pleasing.”

“You suggest torture of a different sort,” said Lothaire. “A dark cell with thin gruel.”

“How do we use it?” asked Welexi.

“Ah, so you would use it,” said Lothaire. “The Sunhawk reveals himself. In that case, I think I’ll keep my silence.”

“Then you’ve outlived your usefulness,” said Vidre.

“No,” said Welexi. “There is other information we must extract from him. Even if he doesn’t know where his conspirators have gone, he knows names and descriptions.”

“I know much more than that,” said Lothaire. “Were you aware that Vidre agreed to kill Gaelwyn?”

“Lies,” said Vidre. Her daggers were still held in front of her. She seemed ready to leap across the desk and kill the man. Dominic realized that he had begun to assume that the man was their helpless prisoner, but they had no real evidence that the man hadn’t used the artifact to make himself an illustrati. Welexi had dismissed his spear of light, but Vidre was still as tense as she’d been the moment they’d entered the room.

“It was part of her agreement with the Blood Bard,” said Lothaire. He smiled at Gaelwyn. “She never liked you. You were politically inconvenient even before the trial that left you an exile of yet another country.”

“No,” said Welexi. “I trust Vidre more than I trust you. Now, I’m afraid we’re going to have to bind you.”

“Has Welexi told you about your father?” Lothaire asked Vidre.

A tendril of flesh shot out from just beneath Gaelwyn’s collarbone to strike Lothaire in the chest. He went limp instantly.

“My father?” asked Vidre. She turned toward Welexi. She hadn’t lowered her daggers, though she didn’t quite go so far as to point them at him. “Everyone knows my father sold me for forty drams. Welexi, do you have any idea what he was talking about?”

“If I knew anything about your father, I would have told you,” said Welexi. “We’re all a little upset right now. That’s what he wanted. There are more important tasks than turning over his words. We need to know what there is to do with those pieces of information which are salient to the future of the Iron Kingdom.”

Vidre let her daggers soften until they slipped back into the glass of her armor. She removed her helmet as well, revealing hair that was damp with sweat. “We can’t trust anything he said.”

“No, of course not,” said Welexi. “The papers might let us know the truth though.” He looked around the room, which was filled with bookshelves, interrupted occasionally by a large painting. Two doors led out to a small balcony. The old man still sat slumped in his chair, though he did seem to be breathing. “It is curious to me that he said nothing about Dominic.”

“How so?” asked Dominic. His heart leapt at the words.

“He was attempting to drive wedges between us,” said Welexi. “Obviously the man was present in Torland with us. I might even venture to say he was responsible for much of what happened there. He likely had spies or sympathizers. There are any number of ways he might have learned what he might use against us — what lies he might be able to tell in order to set our minds racing.”

“This isn’t the time for this,” said Vidre.

“The time for what?” asked Dominic. He could feel the anxiety rising inside him.

“When you spoke with Hartwain,” said Welexi. “Following the attack on her home. What exactly did she say to you?”

Dominic was silent. “I should have told you sooner,” he finally said. All their eyes were on him. “I was approached by one of their number. It was a woman called Faye. She spoke with me once in Torland, then a second time yesterday.”

“What leverage does she have against you?” asked Vidre.

“I — nothing,” said Dominic. “She had the better of me both times. I don’t believe I could have beaten her in single combat. All she wanted to do was talk.”

“Yet you didn’t tell us until just now,” said Vidre. “You didn’t say anything after leaving Hartwain’s. You lied to me.” Her hands were clenched tight around her daggers. Dominic recalled his rescue from Corta; Vidre had been angry then, but most of what she said was for the crowd. Now there was no element of performance in the furrow of her brow and the redness of her cheeks.

“This would be the third time you have lied to us,” said Welexi. “The very first day we met you, you lied and said that you were not a thief. Vidre saved you from that. In Meriwall you conspired with the Blood Bard. Do you expect that after the third time I would be so kind as I was before? You may only abuse our trust and charity a limited number of times.”

“He didn’t actually do anything,” said Vidre. She softened slightly. “If he’d tried to stab us in the back that might have been one thing, but he took a shift on watch last night. That would have been the time for him to try something, if he was going to.”

“And how do we know he did not?” asked Welexi. “We have encountered resistance here, but less than I would have expected.”

Vidre had no reply to that.

“There was never a right time to tell you,” said Dominic.

“They tried to kill the rest of us, yet let you live,” said Welexi. “Your objections last night make a great deal more sense, as does your escape from the Ministry.” He twitched his lips. “Gaelwyn, subdue young Lightscour. Leave him capable of speech.”

Gaelwyn hesitated, then threw one of his ropes of flesh forward. Dominic had a sword in his hand in an instant and sliced in front of him. His sword cut through the first tentacle but he didn’t have the speed to stop the second. Wet flesh touched his armor for only a brief second. His muscles seized up and he pitched backward, landing painfully on the ground. Gaelwyn moved quickly, touching Dominic briefly in order to finish his work.

“Please,” said Dominic. His head was all he could seem to move. He could feel his arms and legs, but no longer move them. “I did nothing.” He directed his attention to Gaelwyn. “I did nothing!”

“You take your opportunities where you can find them,” said Gaelwyn. “You pretended to defend me when all you were looking for was a scrap of glory. I’m sorry it’s come to this, but … you brought it upon yourself.”

“We need to talk about this,” said Vidre.

“What’s there to talk about?” asked Welexi. “You agree that Dominic has betrayed us. It’s a fitting conclusion to his time as apprentice. A time-honored trope, is it not, the young and impetuous student trying to displace his master? His story ends here. We can send letters to the bards to keep them updated and eventually the story of young Lightscour will fade, as it was always supposed to.”

“You can’t keep me as prisoner,” said Dominic. “I haven’t done anything to deserve that.” He pulled at his useless muscles, trying to find some way that he could move. He still had his domain, but there was little that he could do with it. Darkness wouldn’t allow him to move. He might project a blade from his armor in an attempt to cut Gaelwyn, but he had no illusions about being able to kill. Besides that, he would still be left motionless on the floor, with the only person capable of restoring him injured or dead. The more he fought, the worse this would go for him; they were three of the strongest illustrati in the world.

“Perhaps nothing so severe as locking you away in a prison cell,” said Welexi. He stood tall and imposing, looking down at Dominic with piercing eyes. He held his hands together behind his back. “However, you have a significant amount of raw power we can’t have falling into the wrong hands, not in this new era when one man might steal standing from another.” Gaelwyn had set the artifact on the ground before coming over to Dominic. Welexi picked it up and strode forward.

“Even if you can find a way to take his power from him,” said Vidre. She had moved to the balcony that projected off the room and opened the door to look out onto the valley. Dominic could see little but smoke and dust. “That doesn’t serve the story. Lightscour as an over-eager apprentice willing to use you as a ladder to climb higher? That has the proper beats of a story. If necessity compels us to take his power, so be it, but it will read to others as cruel or callous. The betrayal will lack weight unless they believe there was some true bond between the two of you. If the bond were true, you wouldn’t strip him of his power like that.”

“You said you would destroy the artifact,” said Dominic. “You said it was too dangerous.”

“I said we should not let it fall into the wrong hands,” said Welexi. He placed the artifact on Dominic’s chest. “Let me know when you feel any different.”

Dominic didn’t have any choice but to lay there, motionless, while Welexi set about trying to activate the artifact. Dominic was sweating, the only reaction he could muster. His brain kept scrambling for something he might say to Vidre or Gaelwyn, but nothing came to mind. He was closest to Vidre, but while she seemed unhappy with what was being done to him, she had stopped trying to speak in his defense. There was still a faint glow of anger about her. She stood at the balcony with the windows open, looking outward instead of watching what Welexi was doing.

When Welexi slipped Dominic’s hand inside the artifact, it sounded a single loud tone. Dominic’s shadow armor disappeared in an instant, dropping him down so that his back was touching the cool stone floor. A feeling of sickness came slowly fading in. He remembered his first few days of fame, when it felt like he had been sick his whole life and only then, with the fame of a city behind him, known health. All the strength and vitality that had been contained within him for the past month emptied out like a cup with a hole in the bottom.

“Fascinating,” said Welexi. He held the artifact high, looking it over. There was no visible change in it. Without any seeming forethought, Welexi stuck his own hand in the mouth of the artifact. It emitted a tone again, this one lower and longer. When he pulled his hand out, he had a smile upon his face. “The character of it is different,” he said. “Defined by absence. I had thought of them as opposites, even knowing that they were not quite that.” Welexi held out his hand. A sword of shadow sprang to life in it, ornate and fully formed. He set the artifact upon the ground and conjured a spear of light in his other hand.

“You have them both,” said Vidre. She was staring at Welexi. “You went ahead and took it.”

“Spoils of war,” said Welexi.

“This was no war,” replied Vidre. Her glass daggers were nowhere to be seen, but real anger was visible on her face.

“Of course it was,” said Welexi. His tone was firm and solid, nearly unquestionable. If there had been any wonder in Welexi’s expression when he had used the artifact, now it was gone, replaced by conviction. “I was shocked when Dominic attacked me, aghast at not only the depth of his betrayal, but the ferocity with which he defended this secret master.” He gestured toward the sleeping Lothaire. “We fought a pitched battle throughout the castle. I couldn’t bring myself to hurt the boy that I had come to think of as the son I never had.” He paused. “Isn’t that how you remember it?” Welexi asked with honest curiosity. Dominic couldn’t tell whether it was a masterful performance or whether Welexi had simply created his own version of events that he instantly believed. The world felt sick and wrong, twisted around itself in an unnatural way.

“Of course,” replied Vidre. She straightened her back and stood tall, with the bearing of a soldier. “I would have helped, but my relationship with Dominic was of a different nature. I’d grown too close to him. And Gaelwyn is a pacifist. He would never lay a hand on anyone.” If Welexi spoke with such authority that it was difficult to question him, Vidre replied with pure cynicism and mockery.

“Just so,” replied Welexi, not seeming to hear her tone. “It is a shame that Dominic escaped. If I hadn’t taught him my technique, if he hadn’t used it so recklessly, then perhaps he wouldn’t have ended up like he did. It was so utterly regrettable.” Welexi held out his hand and formed a creature of shadow, similar to the ones that he had made in the theater. It was nearly as tall as Dominic; the more Dominic looked at it, the more he saw his own image there. The figure of shadow suddenly held a sword; he thrust it toward Welexi, who easily parried it away. “I fear I’ve created a shadow that will haunt me. Lightscour had become a villain like the one he was so famous for killing. Perhaps Dominic was infected with something of Zerstor, something black and foul. Now the ghost no longer has a physical form.” Welexi swung his spear around, but the construct of shadow dodged to the side. They fought a mock battle, slowly at first but building in speed, a performance that was more beautiful than a true fight would be.

Welexi waved a hand, dismissing the construct of shadow. All eyes were on him. He didn’t so much as look at Dominic as he moved to stand over Dominic’s prone body. Welexi held his spear up with the point down, positioning it over Dominic. Dominic flinched back, trying to move, but his muscles were still betraying him.

“Wait,” said Vidre. “Let me do it.”

“Do what?” asked Welexi, spear still positioned over Dominic’s heart.

“You know what Dominic was to me,” said Vidre. “Give me a moment to grieve.”

“I’m afraid there is much to be done yet this day,” said Welexi. He frowned slightly.

“All the same,” replied Vidre.

“I’ll be here to comfort you, should you need it,” replied Welexi. “You may take a moment to do what you believe needs to be done.”

Dominic would have spoken, but his tongue had gone numb in his mouth. Gaelwyn still had his hand upon Dominic’s shoulder, resting it there. Dominic couldn’t speak unless Gaelwyn willed it. He could barely force air into his lungs. There was nothing that he could say in his defense, no way that he could stop whatever fate had been set in motion. Vidre leaned down and grabbed Dominic by his collar, pulling him to his feet until she had him held above her. He dangled in the air with his head lolled to the side.

“I’m sorry” said Vidre. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be the sort of person you’d be able to trust.” She carried him with her, taking him to the balcony where she’d been looking out over the valley. “I wish that it wouldn’t have come to this. I wish that we could have both been different.” She sat him on the balustrades, still holding onto him by his collar with a single hand. Dominic watched her with tears streaming down his eyes. Beyond her, Welexi was looking away, pretending that he could not see or hear. Gaelwyn’s face was impassive, free of any emotion.

Vidre stabbed Dominic three times in the stomach then kicked him off the side of Castle Launtine.

Next …

Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 17: The King’s Courtyard

Previously …

Gaelwyn often wondered what he would be without Welexi. His life had changed the day he’d found the world’s greatest hero laying broken beneath an olive tree. The story was different every time Welexi told it, which had bothered Gaelwyn at first. In the Sovento States it was an orange tree, fully in bloom but not yet ripe with fruit. When the story was told in Maskoy, the tree became a fig tree, with fruits spoiling on the ground. Far to the south in Malwin, Welexi had claimed to be bleeding freely, staining the ground rust-red, but to the east in Palao the wounds were bloodless. It had taken Gaelwyn a long time to see what Welexi was doing; the stories were translations, not just conversions from one language to another, but from one culture to another. The fig tree was a symbol of peace in Maskoy. The people of Malwin would understand the blood-stained ground to be the epitome of martyrdom. Welexi was not lying; he was crafting an impression more real than truth.

In the stories, that single moment had marked Gaelwyn’s transition from horrible monster to humble doctor. Gaelwyn had never felt it, not in the moment and not at any point afterward. Welexi was the only one who believed that Gaelwyn had a seed of goodness in him at all, let alone that this seed still had the ability to grow. Gaelwyn had saved Welexi’s life and continued on through the strength of Welexi’s belief. The books that contained Gaelwyn’s life’s work had been burned save for a few copies held by those who knew the value of them. His hospital had been razed to the ground and his name had been smeared through the mud. Welexi offered a narrow path that might yet be walked, so Gaelwyn walked it.

They sat together in the darkness, leaning up against the gray glass boulder that Vidre had made. Vidre and Dominic slept within, using spare clothing to cushion their heads. There was no fire to keep them warm. Welexi was uncharacteristically dark as well, with no armor to keep him protected and no spear of light in hand. Castle Launtine loomed in the distance. Tomorrow they would make their assault. It wouldn’t do for someone to go investigating a fire in the woods; Welexi’s light would be even more suspicious. Dawn was coming; it wouldn’t be long until it would provide them with light and warmth.

“You worry about me,” said Welexi. His voice was barely above a whisper, both so that the other two wouldn’t wake and so no distant travelers would have a chance of hearing.

“It’s bad enough when you’re attacked,” said Gaelwyn. “It’s bad enough knowing that you’re out there fighting, that you might sustain any number of wounds I cannot fix. The anticipation of it … I don’t enjoy it.”

“I had a close call with Zerstor,” said Welexi. “I won’t come so close to death’s gateway again.”

“You’ll be fighting illustrati,” said Gaelwyn. “Death can come quickly.”

“You’ve seen the hits I can take,” said Welexi. “You’ve seen my skill at avoiding the worst attacks in the first place.”

“Yes,” said Gaelwyn. “But you’ve never fought a man with two domains before.”

Welexi glanced toward the glass shell with its gray, frosted glass, where Vidre and Dominic slept side by side. “Our information comes third hand,” he said slowly. “Vidre isn’t certain that we can trust it.”

Gaelwyn’s eyes widened. He had already been speaking at a whisper, but now he leaned forward. “What does that mean?”

“Many things,” said Welexi. “If Dominic is telling the truth, he was given information by way of Hartwain. Our enemy is clever enough to have used her against us. It is well possible that they could use their leverage to coerce whatever story they wanted. More seriously, it is possible that Dominic has been compromised.”

“How?” asked Gaelwyn. “We’ve been with him for weeks.”

“That is less clear,” said Welexi. He gazed at the sleeping form of Dominic. Gaelwyn felt an urge to reach out and touch him, just to confirm by the beating of his heart that he was asleep. “Vidre has her suspicions, which are so far difficult to distinguish from sheer paranoia. You heard the way that Dominic spoke back to me. How he’s questioned our actions. Vidre watched him walk from Hartwain’s house as though he were completely unconcerned with the possibility of ambush.” Welexi shrugged. “He and Vidre have something of a complicated relationship; it may simply be that it has soured. That would not be a first for Vidre.”

“We should hold off on the attack,” said Gaelwyn. “Castle Launtine can wait until we know more. Until we can be sure of where loyalties are.”

“No,” said Welexi. “Yesterday’s attacks were a grand play for power. Resources were spread thin to accomplish what they did. Castle Launtine should be poorly defended right now. We ran swiftly to get here; it is unlikely that reinforcements from Parance will arrive before we’re ready for the assault. If they have even half the capabilities we suspect, they grow more powerful with every passing week.” He stretched his arms. “Vidre and I should be able to take care of what’s there. Dominic will help us; this will be a test of his courage, his will, his prowess, and his loyalty.”

“I only wish I could do more to help,” said Gaelwyn. He folded his hands in his lap and felt the flesh of his body. Everything was working properly of course. He checked his muscles every few minutes, making small adjustments with every movement. His body was the height of efficiency, but his domain could propel it further when he was paying attention.

“You could fight,” said Welexi.

The sentence hung in the air, coiling around Gaelwyn like a snake.

“When Wealdwood forced his way aboard our ship in the middle of the night, coming to kill me, you disabled him,” said Welexi. “You placed your hand upon his armored chest and twisted his insides just so. You did not hurt him, only stopped him from taking my life.”

“You’re asking me to break a vow I made,” said Gaelwyn.

“I’m not asking,” said Welexi. “I’m only stating a truth. You could fight alongside us. You would not have to kill, you could only disable as you did with Wealdwood. In doing so, you would increase our chances of survival significantly. A vow only binds a man if he wills it; the vows we make to ourselves are always the most tenuous, the most easily undone. If you decide that you will not fight beside me tomorrow, I will accept that you have honored a promise to yourself. I will think no less of you because you have put that commitment above and beyond my survival. But I know what I would prefer.”

“I’m not a fighter,” said Gaelwyn. “I don’t have any of the formal training that you or Vidre have.”

“You have as much as Dominic does,” said Welexi. “You have a body that any man would be envious of, even other illustrati of flesh. You have enhancement across all the physical domains, bones made thick and strong by the Bone Warden and skin made both tough and pliant by Charnel. You are not a fighter, but that does not preclude you from fighting. The only question is whether you will be beside me when we rush the castle.”

Gaelwyn was silent. The sun had risen, casting light on them. He could see the dark skin of Welexi’s face, a countenance that was noble and kind even in the worst of times. His thoughts turned again to the man that he would be without Welexi. If Welexi died, there would be simple, practical consequences. The vast network of bards and storytellers would collapse, both from a lack of central focus and a lack of funds. Gaelwyn would be barred from a number of kingdoms that had only allowed him in because the Sunhawk had given a firm declaration of trust. There would be no one to defend Gaelwyn from someone trying to make their name. But the biggest impact would be that Gaelwyn would lose his only true friend. Welexi wasn’t showing it, but the fact that he was asking showed that he was nervous about the outcome.

“Think on it,” said Welexi. “I’m going to wake Vidre up so she can have a shift as guard. I would suggest you get some sleep, whatever it is you choose.”

Once Vidre had stretched herself out and sat down just beside her makeshift tent, Gaelwyn laid down beside Welexi. Welexi was unconscious after only a moment had passed, one of the benefits of long experience in a number of wars. Gaelwyn was more slow to go to sleep. His head was too full of thoughts. If he waited until Welexi was in mortal danger, it might be too late. Even if he waited until just before the assault it might be too late. It was better to make the decision as early as possible.

Gaelwyn turned his focus inward, feeling the muscles beneath his skin. He began to think of how he would want to change, if he were going to fight. Some of it was theory, dreamed up long ago as an exercise in thought, tested only minimally to confirm that his thinking was sound. He began to alter his shape, just to imagine the fight better, going up against men with spears and swords, thick armor and illustrati powers. By the time he had finished his refinements, Gaelwyn’s mind had been made up.

Vidre raced forward as the rubble fell, sprinting her way down the hillside and across the open valley to Castle Launtine. Her daggers were firmly locked into position on her thighs, giving her free hands to bat away the larger pieces of stone that fell from the air. The sound of the explosion was still echoing off the walls of the valley. If she pushed herself, Vidre could cover a mile in a single minute. The men and women who guarded Castle Launtine would still be trying to get their bearings by the time she got there. She spared a single quick glance behind her to make sure that Dominic was following. Whatever his other failings, he was sprinting along a few paces behind her, with Gaelwyn trailing after. There was a good chance that Dominic was going to die in the coming battle. A full minute of running across the valley towards the smoking castle was too much time to think on such things. Instead, Vidre put her focus forward.

An iron gate barred the way to the winding path that led up to the castle proper. Vidre approached it at speed, watching the guards running around as they tried to figure out what was going on. Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention would have seen the light Welexi had generated on the hill, which had a clear cause and effect with the explosion at the castle. These men wouldn’t have drilled for something like this. Even if they had, there was little that they could do.

An ordinary man with no standing wasn’t quite helpless against an illustrati. Vidre had sustained injuries in the past, some of them even as fresh as the day before. A two-handed sword or mace swung with full strength could potentially break a bone. A freshly sharpened sword could cut through skin, even if it wasn’t likely to bite too deeply into flesh. There was at least some element of danger from the common man, especially if he was properly trained. The guards on the ground showed some bravery at least; they leveled their pikes at her instead of turning to run.

Vidre used the full force of her weight to slam into the first guard she came across, narrowly dodging the sharp edge of the pike. She cracked his ribcage with a shoulder check, which helped to slow her down. Her daggers were in her hands in an instant. She continued forward, advancing on the next man. The guards wore breastplates and helmets, but their faces and necks were both exposed. Altogether there were half a dozen men on the ground, with another half dozen standing at the top of the gate or somewhere within it. The men had pikes, lowered so the head was pointing straight at her; it was easy enough to shove those aside, using enough force to send the weapon spinning and put its wielder off-balance. The trick to a fight like this was to keep awareness, so that at the same time she was stabbing upward into the soft spot at the underside of the jaw, she could also make sure that she would know if anyone was approaching her from behind. Her armor was thick enough to deflect or absorb any attack a pike could manage, but it was good practice all the same.

Vidre had given three of them mortal wounds by the time Dominic arrived. He moved forward to attack one of the men with pikes, striking hard enough with his sword of shadow to put a dent in the steel armor. Vidre paid only a small amount of attention to his part of the battle; he would serve as a distraction more than anything else. He could help to flank the illustrati that they were sure to meet, but he wasn’t their primary offensive weapon.

Vidre moved on to the next man, already impatient for Welexi to do his part.

Calligae had set out toward Castle Launtine at first light.

The events of the previous day had rattled him, though he elected not to show it, even though he was alone on the road. He had been near the Ministry when the alarm had gone up; he’d rushed there as was his duty, taking the stairs three at a time and passing by younger men. There was a chance for glory here, but Calligae only gave brief thought to that. The truth was, he had crafted enough of an enduring legend for himself that he would retain his standing for the rest of his life, even if he disappeared. He wasn’t a young man anymore, trying to grab every scrap of renown that he could.

When he saw that it was Vidre in the hallway, he’d first thought that she had simply arrived before him. There was blood on her daggers though, accompanied by a manic look in her eyes. He’d thought he would get an explanation at least, but Vidre had never been one to monologue. He’d done what he could to drive her back, hoping that this wouldn’t be a fight to the death. It had been the upstart who had gone after Vidre like he was being guided by the hand of fate. There were too many new illustrati in Parance these days, young, hungry men and women who had carved away their own piece of the public imagination. Perhaps it was only his age, but Calligae felt there was something different in the character of them.

He had followed the illustrati of shadow out the window, trying his best to glide on the air or at least cushion his landing. He tended to think of other things while people were telling stories; he had no idea who the young man was, only that he was almost certainly going to be easier prey than Vidre was. Backed into a corner, Vidre would lash out with her knives, slicing cleanly through armor and flesh alike. The two had split their paths, which gave Calligae an opportunity to chose between them. If he’d been a younger man, he would have chased Vidre, thinking only of the story he could tell, even if that was the wrong choice.

He’d lost the young man, though not for lack of effort. When Calligae had made his way back to the Ministry of Legends, he’d gotten a number of shocks. The Minister of Legends lay dead, with his throat slit in his own office. Welexi had flown out a window. There were thirty dead at least, most of them Ministry soldiers, with no less than six illustrati among that number. The casualties were expected to rise as people succumbed to their wounds. Taken as a whole it was nearly unbelievable. For Vidre to take a turn towards villainy was almost expected. It often happened when an illustrati felt themselves beginning to fade. A hero falling from grace always got people talking, just as they would talk about a villain being redeemed. Vidre had enough unpleasantness lurking in her past that a fall could be anticipated. Welexi though, that was something else.

Calligae looked at the illustrati around him. He was right that they were young, but it was more than that. They carried themselves differently. They spoke of their kingdom with a zealotry that Calligae did not remember from his own youth. He’d noticed the changes that had been happening, but had dismissed his observations as being part of the way that old eyes looked at the young. It was more than simply that though. Many of the old faces had disappeared entirely, but he couldn’t recall the elaborate funerals or going away parties that illustrati demanded. Calligae hadn’t been paying enough attention to the world around him.

The Iron King would have answers, he was sure of it. The trip to Castle Launtine would provide some insights, one way or another, even if it was only by way of a polite rejection.

He was three miles away when he heard the thunderclap of an explosion.

Dominic’s first strike hit the soldier’s armor. Dominic was mildly surprised that there was no parry to it; he had grown accustomed to sparring with Vidre and Welexi, who could easily turn away almost any attack. A pike wasn’t a parrying weapon, but Dominic had never really trained against it. He pulled back and swung his sword again, looking briefly into the soldier’s wide eyes. This blow hit the man’s neck with Dominic’s full strength behind it, cutting halfway through before striking bone. The man toppled to the side, taking Dominic’s sword of shadow with him. Dominic summoned a fresh one into his hand. When he turned to look for the next man, he saw that Vidre was killing the last of the guards. Not all were dead — some were on the ground, bleeding or crying out in pain — but they had been taken out.

Dominic saw the spray of dirt near his feet at the same moment he heard the gunshot. It had come from above, courtesy of a musket. The top of the gate had a handful of cannons, but the soldiers up there all had their muskets out. One of them took aim at Vidre, sighting his musket down at her and lighting the fuse. He was knocked backward as a spear of light stabbed through his chest; Welexi landed on top of the gate just afterward, fully clad in his armor of light from head to toe, covering his face and hands as well, so that no part of the man could be seen or struck.

“Come on,” said Vidre. “They didn’t have time to lock everything up.” She opened a door in the side of the gate, separate from the large portcullis that was meant for teams of horses. The door was iron, thick enough to take cannon fire, but it hadn’t been locked. Vidre was moving down the path by the time Dominic started after her. She didn’t look back towards him, nor did she glance at Welexi when he landed beside her.

They moved up the hill together, moving quickly. Every second that passed was another second for their enemy to regroup. Some number of them had surely died when the powder store exploded, but the castle itself had a thick iron frame. While there were now chunks of stone scattered on the ground, Dominic could see that the castle was still standing, at least when the smoke drifted away enough for him to see it. The day was eerily silent; Dominic had expected a flood of men to come rushing down from the castle to fight them, but beyond a few shouts he’d heard near the beginning and the screams of the men they’d killed at the gate, there was nothing.

Dominic wanted to run away. Killing that soldier had made him feel sick, a sensation only increased by the knowledge that he would have to do it again before the day was out. He’d watched Vidre and Welexi work together to kill from a distance, murdering men they only assumed were responsible for the assassinations. Attacking Castle Launtine smacked of story logic. Yet here Dominic was, trailing just behind as they rushed up the switchback path. If they arrived at the castle and found it empty, or filled only with functionaries and bureaucrats, what would they do then? Or worse, if the Iron King was not truly dead but only insensate, and every action they’d seen had been taken on his behalf? Dominic felt certain that no matter what they found, justice via bloodshed was what would follow.

Welexi strode forward with his spear in hand. He had a commanding presence that was only heightened by the blood on his armor. When Dominic watched him, all the objections began to wash away; how could a man with chin held so high and back kept so straight be anything but right? Then Dominic would remember the moments of petulance and childishness. He remembered what Vidre had said, about Welexi having her do the dirty work so he wouldn’t have to feel the taint of it. It felt as though the glory of the man should fade, as though, once the flaws of his character had been revealed, there should be something in his appearance that belied the undercurrent. Yet there was not. Welexi was firm and tall, the very picture of a hero.

The winding path up to Castle Launtine stopped at a large courtyard. Vidre had been to the castle a number of times before, and the courtyard had always been one of her favorite places. It was filled with a variety of plants from around the Iron Kingdom, artfully arranged so that a person could take a walking tour through the botany of the kingdom. Castle Launtine lay at the heart of the Iron Kingdom. While it had once been a purely defensive structure, the Iron King’s rule had seen it transformed into an enormous home, both a symbol of his everlasting power and the diplomatic heart of the country, ministries aside. The thick oak doors of the castle were normally opened wide, the better to take shipments of iron which the king produced on a daily basis while holding meetings or dictating to his assistants. The major defensive features of the castle faced downhill, the expected angle of attack. While the central doors from the courtyard could be barred, the castle still had its windows. That was how Vidre planned to get in.

When she rounded the final corner though, the castle doors were standing wide open. Her first instinct told her that this was a blatant trap, but then she saw the people. They were bleeding and hobbling out the front doors, or laying down in the manicured grass. It had only been a handful of minutes since the powder store had exploded, but in that time the courtyard had started to be turned into a makeshift triage center. Vidre had expected soldiers ready and waiting, illustrati armed and armored to the teeth with any number of domains, but there was nothing.

Vidre scanned the faces, unwilling to move forward. They were spotted quickly, but the reaction wasn’t what she had expected either; no one was running away or screaming, they were only standing and watching. More people were coming from inside the castle as she watched.

“They weren’t ready for us,” said Dominic. He kept his voice low. “They’re not combatants.”

Vidre felt sickness rising up in her. They had blown the gunpowder store thinking that they might be able to kill a good number of people within the castle. It had all the gunpowder that the castle needed to fill dozens of cannons over a lengthy siege. If they had done nothing more than kill civilians, or soldiers who had done nothing wrong aside from choosing a safe posting …

When the first illustrati leaped down from the battlements to land in the courtyard, Vidre breathed a sigh of relief. She was armored in glass from head to toe, but didn’t move in it anywhere near as smoothly as Vidre did. To Vidre, the glass could cling like silk, molding itself to her skin when it didn’t need to be hard. This other woman had clearly spent time crafting her pieces of armor, quite inexpertly. Other illustrati followed behind her, taking the thirty foot drop with ease. When six had dropped down, Vidre thought perhaps it would be a difficult battle. When another four followed, the odds looked a little more bleak.

There were limits on how powerful the conspiracy could possibly be. The number of illustrati within the Iron Kingdom was finite. Up until yesterday, they’d been operating in secrecy, keeping both the masses and the illustrati unaware of their existence. If they were culling from within the Iron Kingdom, how many illustrati could they really have robbed of their power in the last year? Dozens, easily, but only from among the lower ranks. Taking one of the true legends, rather than the village champions, would have caused a stir.

When another six illustrati came through the thick double doors that led into the castle, Vidre smiled. Sixteen against three was even worse odds than before, but her nightmare from last night had been that she would be facing down a single man with ten times her strength and access to every domain. She’d been spared that, at least, if they were dividing power among so many people.

Beside her, Gaelwyn began to take off his shirt. It was unusual for him to follow so closely into battle, where he would be a liability more than an asset. He revealed hard, bulging muscles that Vidre could sometimes forget belonged to the small, unassuming man. He had small red welts just beneath his collar bone that Vidre had never seen before. When his shirt fell to the ground, Vidre saw long red ropes fall into his hands. They were lengths of raw muscle, with no skin covering them. They attached at his wrist, protruding from a cut in the skin. In form they reminded Vidre vaguely of tentacles or tongues. The sight was sickening, but it meant that after such a long time, Gaelwyn meant to fight.

“We need to attack now, before they can get into formation,” said Vidre. The people in the courtyard were still standing around, mostly looking shocked or confused. Welexi gave a brief nod, which was all that Vidre needed in order to start moving forward.

“Hold!” shouted one of the illustrati. He was wrapped in copper armor, more functional than aesthetically pleasing. “You come to attack us without any attempt at parlay?”

“You lost the right to speak with us the first time you attacked,” said Vidre. She didn’t slow down. “The second attempt ensured that you would be hunted down, and the third —” she broke into a sprint “— ensured you’d die slowly!” The words rolled of her tongue easily. Her glass helm slammed down into place, covering the last inch of her body. Vidre leapt through the air, singling out a man with no faceplate. He tried to turn and move, but she hadn’t focused on him until the last moment. He reached up with bare hands, likely an illustrati of one of the bodily domains trying to find purchase. He wasn’t quick enough to block the blow, only to knock it off course. Vidre’s dagger slashed his face, cutting through one eye across his nose. He screamed and lost focus, which was enough to leave him undefended for the second attack. Vidre was hit hard in her back, shattering the large piece of glass there before she could confirm the kill.

She flipped over and lashed out with a lazy swing; the illustrati had converged on her, almost half of them coming to the defense of the man she’d just killed. The one who’d hit her so hard was a large man with a great maul. Vidre did her best to repair the cracks while preparing to roll out of the way of his strike, only to find her arms and legs had been grabbed. She kicked and cursed, growing out shards to slice uselessly at gauntlets. Her back was in agony from the hit. The large man swung his maul up into the air, ready to bring it down for another hit, but before he could, a spear of light erupted from the front of his chest.

Welexi had left his face exposed, which allowed Vidre to see the same calm dispassion that the Sunhawk normally carried into battle. He had a spear in either hand; he spun them around lazily before darting forward to drive the people holding Vidre back. Vidre scrambled to her feet, feeling a sharp pain in her back, but she could still move. The illustrati they were fighting weren’t rank amateurs, but they weren’t at the peak of standing, nor were they confident, trained fighters. There were simply more of them. As the moments passed and the pain in Vidre’s back began to grow, the illustrati spread out around them. Her attempts at intimidation and the murder of two of their compatriots hadn’t broken them, but it was only a matter of time. The fight would be won long before they’d dropped down to even odds.

Dominic had entered the fray only belatedly; he was fighting two illustrati of his own and doing a poor job of it. Vidre rushed to defend him, but there was a small moment of hesitation. Dominic wasn’t telling her the full truth of what had happened at Hartwain’s. She’d felt it when she’d seen him leave her manor. She’d felt it even more strongly when they’d met back up afterward. She had become sure of it when he’d waited until quite late to share vital information. Something was off about Dominic, enough that she’d been keeping her eye on him for quite some time. She went to go save his life all the same.

Dominic held his sword in front him, trying to keep his eyes on the two illustrati coming towards him. They split off from each other, moving to flank him. Welexi rushed past, going to Vidre’s aid, but that left Dominic alone. His sword wavered in front of him, switching back and forth between the two men. Dominic tried to remember all the rules that Vidre had drilled into him over the weeks, knowing that it probably wasn’t going to be enough. The smart thing to do would be to run away. Dominic held a defensive stance instead, hoping that he would be equal to these opponents. Their domains weren’t obvious; both wore full plate armor and held long swords, but they had none of the markings of their domain that Dominic had come to expect from illustrati. None of the useful materials then, probably not the metallic domains, and keeping in mind that each of them might have more than one —

The one on the left attacked with a long, sweeping strike that Dominic easily dodged. The other came in low, swinging for Dominic’s feet. He took the blow on his armor, feeling the sting of it. Dominic backed up, trying to keep the two men from flanking him completely. He pulled the shadows around him, plunging himself into total darkness, but from the movements of the two men, this wasn’t enough to give them pause. Both their heads seemed to track where Dominic moved, at least so far as he could see from the way the shadows moved. Dominic dropped the shadows back down soon after, hoping that Vidre or Welexi would see.

Dominic had made his armor as strong as possible and wrapped it around himself so that it was sealed against the prying hands of someone using the bodily domains. He’d done training exercises with Vidre that would help him to survive without air for a few breaths, but he had little confidence in his ability to fight while doing that. He kept backing up as the illustrati approached him. Both moved forward again, attacking at once. Dominic parried one attack, which brought electric blue sparks from the sword, but the other attack slipped through, striking him in the armor. Vidre had once said that most battles between armored enemies came down to who wore down more quickly rather than hard strikes. If that were true, fighting against two men would doom Dominic to a slow death.

Both men attacked again; they’d managed to flank him, which left him waving his sword around trying to defend against both of them and taking strong hits to his armor. The armor made it hurt less than it might have, but it was hardly an absolute defense. Each strike brought pain with it, enough that he knew he’d be bruised all over if he survived the day.

The one to Dominic’s right was kicked aside by a blur of sharp glass. Dominic turned his attention to the other, who had fully electrified his sword. Dominic had been warned that a solid strike of lightning could cause muscles to spasm and tense, but he’d felt no effects from it thus far. Shadow seemed to stop the effect entirely.

Vidre came to Dominic’s side. Her daggers were dripping with blood. She hissed slightly, then moved forward, taking a blow that shattered the glass of her bracer before quickly reforming. The man’s full helm had small holes to allow him to breathe. Vidre slammed her dagger against it, then held her hand there as he tried to push her off. Dominic moved forward and grabbed the man’s sword hand, twisting it around and pinning it behind the man’s back. Vidre stepped away after only a few seconds, satisfied with her work. She swept the illustrati’s leg from beneath him, with the dagger still stuck in his helm. Dominic watched for a moment. The illustrati hadn’t been killed; he was struggling, trying to free himself from the helm, but glass had fused shut the hinges and clasps that would let him escape.

“He won’t last long,” said Vidre. She turned toward where Welexi was fighting a desperate battle against six men and women. Vidre started forward, then stopped short. Gaelwyn was on the move and she seemed intent on watching him.

The ropes in Gaelwyn’s hands were flesh. He swung one above his head, letting several yards of red muscle extend to their fullest. When he reached the melee, he slipped the tentacle forward. It struck one of the illustrati on the back; he fell down instantly, dropping his weapon. The second man went down as quickly as the first. The third ducked beneath the length of muscle, slicing it with his sword, but he was struck in the helm by something pink and fleshy that had come from Gaelwyn’s chest. Dominic watched in shock. Gaelwyn was famous enough not to be limited in the same way that other illustrati of flesh were. He didn’t need to touch anyone skin to skin, he could reach straight past their armor. Gaelwyn had added onto the range his physical touch allowed.

The fight was over. Dominic stripped the shadows back from around his face. He breathed in air that tasted too much of metal in long, ragged gasps. Vidre was doing much the same, but she was using her energy to move forward, to where Welexi stood with his hand on Gaelwyn’s shoulder. He was smiling at the doctor, speaking soft words of encouragement.

“We need to keep moving,” she said. “I count eleven bodies, that means five in retreat.”

“It might have been prudent to parlay,” said Welexi.

“And waste the element of surprise? And lose the element of terror as well?” asked Vidre. She shook her head. “I have no regrets.”

“There is more to do here,” said Welexi. “Artifacts to find and leaders to question.” He turned to Vidre. “Try not to kill the last person who knows what we wanted to find out. The man who wore copper had the domain of fire as well as his metal. We’re close to them. They have the much-vaunted ability they’re said to have.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Vidre. Her eyes scanned the battlements of the castle as well as the window as she tried to catch her breath. She was holding her back with one hand. “A single man with all their combined powers would have been more of a threat. I’m grateful they split their power in separate bodies, but … are they restricted to only two to a person? I’m sure some of those men had only a single domain.”

“They don’t want to concentrate power,” said Dominic. “They don’t want a monolithic figure in charge.”

Vidre stared at him. She seemed ready to say something, then turned away. “Perhaps you’re right. Come on, let’s go. No sense giving them too much time to set traps.”

Next …

Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 16: Smoke and Mirrors

Previously …

Vidre fell.

Glass twirled in the air around her, spreading as it fell with her. It seemed to move backwards, because it was falling more slowly than she was. The moment stretched out in front of her, a half second where she was surrounded by her domain and empty air. Death lay below her, coming more quickly with the tightly spaced beats of her heart. She shattered her armor, fracturing it along intuitive lines. The pieces broke off and tumbled away from her, dozens of pounds of glass that had formed a protective shell around her cracking like an egg.

She could aim to hit the street headfirst. If she closed her eyes she wouldn’t be able to see the inevitability of the crash. She would crack her skull or snap her neck, possibly both, but either way it would be a swift and merciful death. It would be possible to die, quickly and simply, instead of the experience of pain and the fight that would surely come after it. The thought passed through her mind quickly, just long enough for three floors of the Ministry of Legends to pass her by. She would remember it later, with a small amount of suppressed longing.

Vidre had learned the art of falling at a small temple in Luchistan, in the far east. It had been early in her career aboard the Zenith, before Gaelwyn had saved Welexi’s life and come aboard, but after the Peddler’s War. Their tour of the far east was more to offer a cleansing of the palate than anything else. Vidre had gone to the temple alone, in part because she and Welexi had gotten in a fight that both would afterward pretend hadn’t happened. Vidre had thought that the Luchistani monks would have something clever and wise for her, which was always how it had gone in the stories, but instead their style of martial arts was almost entirely concerned with how to take an impact against the ground.

It was nearly worthless for an illustrati. Fights were about which domain you had and how much power you could bring to bear with it. Heavy armor was the norm, as were long weapons with a fair amount of reach. There were a number of domains that allowed for an attempt as suffocation through various means as well, which meant distance was preferred. The only domains that favored grappling were the bodily domains, more to find or create a gap in the armor than anything else. Even then, being able to properly take a fall didn’t matter to someone like Vidre. She was simply too durable for a throw to do any damage. She had sparred with the monks all the same, learning as much of their techniques as a week would allow, but that was more for the sake of being able to tell the story later. The monks focused on rolling, turning the moment of impact into sideways movement, but this only worked if the fall had an angle to it. It wasn’t until her final day at the temple that a wizened old man gave her careful instructions on how to survive a straight drop. She’d thought it useless but learned it anyway; it probably saved her life.

Vidre spread herself out, with her forearms in front of her and her feet angled downward. The idea was to take the hit from the ground in as many places as possible, so that no one location would be taking the brunt of the impact. All this was accomplished in the last half of the fall, but had been planned from the moment that Welexi had made his own graceful exit from the Ministry of Legends. At the last moment, Vidre turned her head to the side, then slammed into the ground.

She came to with a throbbing headache, not too many seconds after she’d made impact. There was a moment of disorientation and pain, until the pain had sharpened into something visceral, leaving the sense of confusion behind. Vidre got to her feet with an involuntary groan. She had gotten lucky; despite the pain and blood streaming from her, nothing seemed to be broken. Her hearing was less than it had been at the start of the day, thanks to the grenade and a number of pistol shots, but it was clear that the people around her were screaming; pieces of glass as sharp as razors were raining from the sky.

Vidre reached down to pick up a piece of glass with shaking fingers. She began to form it into a dagger with a familiar manipulation of her domain; she would remake her armor as she went. When she told this story later, her landing would be flawless, with one leg splayed out to the side and her hand just barely touching the pavement of the street. In the story she would catch her glass daggers from the air as they fell.

Vidre looked around briefly, trying to see the best direction to run in. She winced when she saw a man clutching a bleeding woman. Vidre had been thoughtful in shattering her armor; she had made the pieces sharp. Vidre had known there might be civilians below, but she’d done it anyway, the better to inflict casualties that would need to be dealt with. The stories she would tell of this moment would leave out the pain and suffering of those people who had only been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Vidre took off at a sprint, trying her best to ignore the pains in her body and the unease in her mind.

They made their way through the city, moving as quickly as they could while staying inconspicuous. It was a sunny day, not quite right for a hood, but Vidre’s swollen red face would have drawn more stares than the unseasonable hood did. Dominic extended the shadows that her hood cast, further obscuring her face from view. This did little to hide her limp, or the hint of glass beneath her clothing. If they were stopped by any guards, Dominic was certain that she would kill them. Even with the beating she’d taken, she was too beautiful to pass as anything but an illustrati. She had not been built for subtlety.

“Where did you find your clothing?” asked Dominic.

“Not the time for idle conversation,” said Vidre. She licked a small amount of blood from her lips.

“I was chased by the parapetti in Gennaro quite a few times,” said Dominic. “I learned the art of blending in. If you look around us, you’ll see a fair number of people engaged in idle conversation. Even if you didn’t, the guards will be less likely to try speaking with us if they thought they’d be interrupting.” He kept his voice low enough for a relatively private conversation. The sounds of the city would drown them out.

“They wouldn’t be so foolish as that,” said Vidre.

“Yes they would,” said Dominic. “They wouldn’t even realize the impulse. At any rate, it’s not as if speaking to me is going to make it more likely that we’re found out.”

Vidre glanced toward Dominic. “Parance and I have a long history,” she replied. “There are difficulties in forging the sorts of relationships that will last a long stretch of absence, but I made a disproportionate number of them here. Part of that is owed to the Peddler’s War, and the long stretch of time we spent in the Iron Kingdom. Once I’d killed my pursuers, I had options in front of me.”

“You came to Hartwain’s looking for me,” said Dominic. He tried to keep his voice light. Anyone glancing at them might mark the hooded figure as odd, but Dominic’s casual air would deflect attention.

“I came to Hartwain’s because too many of the people I’d known had been attacked,” said Vidre. “Today was the day they made their grand move. It’s virtually certain they thought our presence necessitated it. If their trap had worked, they would have to explain to everyone why they’d killed us. If they hadn’t sprung a trap, there was a risk we would uncover something. They used what element of surprise they had now, while they still could.” Vidre pursed her lips from the shadows of the hood. “So to answer your question, I went to Merrith’s house. She was an illustrati of gold; she was an hour dead when I got there, along with her husband and two of their servants.”

“I’m sorry,” said Dominic.

“I said it was a lasting relationship,” said Vidre. “Not a lasting friendship.”

They walked in silence for a few steps, with Vidre leading.

“Where are we going?” asked Dominic.

“Hopefully to the place that the Sunhawk will assume we’d meet,” said Vidre. There was something cutting about the way she used his title. “We met during the Peddler’s War, in a small courtyard just south of the Elnor. It’s not a story that we’ve told anyone, so no one would think of it as a meeting place. Everywhere else is the home of an illustrati; if Hartwain and Merrith are any indication, the illustrati in this city aren’t safe. Those that aren’t being slaughtered are traitors or pawns.” Her eyes rested on Dominic for a moment. “Hopefully Welexi thinks of the same place I do, or I don’t know how we’re going to find him.”

“He’ll be easy to notice,” said Dominic. “A tall, bald man with dark skin would stick out even if Welexi weren’t famous.”

“Assuming they’re both still alive, he’ll send Gaelwyn,” said Vidre. She swayed slightly as she stepped forward.

“Are you going to be okay?” asked Dominic.

“I told you,” said Vidre. “There’s blood pooling in my boots.”

“It’s going to look suspicious if I have to carry you,” said Dominic. He tried to keep his voice light and cheery, with the same nonchalance she was showing him, but he didn’t know what he would do without Vidre. In the short term, he would be lost and alone in a city that was actively hostile to him. In the long term, his career as an illustrati would be jeopardy. That was without considering the fact that she was a friend, of sorts. There was a small romantic attraction buried beneath the stories they’d been telling and the displays they’d been putting on for the public.

“I’ll be fine,” said Vidre. “Not feeling up for my side of a conversation, I’m afraid.”

“That’s okay,” said Dominic. “I can do the talking.”

Dominic stole for the first time when he was nine years old. His father had taken him to market, in part so there would be an extra set of hands to carry back the fruits they used for the specialty breads. Dominic had absentmindedly grabbed a plum while the adults were talking. This wasn’t too uncommon in the bakery. His father had called them baker’s treats, though the fruit given to Dominic and his siblings was often slightly spoiled. When Dominic realized that he shouldn’t have taken the plum from the fruitmonger’s stall, he quickly stuffed it into his pocket before anyone could notice, just in time for his father to look at him.

Dominic had thought his father had seen him steal the plum. The whole walk back, Dominic was waiting for the moment of rebuke. His father didn’t have much of a temper, but the few times Dominic had seen it, it had left him shaken, even when it was directed at his brothers or sisters. The admonishment never came. When they were done unpacking the fruits, Dominic went to the room above the bakery that he shared with his brothers and cautiously took the plum from his pocket. He ate it quickly, while there was no one to catch him, devouring the sour, slightly unripe flesh of the plum as quickly as he could. When all that was left was the pit, Dominic opened the window and hurled it over the tiled roof of their next door neighbor. His hands were sticky with plum juice, so he wiped them on the side of his brother’s bed, and with that, all signs of the crime had vanished.

After a day had passed, fear gave way to relief and happiness. He was given his baker’s treats just like his brothers and sisters were. There was no lasting consequence from the theft. Not even the fruitmonger seemed to have noticed a single plum was missing. The next time Dominic went to the market with his father, they were given a warm greeting before the haggling over prices, with no one seeming to have noticed what Dominic had taken for himself. Dominic found himself volunteering for trips to the market often, primarily to think about the best way to steal another piece of fruit, or a confection from the candy stall.

He was caught for the first time when he was twelve years old. He had some small amount of free time in his day, between his duties at the bakery and the schooling that his mother provided. Mostly he was alone, or with his sister Anna, who followed him around like a shadow. Dominic hadn’t found a tutor in the criminal arts, nor did he know where you might find someone like that, but he’d been inventing his own rules and methods. He’d stolen that first plum through distraction, so this became the pillar of his budding school of thought. He enjoyed spending time with his little sister, both because she worshiped him, and because she was useful at turning away the attention of a shopkeeper.

While Anna asked the confectioner about all sorts of inane questions about what sorts of ingredients were in his chocolates, Dominic picked up some of the small candies. He would pick up two of them at once, take a moment to look at them, then put one back while palming the other. It was something that he’d practiced at home, with small rocks, enough that he’d thought it was nearly seamless. After the candy was safely in his pocket, Dominic looked towards the confectioner, who was still wrapped up in speaking to Anna. Dominic helped his sister pay for a treat — another thing he thought would eliminate suspicion — then walked out of the store. He was grabbed by the shirt just as he stepped into the street.

The confectioner yelled at him, a storm of curse words that quickly left Anna crying. Dominic first tried to deny that he’d taken anything, but the confectioner reached into Dominic’s pocket to pull out the stolen candy. People were watching them, but Dominic couldn’t do anything; the man was twice his height, with a painfully firm grip.

“Third time this week!” yelled the candy maker. “Third time a child comes in to steal from me! Where are your parents that let you roam this city?”

“I’m an orphan,” said Dominic, trying to think of a way out of this.

The confectioner gripped Dominic around the throat. “Liar,” he said. “I can take you to the parapetti and have them sort you out or you can tell me where your father is.”

Dominic relented and gave directions to the bakery where they made their home. He had thought that would be the end of it, that he would have some time to figure something out before his father was informed, but that was not to be. The confectioner closed up his shop, holding tight to Dominic the entire time. Dominic had been frog-marched down the streets and back home, where the confectioner had explained things to Dominic’s father. A beating ensued, one that left Dominic sore for a week after. His father had roared about the respect of the community, the irresponsibility of bringing Anna into it, the reprehensibly immoral behavior, on and on until he’d finally worn himself out. The punishments had been piled high.

It wasn’t the end of theft for Dominic, but it was the beginning of the end of his relationship with his father.

They arrived at the courtyard with only a single close call. A small group of guards had gone marching past them in double time. One of the guards had turned to look at them, slowing slightly, but Dominic had pretended to laugh at a joke, which was enough for the guard to continue on with his group. It had put Dominic even more on edge than they’d been before; their survival hinged on small situations like that, not all of which he would be able to see coming. He wanted to turn his head to watch every person they passed, looking to see whether they were being followed, or whether someone was going to fetch the guard. That paranoia would only attract attention though, so Dominic kept himself engrossed in telling stories to Vidre. These were small things, anecdotes about his mother’s love and his father’s wrath, play-by-plays of the rooftop races, and stories of daring capers with his friends as they committed their minor crimes. Vidre kept her eyes moving, not seeming to listen to him, and Dominic tried not to feel slighted by that.

The courtyard was a small one, with several stone benches to sit down on and a lonely tree in the middle of it straining up towards the light. It was nearly deserted, save for a small man with closely-cropped red hair and simple clothing. He looked at them for a moment before giving them a nod and looking around. When he’d made sure the coast was clear, the muscles beneath his face shifted until he looked like Gaelwyn. He let the disguise drop for only a moment before changing his face again. There was enough to give him away, if you were intimately familiar with the man. His eyes stayed the same. Everything else was different though.

“Claire isn’t feeling well,” said Dominic. “Do you mind if we rest for a bit before moving on?”

Gaelwyn nodded once before taking Vidre’s arm and helping her to sit down. Relief flooded onto her face as Gaelwyn kept his hand lightly touching her forearm. Dominic tried not to recoil back when the skin of Vidre’s face contorted as the muscles shifted beneath it. Gaelwyn held a hand out toward Dominic, who took it with only a slight amount of hesitation.

Lingering soreness from the fall and the chase vanished in an instant. Dominic felt a surge of energy in his legs, as though he were ready for another run across the city; for all he knew, he now was. The changes to his face felt like someone was prodding at his cheeks from the inside, pushing outward in ways that were uncomfortable. When Gaelwyn was finished, Dominic’s face felt like someone had made him put on a mask that didn’t quite fit. He tried his best to ignore it, but the feeling wasn’t quite right with what his mind had known.

“I’ve heard that Welexi is on the run,” said Gaelwyn. He glanced to the buildings that surrounded them, each with windows into the open air the courtyard provided. Many of the windows were open. If anyone was actively eavesdropping on them, it was too late to try to conceal their identities, but there was no sense in saying things out loud into so much silence.

“I heard that too,” said Vidre. “Though I can’t imagine the city would be friendly to him, or the others he was traveling with.”

“I imagine he still has friends,” said Gaelwyn. “Come on, we should get going.” He looked at Vidre’s face. “Keep the hood up.”

“Oh la, well it is so nice to meet someone new!” cried the woman when they entered. Dominic had been given her name, Charnel, and her domain, skin, but he knew nothing else about her. She looked young, but the domain of skin could accomplish that with ease. Her dress was light yellow, with small flowers of silk stitched onto it. This added to her light and airy appearance. Her house matched her in many ways; the windows let in as much light as possible and the woods were all light colors instead of dark. She was wealthy, as most illustrati were, so the place was filled with the curlicues and gold leaf that Dominic had come to expect.

“Oh my, the Queen of Glass, but I almost didn’t recognize you beneath that hood,” said Charnel. She swept forward with her dress trailing behind her. “Such a pity to hide your beauty with the ministrations of the Red Angel.” She held a dainty hand in front of her. “You have a fabulous bone structure none the less. It would be my utmost pleasure to give you what healing our good doctor could not.”

Vidre took the offered hand. Dominic watched the cuts stitch themselves back together, as though the skin had never been touched at all.

“You insist on keeping that scar?” asked Charnel. “I know it’s an affectation, but oh la, I find it so dreadful.”

“Are we safe here?” asked Vidre. “Merrith and her husband are dead, Hartwain has lost her domain.”

Welexi unfolded from the chaise he was sitting on. “Together we are safe. There is no force in the world that can stand against us.”

Vidre took off the hooded cloak and began shaping her armor around her, growing in more glass where it was needed. “I take that to mean that we’re not secure here. Gaelwyn, can you change my face back to what it was?”

“Why?” asked Gaelwyn. “We might have to leave on short notice.”

“We might be attacked here,” said Vidre. “In case you’re killed, I don’t want to be stuck with such homeliness.” She watched him with piercing eyes.

Gaelwyn moved forward and began to undo the changes he’d wrought. “It was the easiest disguise,” he said. “There are only so many changes that I can make without changing the skin or the underlying bone.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Vidre, though she had been the one to insist on being changed back. “We need to plot our next move.”

“Castle Launtine,” said Welexi. “It’s the seat of the Iron King’s power.”

“He’s dead,” said Vidre. “None of this makes sense if he’s alive.”

“All the same,” said Welexi. “Our enemy has been pretending that the Iron King is alive. In order to do that, they would need full control of Castle Launtine, if only to prevent their ruse from being discovered. Charnel has led me to believe that directives are still issued from the castle, even if the day-to-day running of the Iron Kingdom is done from within the ministries.”

“You still want to cut off the head,” said Dominic. “But what if there’s no head to cut off?”

“Explain,” said Vidre.

“I mean … it’s probably not just one person. It could be many. Some of them are within this city as we speak, they’re the ones who attacked the illustrati.” He paused. Now would be the time to speak out and explain what Faye had said. “Are we going to kill all of them?”

“Every collective has a leader,” said Welexi. “Every group has a vital member. There is something inherent to human nature that causes this. You saw even as the Parliament of Torland was forming, they were fighting with each other for the positions of power they’d built. We will find them. There will be a reckoning.”

“And then what?” asked Dominic. “If the Iron King really is dead, who will rule once you’ve killed everyone in this conspiracy?”

“We’re not in the business of crowning kings, Lightscour,” said Welexi. He had a sour look on his face. Dominic knew the man well enough to have some guess at his thoughts; Welexi had said that there would be a reckoning and that grand proclamation was supposed to be the end of the conversation. That was how it would be in a story. “Even if a number of the Iron King’s bastards have been killed, some must still remain. There are protocols for dealing with this sort of thing.” He said it with a wave of the hand.

“Being realistic though,” said Dominic. “Protocol won’t select the best ruler for this kingdom. And if we were to install a tyrant on the throne, or someone easily deposed by the next conspiracy after this one, what good does that do for the story?”

“It’s not always about the story,” said Welexi. “It’s about doing what is good and letting the story follow on its own.”

“But that’s what I’m saying,” protested Dominic. “Is killing all these people really good, given what we’d be leaving in our wake?”

“We can stay behind to rebuild,” said Vidre.

“It’s a possibility,” said Welexi.

Dominic had nothing to say in return. He had a horrible, sinking feeling that they were following the path of a story, rather than the path of good. Faye’s people were far from innocent, but neither were Vidre and Welexi. Together they had killed a dozen people today, with only a weak excuse of self-defense. Vidre seemed to kill whenever that was the most efficient way to get to her goals. Welexi was the same, but less forthright about it. Both had fought on the side of the Iron Kingdom at the same time that Gaelwyn was doing his terrible experiments at the Iron King’s behest. Gaelwyn was famous then; they had to have known.

“I won’t be coming with, I’m afraid,” said Charnel. “Oh la, I would love to come with, to see the grandeur and the adventure of a castle assault, but you must know that skin has few applications in the martial arts. Besides that, of course I have my services to think of. In these times there will be many who need mending, you understand. If we are to have new blood at the top, there will be many elevated in their own ways, whether by fame or money. They’ll want my services.”

“You’re not safe here,” said Vidre. “They have some capacity to steal your fame from you, along with your domain.”

“I won’t be safe there either,” said Charnel. “I think you can agree with that. At least here I have not been harassed. Perhaps I’ll take a vacation to the country for a few weeks until things settle down. I have an estate two days ride away, did you know?”

“Very well,” said Welexi. “We will wish you luck in your journey.”

“A present for the young illustrati,” said Charnel. “Before the four of you take off to save the world.” She stepped toward Dominic with a smile. “What changes would you like for your skin?” she asked with a sweet smile.

“My skin?” asked Dominic. “I think I’m fine with it.”

“Oh, well you’re far too young to have crow’s feet, that’s for certain, but there are other things that the domain of skin can do. It’s not just for looking youthful, you know. Were you aware that the domain of skin is the only one of the bodily domains that encompasses a sensory organ?”

“That’s not quite true,” said Gaelwyn. Vidre and Welexi had moved away to speak on travel preparations, but Gaelwyn had stayed to watch this exchange. “Bones and flesh have nerves in them. It’s part of why breaking a bone is so painful.”

“Oh la!” said Charnel. “The boy knows what I mean. We touch with our fingertips. We feel the wind on our face. I can deaden the nerves or enhance them.” She winked. “Or I can toughen your skin up, enough that your flesh would be protected from all manner of dangerous implements.”

“Don’t do that,” said Gaelwyn. “I can’t repair skin, it’ll leave you with painful wounds that heal slowly.”

“Do whatever you think is best,” said Dominic. “I’d prefer something … subtle.”

They left Parance under the cover of darkness. Charnel had nothing that was suitable for camping, but she did have a wide variety of clothing for them to take, some of it borrowed from her servants. Dominic had left his expensive purple outfit sitting in an alley somewhere in the monstrous grid of the city, so he was down to simple workman’s clothing. As soon as they were past the last row of houses, he began to conjure his armor of shadow into place. He’d taken some reinforcement of his skin, as well as some deadening of his nerves, which made him feel slightly out of sorts. Vidre and Welexi must have taken such enhancements ages ago, along with enhancements to strengthen their bones. It helped to explain some of their nonchalance when it came to pain. Charnel didn’t remove pain entirely — Dominic had prodded at the meat of his leg to make sure — but the sensation was far less extreme than it had been. He had been made more muscular too. With Gaelwyn and Charnel working together, his skin could stretch to accommodate more extreme changes of the flesh. When he looked at himself in the mirror, it was difficult to recognize the man that he’d been before.

Getting horses would have been difficult, so they went on foot instead. Once they were on the road out of the city, they began to run, moving with the strength only an illustrati could bring to bear. Dominic found the pace they were keeping somewhat slow, so he sprang ahead, scouting out the plentiful shadows. It was easier to tug on the shadows when it was nighttime; his domain was in abundance here.

They stopped after an hour of running, in order to cool down and drink from flagons of water. They were going as fast as a horse at a gallop, which they would only be able to sustain for as long as it took to get to Castle Launtine, and then only with periodic refreshing of their muscles from Gaelwyn. If they’d had an illustrati of blood as well, Dominic had thought they might be able to run forever, but Gaelwyn had said the body had many processes that were little understood. Dominic hadn’t pressed the point; he didn’t want to know what lines of experimentation had shown about the limits of the domain of flesh.

“Did Hartwain say what form the artifact took?” asked Welexi. “We know precious little about it.”

“It’s about the length of my forearm,” said Dominic. “With a hexagonal hole near the top. It has the same insistence on the mind as other artifacts.”

“We need to know whether it’s aimed like a pistol or needs skin contact,” said Vidre. “Did she say?”

“No,” said Dominic. So far he’d avoided lying to them, but he knew he couldn’t hold back much longer. “They have double illustrati. Illustrati with two domains. Or maybe more.”

Vidre and Welexi exchanged a glance while Gaelwyn’s eyes went wide.

“If you could merge the bodily domains into a single person, or even just the major ones, the possibilities available would be nearly endless.” He looked down at his hand. “It’s possible, with skin, flesh, and bone to regrow fingers, or to make new ones, but the level of technical knowledge required means that there are limits on what can be done by even a specialized team of illustrati. The communication alone is burdensome. But if you could feel flesh and bone at the same time, you might be able to alter them in perfect coordination —”

“If they truly have such a device, it must be destroyed,” said Welexi. “It was bad enough when I believed that it could only make exchanges.”

“You should have told us about this sooner,” said Vidre. “If we’d been attacked —”

“We were not,” said Welexi. “It doesn’t matter, at any rate. We know now to treat every illustrati we face as though they might display a second or third domain at a moment’s notice.”

“There’s a strong possibility that we’ll die in this assault,” said Vidre. “This began back with Wealdwood and Cerulean Bane attacking us. They’d been tracking us for months. That means the conspiracy had a full year to collect powers from whomever they might like, all under the authority of the Iron King. We don’t know what we’re walking into here.”

Welexi smiled. “That’s what makes it so heroic.”

They continued on through the rest of the night, traveling in darkness. There were scattered clouds that obscured the moonlight, which made it difficult to see on the road. They ran in silence with long, bounding strides that did little to tire them, breaking only occasionally. They would have outpaced a galloping horse sent from the city, but over the course of four hours they didn’t encounter another soul on the road. It was nearly dawn when Castle Launtine came into view. They turned off into the woods, to a place far enough from the road that they wouldn’t be seen, then began to make camp. Vidre shaped her glass into a convincing impression of a gray rock, large enough that they could crawl inside it.

“We sleep here until midday,” said Welexi. “We’ll take shifts.”

“How are we getting into the castle?” asked Dominic.

“Oh,” said Vidre. “I think you know we have a flair for the dramatic.”

Castle Launtine was located on a tall, rocky hill, with a small village spread out some distance from it. Vidre, Welexi, Gaelwyn, and Dominic stood a mile away, on top of a similar rocky hill, separated by a mile of open air. They had made a few concessions to visibility. Vidre’s armor was frosted glass now, reflecting no sunlight, while Welexi was projecting little light. The castle itself was a tall building, eight stories that added to the considerable height of the hill. Cannons stuck out from the lower walls, bristling forward at angles in order to cover the most ground. The stone was worked and smooth, with no obvious handholds. There was a winding path that led up to the castle, with a thick iron gate thirty feet tall barring the way.

“What are we doing up here?” asked Dominic. He’d held his tongue up until this point, but now curiosity was burning at him.

“You see those cannons?” asked Vidre.

“Yes,” said Dominic slowly.

“Castle Launtine is one of the most secure fortresses in the world,” said Vidre. She took off her glass breastplate and began to shape it, stretching it out into a disk. “Now, you might think about bringing in an illustrati of stone to come in from underneath, burrowing a tunnel to leave an entryway, or just toppling the structure from beneath in order to kill everyone inside. You’d pretty quickly find that there’s several solid feet of iron stopping you. You’d then probably bring an illustrati of iron in, but as soon as he moved aside the metal, he’d get a heap of sand down on top of his head. There are layers upon layers of traps that prevent that sort of thing.”

“The Iron King’s defenses around the castle were considerably weakened by the fact that he liked to brag about them to everyone who visited,” said Gaelwyn.

“Well, certainly,” said Vidre. She kept making the disk larger, until it was nearly as tall as she was. Dominic was worried that it would be visible from the castle in the way that it reflected the light, but he said nothing. “And of course, the castle is vulnerable to someone flying in from above, but there’s only one man with that power and in either case that’s quite difficult to defend against. A lone man going into a well-organized, well-defended castle alone is also probably a suicide mission.”

“I am not quite so heroic,” said Welexi.

“What are you making?” Dominic asked.

“Spyglasses are one of the trinkets I make,” said Vidre. She gave Dominic a feral smile. “This is only a larger application of the same principles.” She kept up the expansion, making a disk — a lens — so large that she had to make a brace of glass on which to rotate it. “Hellishly difficult, of course. Try drawing a perfect arc with a pen and it would be easy enough to point out the imperfections even with the naked eye. We need something far more precise than that.”

“You mentioned this when we were trapped,” said Dominic. “You’re going to … what, cook the guards up on the parapets?” If Dominic looked carefully, he could almost make out the small shapes up on the walls.

“No, we’re going to explode their powder stores,” said Welexi. He cracked his knuckles and watched as the lens began to take shape. “We’ve been within the walls of Castle Launtine often enough to know its layout.” He crooked a finger forward. “I never supposed we’d have to do something like this, but the powder stores are just beyond that wall. We only need a lens built precisely enough to focus all the light I produce into a single point, which we’ll angle straight through that window there.”

“The lens focuses light on a point in space,” said Vidre as she worked the glass. “We only need to make certain that the point is precisely positioned on a wall a mile away from us. Easy.” She stood back to look at her work. “I think we’re good to go. Dominic, if you could cover us in shadow, I would appreciate not going into combat with burnt skin.”

“Wait,” said Dominic. “We’re doing this now?”

“It will take some time to find our range,” said Vidre. “When we tell the story, it will work perfectly the first time, but in reality, it will take a half hour, maybe more. Shadows, if you please.”

Dominic cloaked them all in shadow, save for Welexi. Welexi produced light from his hands, directing it towards the lens. Dominic hadn’t seen anything like this before, but it was clear why it wasn’t too useful; it was brighter than a hooded lantern, but the effect was mostly the same. Through the lens though, the light was angled toward a distant spot. Dominic saw no change in the castle, but he didn’t have the spyglass that Vidre was using to examine their work.

“I wish we could have done this at nighttime,” she said. “It would be easier to examine our work. Unfortunately, much easier to see from a distance when you’re lighting up the night.”

It took another twenty minutes of minor adjustments, until finally Vidre could see that the lens was focusing on the right spot. Dominic had thought that Welexi was producing a lot of light before, but now that the weapon was properly set up, the illustrati of light began pushing the full weight of his domain through him. It was all that Dominic could do to angle the shadows, but even then it was as though they were standing in strong daylight. Vidre kept her spyglass pointed at the castle.

“We’re spotted,” she said. “Looks like they’re raising the alarm.”

“Let them,” said Welexi.

The base of the castle exploded outward as the gunpowder ignited, sending chunks of rock tumbling through the air. Dominic saw the walls of the castle lurch, sending men he could barely see tumbling down to the ground below. Dust, smoke, and fire rose in the distance, obscuring the castle. The sound came afterward, like a pistol shot writ large. The trees in the valley below swayed backwards. Dominic couldn’t take his eyes from the scene.

“Come on,” said Vidre. “We just spent the element of surprise.”


Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 15: Falls

Previously …

The one-armed man staggered toward Gaelwyn and laid his hand upon the physician. His face was pale; blood dripped from the stump where his arm had once been.

“Please,” he whispered.

Gaelwyn sat up slowly and gave the man a careless touch. The bleeding stopped at once as the meat around his shoulder folded in on itself. The grinding sound of bone touching bone set Dominic’s teeth on edge. The man sagged to the floor with a haggard expression and began to cry.

“It’s too quiet,” murmured Vidre. She was standing at the end of the short corridor that separated them from the long hallway which led back to the ascending room. “Unless you were exceedingly stealthy, the alarm will have been raised.”

“I’m afraid there was much shouting,” said Welexi.

“Most of the people in this building wouldn’t have been aware of what was happening,” said Dominic. He helped Gaelwyn to his feet, barely thinking about their flesh making contact. Gaelwyn would be able to feel almost the entirety of Dominic’s body through that connection. “They’ll only know that we left death and destruction behind us.” He turned to look at the minister’s corpse.

“Leave the moralizing for later,” said Vidre. “What’s our next move?”

“They’ll respond in full force, thinking it’s an attack,” said Welexi. “We must assume hostility. We leave through one of the windows.”

“How high up are we?” asked Vidre. “Three hundred feet? You’re the only one with wings.”

Dominic watched the one-armed man while they argued. What was to come after they made their escape from the Ministry? It was clear that they couldn’t stay in Parance for any longer than they had to. They’d have to get back to the ship as quickly as possible, trying to outrun the news of what had happened, but if anyone was aware of what had happened here, they would already be racing ahead to cut off that path. In fact, it seemed likely that if the enemy planned for them to be assassinated in Parance, the ship would have been seized upon first word of their arrival. The iron room was a trap, but it was only a small trap nested inside a larger one.

“We won’t be able to escape the kingdom with broken legs,” said Dominic.

“We aren’t going to escape,” said Welexi. “We’re going to confront the Iron King. This story doesn’t end with us running away with our tails between our legs, it ends with the ringleader put to the sword and made to answer for his crimes.”

“We’re going to kill the Iron King?” asked Dominic.

“Or whoever rules in his stead,” said Vidre. “Seems sensible enough to me, all things considered. If we tried to run, they’d chase us. There would also be our enduring reputation to worry about, if the weight of the Iron Kingdom’s storytelling engines was brought to bear against us.”

There were sounds from the corridor beyond where they stood. It was the thunder of footsteps. Vidre’s armor had already been built up to be thick, but now it slammed down into place around her, leaving no contact with the outside world save for two vents that passed by either cheek to allow her to breathe. Welexi’s armor was nearly as concealing. He held a spear of light in each hand. Dominic tried his best to thicken his armor, but he’d sparred enough to know that he would be a hindrance to the others in the tight quarters of a hallway.

“I can’t fly while carrying another,” said Welexi. “But I would be able to use my wings to slow the descent for another.”

“And leave the others to be spitted?” asked Vidre. She furrowed her eyebrows.

“I could return,” said Welexi. “We would move one by one. It would be a matter of minutes.”

Vidre leaned over and looked down the long hallway. She pulled her head back and swore. “They’re already in position.”

“All you’ll need to do is hold the hallway,” said Welexi. “I’ll take Gaelwyn out the window then return.”

“Minutes is too long,” said Vidre. “Dominic and I will fight our way down together.”

“Agreed,” said Welexi. “I will return to offer what assistance I can.”

“Wait,” said Vidre. “Where do we regroup?”

Dominic heard an unfamiliar sound from down the hallway. They were hidden in their alcove; he trusted Welexi and Vidre to keep them safe, but if they were driven back into the iron room there wouldn’t be any hope of escape. The sound was something like hissing. Vidre must have heard it too, since she steeled herself and faced the doorway that separated them from the longer hallway. A metal ball the size of a human head rolled into view. Vidre swept forward and kicked it with her glass boot hard enough to shatter the glass, sending it flying back down the hallway to where it had come from. The explosion happened a half second later.

The noise came first, followed quickly by a rush of air. The wall between them and the grenade — a term Dominic was only passingly familiar with, but that must have been what it was — burst outward, with small bits of wood filling the air. Dominic’s teeth were rattled and everything sounded as though he was underwater. Vidre’s armor was shot through with cracks. Her left leg, visible within its shattered glass casing, was red with blood.

“Move!” shouted Vidre. The word was understandable more from the shape of her mouth than the sound, which barely reached Dominic’s ringing ears. She darted down the hallway, moving toward the explosion. Welexi followed, with Gaelwyn behind him, but they went the other direction when they got to the central hallway, towards the large window that gave the hallway its light. Dominic came after them, just in time to see Welexi hook Gaelwyn beneath his arms and leap from the window without ceremony. His wings could be seen unfurling for a brief moment before he dropped from sight.

Dominic followed Vidre through the smoke, nearly tripping over blood and viscera. Welexi had already been down this corridor before, when he’d fought his way out of the iron room; he must have left bodies behind. The smoke was thick enough that Dominic tried to navigate through only his domain sense, but the smoke made the shadows diffuse. He plunged forward anyhow, just in time to see Vidre slice a man in a red uniform across his throat. At his side was a sling with two more of the enormous grenades within it. Vidre moved forward without giving him a second thought, on to the next; there were no obvious illustrati among them, only men with wide-barreled pistols and sabres.

“Dom, darkness!” called Vidre.

Dominic deepened the shadows around them, until nothing was visible save for what his domain sense showed him. Vidre had more glass powder to allow her some proxy to sight; she sliced through the helpless men quickly and efficiently, sometimes leaving a glass dagger stuck in one of them while she pulled a spare from the shards of her armor. For his part, Dominic did not fight. The quarters were cramped and he was far less skilled than Vidre was. He could have used his sword of shadow to spear those men that still squirmed on the ground in her wake, but he didn’t have the stomach for it.

“Hold,” said Vidre as she lowered a bleeding man to the floor. She was holding him up by the dagger stuck in his stomach. “No illustrati,” she said into the darkness. The deep shadows made her a ghostly image to Dominic’s eyes. It was harder to read her face like this. “They’re preparing something further down. Or at least, that’s what I would do.”

“How much further until we can jump?” asked Dominic.

“I don’t know,” said Vidre. “Come on.”


They had rode up together in the ascending room, carried by unseen ropes thanks to the might of an unseen engine. It had been nerve-wracking to Dominic, in part because of the way the room swayed and shook. This was nothing compared to their journey to the bottom of the Ministry of Legends.

They were fighting against an unstoppable tide of men. Vidre was favoring her left leg, though she made no complaints about it. If another of those grenades went off at close range, Dominic worried that they would be seriously injured, if they didn’t outright die. Most of the men in red had sabres, but a few of them had pistols as well. With her glass armor in place, covering her ears, Vidre couldn’t hear the sizzling sound of a fuse running short. She took a single shot to the gut which pierced her armor entirely, but though Dominic saw blood, Vidre only stopped for long enough to kill the man and seal her armor closed again.

The wooden stairway did not follow a straight path down. It zig-zagged back and forth, occasionally stopping abruptly, only to pick up again at the other side of the floor. This provided a number of ideal choke points for the men in uniform to put up a defense, when they weren’t trying to fight a battle on the stairs (one the guards would invariably lose). In the course of descending four floors they twice encountered a grenadier, who pitched forward grenades that ranged in size from an apple to a melon. When they saw one, Dominic and Vidre would both duck behind a doorway or try to scramble out of the way. The explosions caused more damage to the building than to Dominic or Vidre, though Dominic was left with a headache.

Vidre had killed perhaps twenty men by the time they encountered their first illustrati. He stood at the end of one of the central hallways, dressed in heavy metal armor but with his wrinkled face and gray hair exposed. Vidre whipped one of her daggers at him, but he flicked it aside with a casual gesture as it approached him. Vidre created a second dagger and ran towards him, which was all the incentive he needed to fill the hallway with an enormous wind that slowed her down. Dominic followed behind her, hoping that he could be some use for once; a few weeks of training had not yet made him an expert soldier and they hadn’t once discussed how to defeat an illustrati of air. Dominic assumed that one of them had been responsible for sucking the air from the iron room they’d been trapped within.

As the illustrati redoubled his efforts to create a wind that would knock them off balance, two men came out from a doorway behind him with rifles, which they aimed squarely at Vidre. She cursed and threw herself sideways into one of the rooms. Dominic was nearly thrown from his feet by the wind, but he followed behind Vidre all the same.

“Darkness,” she said. Dominic heightened the shadows until they were standing in pitch black. A quick look around the room showed a long table with pots of inks; this was one of the places where those paints were made. A few of them hung up on the walls, though the room was dominated by its windows. They were still hundreds of feet from the ground. Vidre stood facing doorway with her daggers drawn.

“It’s Calligae,” Vidre said, mostly to herself. “Stupid bastard took up residence in the Iron Kingdom a few years ago. He was a friend once.”

Dominic held a sword of shadow in his hand. It was still unused. The illustrati of air would be coming for them, or summoning reinforcements while they hid. Neither option was good. Vidre seemed indecisive for once, unsure of what the best course of action would be. She couldn’t let herself be shot too many times, not even with her glass armor as thick as she could make it. The illustrati of air alone would be an issue. Vidre tossed more glass powder into the air — Dominic’s lungs were sore from breathing the stuff — and frowned at whatever she was seeing in the darkness.

“No darkness,” she said. Dominic dropped the shadows. “We’re leaving out the window.”

“It’s too much of a drop,” said Dominic.

“I don’t know if I can beat Calligae, not if he’s got an army behind him,” said Vidre. “He’s almost certainly an innocent in all this besides that. We’re going to have to risk some broken bones.”

“If we break our legs we’ll never leave this city alive,” said Dominic. “And we don’t know how to find Welexi and Gaelwyn.”

Vidre held a finger to her lips. Her daggers wavered slightly in her hands. She would need to see Gaelwyn after they got out of here, if they got out at all; her leg and her stomach both showed red behind the glass.

A gust of wind blew through the doorway, causing papers to fly up from the long table and rip free from the walls. A figure came darting into the room, though not the one that they’d been expecting; this was a new illustrati, someone in burning red, molten armor. The air shimmered around him as he dove towards Vidre. She stepped to the side rather than try to face the heat coming from him. He landed on the floor, causing fires to light up where he touched it, then lunged at Vidre a second time. She tossed her daggers at him and ran, leaping over the long table and then crashing out of the window in a swan dive. The molten man shared a brief look at Dominic then began to advance on him, which left Dominic no real choice besides following Vidre. He sprinted towards the large windows, surrounding himself with more shadows to blunt the impact, but the wood and glass broke away easily. Dominic found himself in free fall.


Dominic was forming the wings of shadow even as he made his exit from the Ministry of Legends. They were small stubs when he began to properly fall. By the time that first second had passed, they were long enough that they might be doing something to slow him down. He began to spin, first a gentle turn and then fast enough that the buildings around him were something of a blur. It was something in the way he’d made the wings that was doing it, by the tug he felt at the point they attached to his armor, but he didn’t dare dismiss them to try again. Dominic had no idea how quickly the ground was approaching, nor how much the small wings were helping to slow him down. He focused his efforts on trying not to be sick, which he accomplished mostly by closing his eyes tight. Papers fluttered down around him, some of them printed with the faces of illustrati.

He landed with a jolt and realized with immense relief that his legs were still working. Dominic opened his eyes and dismissed his wings, only to find himself standing atop a building that was still a hundred feet up from the ground. He took a moment to get his bearings. Dominic was further from the Ministry of Legends than he’d thought possible, more than a block from the shattered window that he and Vidre had leapt out of. There was no sign of Vidre, though that was little surprise; she would have taken a much more direct trip to the ground. Dominic must have twirled like a leaf on the wind, slowed but uncontrolled. There was no sign of Welexi or Gaelwyn either, but thanks to twisting stairways, Dominic had no idea which side of the building they’d even left from.

A flicker of motion brought Dominic’s attention back to the Ministry building, just in time to see Calligae leaping out the same window. For a moment Dominic thought the old man was actually flying, but it was only a sort of glide. A full second passed before Dominic realized that the illustrati’s glide was taking him to the rooftop that Dominic was standing on. Dominic deepened the shadows around him once again and began to run, as fast as he’d ever run before.

The rooftops of Parance were uneven, dropping precipitously from building to building before rising again. Dominic dropped two stories down to a rooftop plaza, then burst through a pair of large doors, bringing the deep shadows with him. A group of musicians with string instruments held with long fingers were groping around in the darkness, but the breeze Dominic could feel on his neck was enough for him to ignore them and push his way towards the nearest door, which he kicked open with a splinter of wood. He barreled his way down the hallway he found himself in, looking for somewhere that he could lose his pursuer. When he saw a flight of stairs, he took them, going up instead of down, then raced to another open window so that he could jump down to the street.

There were gasps and cries of terror as he brought the darkness with him. The landing was hard on his joints, but while the drop had been from high up, it wasn’t nearly bad enough to injure him. Dominic raced past the blinded people, trying his best not to look back. He ducked into the first alleyway he could see, then dropped not just the shadows, but his armor as well. The purple clothing he wore was more conspicuous than he would like, and his complexion was darker than the people he saw in the streets, but if Calligae was still following, Dominic hoped that a casual air would be enough to deflect immediate attention. Dominic would have to steal more simple clothing in order to blend in. It was unfortunate that the people of Parance didn’t seem to hang their clothing out to dry as was done in Gennaro.

Dominic walked down the alley with a casual stroll, looking for somewhere that he could duck into without making a scene. He heard shouts from the street behind him, which he assumed were caused by Calligae landing in pursuit, but it would take some time for him to question the bystanders, and by then Dominic hoped to have melted into the city as best he could. When Dominic came to the end of the alley, he found himself on another of Parance’s city streets, with a cafe close by. He smiled with an ease he didn’t feel and sat down at a table near the back, just in time to see soldiers marching down the street at nearly a run. Calligae didn’t come barreling down the alley as Dominic had feared; by the time Dominic had gotten his cup of coffee, it was starting to sink in that he had accomplished the first part of his escape. That left him a wanted man in the middle of Parance, separated from his party and with only a trifling amount of money.


They hadn’t agreed on a place to meet. The grenade had interrupted that conversation. Afterward, he should have talked it over with Vidre, but he hadn’t imagined that they too would be split up. The last thing that Welexi had talked about was taking on the Iron King himself, which would mean going a day’s ride from Parance to Castle Launtine, but that had seemed like foolishness itself even before the four of them had been scattered to the winds.

Dominic wasn’t sure how to find the others, if they were even alive. Vidre had fallen some two hundred and fifty feet, if not more, without the benefit of even small, ineffectual wings. If she’d been able to land without injury, she would have found herself right next to the building they’d been trying to escape from, likely in an area swarming with the very men they’d just been in combat with. Welexi had broken through a window on the top floor of the Ministry of Legends with glowing wings displayed to the world; the shards of glass falling to the ground would have brought people forward like moths to the flame, even before the most famous man in the world was seen making a dramatic exit. By the time Vidre had made her own landing, the base of the Ministry would have been awash with the sorts of people who are drawn to catastrophes. Dominic’s experience told him that soldiers, guards, and illustrati would be among them.

Dominic finished his coffee slowly. Welexi and Gaelwyn wouldn’t be in much better shape than Vidre. While Dominic could at least make an attempt to blend in, Welexi was far too recognizable. Dominic had a darker complexion, but Welexi’s skin was the color of burnished bronze, too dark for him to easily fit in with population of Parance, especially not with his bald head and regal stature. Gaelwyn could pass as another redheaded man from the Highlands of the Iron Kingdom, which was more or less what he was, but Welexi would stick out like a sore thumb.

If they all went into hiding like Dominic planned on doing, he had no idea how they would find each other. If the Iron Kingdom were not looking for them, the place to go would be Bordes, where their ship waited in port. Unfortunately, not only was Bordes a day’s ride away, it was almost certain that there were spies and soldiers watching the ship, if they hadn’t seized it entirely. That meant that Dominic would have to find the others somewhere in Parance without any real way of communicating with them. They had only been to a few places since coming to Parance, not including the Ministry of Legends, which was unsuitable as a meeting spot for obvious reasons. The problem was that the Iron Kingdom’s spies would know everywhere that the four of them had been as well; Dominic recalled leaving Quill’s former building with their weapons drawn and Welexi’s armor lighting up the city street. They hadn’t been the least bit inconspicuous.

Dominic drained the rest of his coffee, leaving only dregs, and kept his eyes on the street. He had seen more than a few people moving towards the Ministry of Legends. The ones in uniform moved faster than those who were not. Dominic wondered how much time he would have before the manhunt began in earnest; if the average member of the Iron Kingdom’s bureaucracy had no idea what sort of trap had been laid, it might take some time to untangle the events of the day and tie them back to the nominal culprits. There was no question that they had killed the Minister of Legends, or a great many people within the building whether illustrati or not. That made Dominic feel slightly sick. It didn’t seem to matter that it was compelled by necessity.

He came to no firm decision on where the best place to meet up with the others might be. After some time he decided on Hartwain’s, though he wasn’t quite foolish enough to go knocking on the door to the manor. Instead he would steal whatever he needed for a suitable disguise, then loiter a block or two away, not only to watch for the others, but to see whether Hartwain’s house was under surveillance by anyone else. Dominic had only been in Parance for a day; he hoped that his face would be difficult for anyone to recognize.

He left the cafe after a group of soldiers had gone by, stole trousers and a shirt from a house whose lock he quickly picked, and made his way across the unfamiliar city until he arrived at Hartwain’s manor house. When he got there, his heart sank in his chest.


The door was slightly ajar and the windows were all shattered on the ground floor. Dominic saw no one on the street, so he crept closer, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. Fleeing from Calligae’s pursuit had gone much better than he’d thought it would; the ability to fill a space with shadows combined with Dominic’s power as an illustrati and natural fleet-footedness meant that he could likely outrun anyone following him, no matter who they were. He tried to keep his heart from hammering in his chest as he slipped inside the manor. If there had been any talking, he would have kept his distance, but whatever had happened to Hartwain, it seemed as though it was already over. The interior of the house showed the same disarray that was clear from the outside, with pictures hanging crooked on the walls and furniture knocked askew. There was blood as well, mostly in small dribbles that were smeared on the floor and spattered on the walls.

Dominic slowly pushed open the door to the sitting room where he’d taken tea with Hartwain. The sliver of light revealed a number of cats, a few of which were looking right at him. Dominic felt an urge to run away and leave this place behind, but tried to ignore it. When he heard a low growl from behind him, he wished that he had listened to that inner voice. He turned slightly to confirm that the immense black cat, the one which almost certainly outweighed him, was standing directly behind him. Its footsteps had been entirely silent.

“Won’t you come in, Dominic?” asked a voice from within the sitting room.

Dominic reluctantly pushed the door the rest of the way open, revealing Hartwain laid out on the chaise, unmoving, and Faye standing in the center of the room. There were dozens of cats of every variety around her, each of them looking at Dominic. In her hands, Faye held a blocky gray device with a fist-sized hole in the top. Dominic was immediately aware that it was a Harbinger artifact, by some uncanny trick of the mind which only the Harbingers knew. He looked at Faye, whose face showed no amusement or compassion. At the same time, she didn’t seem particularly surprised or angry to see him.

“You tried to kill me,” said Dominic.

“We tried to kill Welexi,” said Faye. “Apparently something went wrong, if you are here.” Her hair was mussed. She had a wound on her forehead near the hairline, three parallel marks that could only have been from the claws of the big cat which had sat down right behind Dominic. The wound hadn’t been bandaged, but despite that it was completely bloodless. Faye had other wounds about her, along with places where her clothing had been ripped and torn, but there was no blood anywhere on her person.

“You could apologize,” said Dominic.

“I am sorry,” said Faye. “Our organization is composed of many different people with different views on how things should be done. It was agreed that Welexi is among the greatest threats we face, but opinions varied on what losses were acceptable. I argued in favor of taking you aside, but it was thought that this would raise suspicions.” She shook her head. “I arrived too late for my opinion to mean much. Nevertheless, I am sorry that I did not campaign for you harder.”

“Do you really think that I’m still going to join you?” asked Dominic.

“I don’t know,” said Faye. “I hope that this meeting is fortuitous in some way.” The cats watched Dominic, all eyes turned in his direction. Faye’s affect was flat, yet there was something of music in the way she spoke, a harmonic that underlined her words.

“You killed Hartwain,” said Dominic.

“No,” said Faye. “The artifact does not require death. We endeavor not to kill. Hartwain is only resting.”

“You stole her power,” said Dominic.

“Yes,” replied Faye. She held forth the artifact. “You recall what I said when we last met? The illustrati are — to a one — concerned with their fame, thirsty for more of it and intent on propagating their own image as far and wide as possible. The most powerful men and women have to be concerned with how they are viewed by the people they rule.”

“So you change the concentration of power,” said Dominic. “The illustrati will be you and your people now, not men like Kendrick and women like Hartwain.”

“You do not grasp what the artifact does,” said Faye. “There is a link between a person and the idea of that person. We change that link, pulling the handle of power and the domain with it. Do you understand the distinction?”

“No,” said Dominic. “If you stole Kendrick’s domain — and I have to think that’s the most reasonable conclusion to draw from the fact that your wounds aren’t bleeding — then it’s clear you don’t need the subject alive. You’ve stolen the power, but the only difference is that you’ll be propagating someone else’s legend instead of your own.”

“And if I exchanged a linkage with another?” asked Faye. “We would be inspired towards cooperation rather than pursuing selfish strategies. Or beyond that, if I had no idea which stories propelled my own fame.”

Dominic frowned. “It wouldn’t matter. You wouldn’t be able to spread someone else’s stories in order to accumulate your power, but … you could still use your status as illustrati to spread stories about yourself. One domain would fade with time while the other would rise, until eventually you were nothing but an ordinary illustrati again.”

“Unless my link belonged to another,” said Faye. “Someone I did not know. You can imagine a group of illustrati who are arranged not as single points of light, but as a web of dependency, can you not? You can imagine how things might be between you and Welexi if there was an added ignorance? Dominic, you know that the illustrati are vain, self-aggrandizing people, competent only insofar as they can hold onto their power. This doesn’t have to be the case. We can forge a new system of governance. It is imperative that we do so, if we are to bring the world through these troubled times.”

Dominic saw pleading in her eyes. She didn’t want to kill him, though if she did hold three domains and the fame of at least three different people, he had little doubt that she would be capable of ending him. Her voice would raise high enough to split his eardrums, her large black cat would leap on him from behind, and it would take only a single touch for her to end his life. It would be like fighting the Blood Bard all over again, with the dangers now real and multiplied. There was nothing to say that her domains stopped at three; she might have taken power from any number of the illustrati that had disappeared from the Iron Kingdom in the past weeks.

“You’ve accumulated a significant amount of power for yourself,” said Dominic. “For one who wants to see power less concentrated, you’re doing a pretty poor job of it.”

“I agree,” said Faye. “Necessity compels us in this matter.”

“Hartwain wasn’t a threat,” said Dominic. He looked to the still form on the chaise. “She wasn’t going to fight against whatever reforms you’re in the middle of planning.”

“Of course she was,” said Faye. “You’ve known the woman a day, if that. She was fearsome in her time, more than capable of killing in the same casual way that marks the illustrati. If you escaped the trap we laid for you, I have to imagine that more than one person died. How many of those men and women who fell do you believe truly deserved it?”

The answer was that almost none of them had any real fault, but Dominic didn’t say that. The conspiracy couldn’t run so deep as to include dozens of men. This thought had occurred to Dominic while they were making their way down the tower. Vidre had been more ferocious than casual in the way she murdered the men she came across, but there was little compassion or empathy from her until they came across the illustrati of air, someone she knew on a personal level.

“What do you want from me?” asked Dominic.

“Want?” asked Faye. “I am more concerned with what I can reasonably expect, given our shaky understanding with one another. I expect that you will join up with your traveling companions again, perhaps in the near future. You will go with them as they try to unravel this attempt at a new system that the world might operate under. Perhaps you will tell them about this encounter, or voice your concerns about the shape that the illustrati impose on society. But in any case, if you all survive long enough eventually a time will come when you will make a stand. Not because of anything that I can offer you, but of your own recognition that it must be done.”

“You’re asking me to do something you think I would do anyway,” said Dominic.

“It is the only reason that you and I don’t need to come to blows,” said Faye. “You’re fortunate that I was sent to call on Hartwain, rather than one of the others; they would simply have attacked without waiting for conversation. There would be no hope of you leaving here alive.”

“Which I suppose I should now do,” said Dominic.

“Remember the rule of three, Dominic,” said Faye with a solemn voice. “A man and a woman, apparent enemies, meet twice for conversation. The third time cannot end like the first two did. If we see each other again, it will either be as allies or enemies, with the gray washed out by black or white.”

Dominic had no response to that.


Dominic tried not to feel the eyes on his back as he left Hartwain’s manor. He still needed to find the others, if that was even possible in a city so large as Parance. While he walked, he mulled over what Faye had said. The Iron King must surely be dead, if this cabal had infiltrated the highest levels of the leadership within the country. The Iron King had been one of the most powerful men in the world, not only one of the greatest illustrati, but the ruler of one of the mightiest countries. He had also been a monster, the terrifying sort of monster that shaped the world around him to be a better place for monsters. Gaelwyn had been shaped by the Iron King, as had countless others. Faye thought it was the shape of power that led to such things, but Dominic wasn’t so sure. He had no good counter-example to look at, no one who lived up to the heroic ideals. When he’d been a minor player in Corta’s gang, he’d sometimes looked up at the statue of Gennaro in the center of Nuncio Plaza. There were stories about the man that were now hundreds of years old, of a statesman and a protector. Something had changed in Dominic’s thinking. He had always thought that the legends were exaggerations, makeup caked around a homely face, but now he doubted that there was any core of truth to it at all.

He walked down the streets, moving more or less at random. It was possible that Faye would try to follow him to Welexi, though Dominic had no idea how he might find Welexi. He made a few surreptitious glances behind him as he walked. He thought he’d imagined a large-bellied man with a cloak and hood, but after three turns he was certain that he was being tracked. Dominic wore simple clothes, with none of the markings of his domain. If someone was following him, they’d likely been doing so since Hartwain’s. Dominic cursed silently to himself. It was midday. The streets of Parance held a fair number of people. Speed was one of Dominic’s few advantages, but he knew from long experience in Gennaro that sprinting in broad daylight would draw the wrong sort of attention. It would be difficult to become anonymous again, especially if the man following him started an earnest pursuit.

Dominic was about to duck down an alleyway when he saw a glint of light coming from the man’s hand. He paused for a fraction of a moment before realizing that it was a glass dagger reflecting sunlight. The hooded man with a potbelly was now clear for what she was; not just a disguise Vidre was wearing, but one that he’d been meant to recognize. It wasn’t quite the same as the one she’d been wearing before, but the shape of it was similar. Dominic gave her a brief nod before moving into the alleyway. If she’d been following him since Hartwain’s, she would have questions. He hoped that she would accept the answers.

“Is Hartwain dead?” asked Vidre. The left side of her face was red and swollen, enough that her eye was nearly shut. She spared nothing for pleasantries.

“She’s no longer an illustrati,” said Dominic.

“Close enough then,” Vidre replied. “I don’t think anyone else was following you; I had to make sure though. Our enemy has rained down a flurry of blows. Hartwain wasn’t the only one.”

“You survived the fall,” said Dominic.

“Yes,” said Vidre. “The sooner I can find Gaelwyn, the better. There’s too much blood pooling in my boots.” She paused. “I have some ideas on where we might find our companions. Come on, let’s go.”

“They won’t go to Hartwain’s?” asked Dominic.

“They would have arrived before us,” said Vidre. “I knew you would go there, but didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to go inside. There could have been someone dangerous inside.”

Dominic could have explained things. He could have relayed the conversation he’d had with Faye, which would have meant explaining that she’d come to his room when they were still in Meriwall. He might have tried to talk with Vidre about the structures of power that underpinned the world. There was something in her eyes that stopped him. She was angry and injured, ready to kill whoever stepped in her path. Dominic held his tongue; there would be time later. He might even be able to sway Vidre, if not Welexi. That would remove the need to fight and kill.

“I was lucky,” said Dominic. “Come on, let’s go find the others.”

Next …