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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 …

Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 14: Legends

Previously…

Dominic woke up to a cat licking his face.

“I’ve always taken to dogs instead of cats,” said Vidre. She was laying in bed next to him, watching him. She still had her armor on, but it was clear that she was only just waking up, same as him. Vidre frowned slightly. She reached over to brush a curl of hair from his face, then petted the cat. Her face was softer following a night’s sleep. By the light coming in through the window, it was just barely past dawn.

Dominic pushed the large tortoiseshell cat from on top of him and sat up. He’d made sure that the door was closed the night before. He looked towards the door, worried that he would find it open, or that he would spot Faye standing at the foot of the bed with her daggers drawn.

“Relax,” murmured Vidre. “It’s a guard cat. I went to check on Welexi and Gaelwyn last night; when I came back into the room, this little fellow followed me in. He curled up near your feet, so I thought there wasn’t any harm.” She yawned. “No attacks in the night, as you might have surmised.”

Dominic flopped back down on the bed, then turned to look at Vidre. “I remember the stories about you as a child. You had puppies.”

“Yes,” replied Vidre. She seemed in no particular hurry to wake up. “A new one every month. My husband hated dogs, but he loved seeing me with a small, innocent puppy in my arms. I would go to sleep with a dog that had gotten too big, then wake with a new puppy, often fresh from his mother’s womb. Eventually I had to ask him to stop giving them to me. There was a feeling that came with losing a dog I’d bonded with …” She trailed off. The sleepiness seemed to leave her face. Vidre rose from the bed and began to put pieces of her armor back on. “If Hartwain offers you a cat, it’s important that you accept it. If nothing else, the ship needs a new mouser.”

“You don’t talk about your former husband much,” said Dominic. She’d broached the topic only once; Dominic had been too cautious to ask questions. He watched her pinning her hair back into place with spars of glass that twisted like living things in her fingers.

“It was more than a decade ago that he died,” said Vidre. “Once you’ve lived a little bit longer, you’ll realize how quickly the past fades away. Living as a new queen with all the attention in the world wasn’t what I would call a hardship.” She paused slightly. “He didn’t touch me.”

“Ah,” said Dominic.

“I was afraid of my marital duties,” said Vidre. “I was nine years old when we were wed. It was a scandal that happened right at a time when there was a lull at court. The first night I lay there in fear, but my husband made no move for me. The stories always make me out to be much younger than I was, but I was old enough to have some awareness of the world. I thought perhaps he would exercise his duty when I grew older, but as I moved from girlhood to womanhood the only change in his demeanor was that he took less of an interest in me.” Vidre looked around the room. “I’m certain that my makeup is a mess, but we don’t seem to have a mirror anywhere for me to confirm it.”

“You look beautiful,” said Dominic.

Vidre squinted at him, as though he had made a joke. “Well, of course I’m beautiful. I’m well-known for it. I’m not terribly modest. The question is whether my makeup is a mess, and if so, how much.” She stretched out. “At any rate, I don’t expect you to believe the true history of my childhood — few do — but most of the stories from my youth have more to do with my husband than they do with me. Elaborate parties, twelve-course meals, fancy gifts and expensive toys, all were provided by my husband to me. He had ideas of how a girl should think and act, which led him to lavish all this unasked for attention on me.”

“I believe you,” said Dominic. “The stories never seemed to have the ring of truth to them. My mother said you fed glass to a puppy once.”

“I would laugh at the absurdity of it,” said Vidre. “But I’ve heard that one before. Any humor I might take from it is now long gone.”

“I’m sorry,” said Dominic. “I mean … I’m sorry that so many of the stories about you are so unpleasant.”

“Most of them I earned,” said Vidre. “Some of them I invented myself, useful lies designed to help me accumulate power. Once I realized how much I’d been maligned for my childhood, it was the obvious thing to do.” She cocked her head to the side. “I hear a coach approaching, which means that we have company.” Vidre paused before continuing. “Thank you for listening to me. It’s as Gaelwyn said, there’s an idea of a person that lives inside your head. Even if it means you think poorly of me, I’d like for your idea of me to match my reality.”


They came down to the sitting room, where Hartwain was waiting for them. An enormous black cat was curled up on the chaise next to her; it was nearly the size of a pony, if not a full-grown horse. Dominic had to keep himself from jumping when he saw it, which caused Hartwain to smirk at him. Gaelwyn and Welexi entered the room soon after Dominic had taken his seat.

“I trust that the arrangements were adequate?” asked Hartwain.

“Very much so,” said Welexi. “We will do our best not to lean on your generosity for long.”

“We’ve had a visitor,” said Hartwain. “It is of course the height of rudeness to entertain a caller while there are already guests present, but if you would give me leave to introduce him?”

The way she said it gave no room for argument. “Of course we would be delighted to make the acquaintance of anyone who has been given the privilege of calling upon you.”

“May I present to you Jacques Fabben, the Minister of Legends,” Hartwain intoned.

The man who entered the sitting room wore a long sash decorated with medals, along with a turban that sat high on his head. It was a style that Dominic was unfamiliar with. The man’s face was nearly covered in a thick beard, which obscured the thin line of his mouth. He had dark, haunted eyes.

“My pardon for the intrusion,” said Jacques.

Hartwain gave the introductions, though Jacques would have been well-familiar with them all even if he hadn’t been in charge of the illustrati of the Iron Kingdom. Jacques gave a low bow towards Vidre, as befit her status as queen-in-exile, which she seemed to accept with an undue amount of amusement. Dominic had to wonder whether she thought of her deranged husband when she was given the royal title.

“May I ask what happened to your predecessor?” asked Welexi after the formalities were done with and the minister was seated. “Laurence was a dear friend of mine. I hadn’t heard word of his retirement.”

“He passed, I’m afraid,” said Jacques. “Died in the night from causes that are as-yet unknown.”

“A shame,” murmured Welexi. “And I hear that the Iron King is in ill health as well?”

Jacques coughed into his fist. “Parance swirls with rumors even in the best of times, and these are not the best of times.”

“He’s sequestered himself away for more than a year,” said Gaelwyn. “That seems more than rumor to me.”

“I’m afraid my business keeps me mostly within Parance itself,” said Jacques. “But I have not come here to discuss the Iron King, nor, I apologize, to take breakfast with the Lady Hartwain. I have come seeking the aid of the most powerful illustrati the world has to offer.”

“What kind of aid?” asked Dominic. That was more blunt than Welexi would have put it. The minister looked at Dominic as though surprised to see him in the room.

“There has been a rash of disappearances,” said Jacques. “Illustrati, all of them.”

“Fire illustrati among their number?” asked Welexi. He had moved towards the edge of his seat. His armor was glowing more brightly.

“Yes,” nodded Jacques. “You’ve heard then.” He sighed. “A number of mills have been temporarily shut down until we can elevate more illustrati to take their place. The Iron Kingdom has a number of dependencies, but even with the redundancies we have in place, the losses have been hitting us quite hard. Without someone to heat the boilers, the mills can’t run. That in turn slows down every merchant and artisan that depends on the output of those mills.”

“We’ll need a catalog of who’s missing,” said Vidre. “Have corpses been found?”

“None,” said Jacques.

“What about Quill?” asked Welexi.

“He will be included in the catalog,” said the minister.

An uneasy silence settled over the room. Hartwain stroked her enormous black cat with one hand, then gave a demure yawn. She was feigning nonchalance, Dominic was almost certain of that. Whatever was happening in Parance, the enemy was acting exceedingly brazen. It would have been perfectly natural for Hartwain to believe that her life was in danger. Perhaps that was even the case. Dominic had his doubts though; if the fire illustrati had their fame and domains taken from them, then Faye and whoever she worked for were finding specific targets with some purpose in mind. The many cats in Hartwain’s manor were eerie in the way they moved around and stared at him, but aside from the black cat, they didn’t seem terribly threatening or useful.

Dominic’s eyes moved around, taking in each of the illustrati in turn. They’d brought an enormous amount of fame to Parance, along with a variety of useful domains. He had the uneasy feeling that they were going to be bait, willingly or not.


The Ministry of Legends was one of a number of tall buildings near the river. They had opted to walk rather than attempt to fit five people into a small coach, though Jacques had gone on ahead of them. The four illustrati were armed and armored as though a war were coming, save for Gaelwyn, who had on only his everyday clothing and green apron.

“You didn’t ask about the artifacts,” said Dominic as they walked.

“If there are artifacts,” said Vidre.

“No need to concern the minister with such things,” said Welexi. “If he was willing to share such information in front of Hartwain, he likely would have done so of his own volition. If the Iron Kingdom is behind whatever is happening, better for them to have to put in some effort to find out what it is we know.” He sucked at his teeth. “Perhaps speaking with Hartwain on the matter was unwise, but she’s been a steadfast friend in the past.”

“Steadfastly devoted to herself,” muttered Gaelwyn.

“I doubt that she would have called you a monster if she had been appraised of what had happened in Meriwall,” said Welexi. “She didn’t know it was a sore spot that had been laid open. When she said it, she was only trying to make light. If she had actually thought you a monster, she wouldn’t have given us rooms for the night.”

The crowds were out in force. As had been the case the day before, many people stared, but no one approached them. The air smelled slightly acrid, even with a light breeze blowing through the city. There was an ever-present sound around them, a cacophonous mixture of horses, industry, and people. The river that ran through the heart of the city was barely a whisper in comparison. Gennaro had certainly been noisy, but it was a noise of the sea and the gulls that perched on every dockside building. Parance had its noise shaped by the tall buildings, lending a faint echo to every sound.

Dominic tried his best not to be continually amazed by the city, but he was afraid he was doing a poor job of it. The stories talked about the Iron Kingdom as having muddy roads that its citizens trudged through. Every street that Dominic had stepped through was paved with thick, orderly flagstones. Where Gennaro had runnels that lined its busier streets, carrying water and filth in equal measure, in Parance there were small grates set into the sides of the streets. It wasn’t clear where they led to. That was the sort of thing that kept Dominic’s mind alight when he looked around him. They were walking towards one of the immense buildings, those that reached thirty stories up into the air. Did people walk up that many stairs every day? The buildings were made from iron, clearly enough, which would have helped with keeping them from collapsing, but it still must have taken the work of hundreds of people.

“We need to establish a few rules for going into the ministry,” said Vidre. “Don’t accept food or water. Don’t touch anyone. Don’t handle anything you’re not intimately familiar with.”

“You’re speaking indelicately,” said Welexi. “We cannot go casting aspersions on those who we call allies.” His eyes flickered to the people around him. Dominic thought about the talk of spies they’d had the day before. The Minister of Legends had left in his coach to meet them there, but obviously the Iron Kingdom would have had someone trail them. They represented a significant amount of military might.

“The Iron Kingdom has lost a number of its illustrati,” said Vidre. “They can take offense all they want, so long as we stay safe. It wouldn’t even need to be action at the upper levels of the Iron Kingdom, it could be a rogue member intending to secure a position once the succession happens.”

“There’s no construction,” said Gaelwyn. He was looking around the city as they walked, with more of an analytical eye than Dominic had. “The tallest of these buildings are new; a hundred yards was as high as they went the last time we were here, spires and decorations aside. Quill lived in the tallest of them. Now they’ve managed more than that, quite a few times. All within the years since we were last here. Yet there’s no construction. We should expect to see a few buildings in a half-finished state even now, trying to surpass their brethren or continuing the city’s quest to pack as much flesh in as few square miles as possible.”

“You find this suspicious,” said Vidre. “Or at least germane to the conversation?”

“It’s troubling,” said Gaelwyn. “It means that something has changed within the Iron Kingdom.” He pointed up towards one of the buildings next to the river. “If you see there, that one was completed only recently. The outer skin is unembellished for the final ten floors in a way that the others are not.”

“Why rush it?” asked Dominic.

“Image,” said Vidre. “They’re projecting a scene.” She was looking around the city as well, scanning the tops of the buildings. “Same as any illustrati. But the purpose here is not the accumulation of power, only its retention.”

“To what end though?” asked Dominic.

“They don’t have enough iron,” said Welexi. “They’re not building more of these monstrosities because they can’t. It bodes poorly for the Iron King’s health, if that line of reasoning is sound.”

“The succession might already be happening,” said Gaelwyn. “Worse, it might already be over, without any fanfare.”

This was met with a still silence that let sounds of the city be heard. Dominic wondered whether the spies that were surely following them would report this back to their masters. If the Iron King had died some time ago, his death had not been announced to the world. While he was a large and imposing figure in the politics of the world, he rarely left Castle Launtine even before his supposed illness, only taking trips every few weeks to look in on his kingdom. He otherwise invited people to his castle if they had business with him, which kept him somewhat divorced from the city of Parance. Dominic tried to think of all the people who would have to be in on such a deception for it to work — there were courtiers, messengers, ministers, and all manner of men and women who would deal with the Iron King on a daily basis. Some of them could be deflected by the excuse of sickness, but there were limits on how long that could last.

The bottom floor of the Ministry of Legends was an open, cavernous room, filled with a variety of people gathered together in clusters. A number of them wore red waistcoats with black sashes across them, which Dominic took to be a uniform of some sort.

“This is where the business of illustrati is conducted in the Iron Kingdom,” Vidre said to Dominic in a low voice. “It works less well than they would like you to believe. You can organize the telling of stories, or outlaw tales about certain people, but in large part you’re trying to regulate how people think. It’s a basic fact of history that people often think in inconvenient ways.”

Gennaro had its own laws to similar effect, but there it was widely agreed that no one should take those laws seriously. Gennaro was also rife with corruption among the guard, not to mention the senatori, so perhaps this was a matter of more general problems with the city. As Welexi spoke with two men in red behind a large desk, Dominic’s eyes wandered the open area. What was the purpose of all these uniformed men? Presumably they each had some role to play, yet Dominic couldn’t imagine that this was the most efficient way of creating and maintaining illustrati.

Dominic followed behind as they were guided to a small room off the side of the open reception area. One of the uniformed men spoke briefly into a horn mounted on the wall, then gestured into the small room. When the four illustrati were in, a metal door was drawn shut, locking them within. Dominic gave a start when the floor beneath him started to move.

“It’s called an ascending room,” said Vidre. She was watching him with a smile. “We’re being pulled up by a winch.”

“Clever,” said Dominic. He felt unsteady. The tenor of the air was changing as they rose, but the walls of the ascending room made it impossible to tell how fast they were moving. “Is it safe?”

“You’re an illustrati,” said Welexi. “I survived a fall from above the clouds.”

“With broken bones,” said Gaelwyn. “Bones which are not yet fully mended.”

“So is it safe?” asked Dominic. He had started thickening his armor of shadow and forced himself to stop. No one else seemed concerned with the possibility of the ascending room making a rapid descent.

“Safe enough,” said Vidre. “It’s used every day by hundreds if not thousands of people.”

The climb continued for far longer than Dominic felt it should. He couldn’t tell whether the sensation of swaying was his imagination, or whether the air had actually gotten thinner. The building that housed the Ministry of Legends didn’t reach the height of even a small mountain, but Dominic felt light-headed all the same.

When the ascending room finally came to a sudden, jerking stop, the door to it opened to reveal another of the ubiquitous uniformed men, standing there waiting for them. He led them down a long hallway, then another much shorter one, to the office of Jacques Fabben, who was waiting for them behind a desk. Dominic was thankful that the room had no windows; he was spared the feeling of looking out over empty air, or being fully aware of their extreme height. He settled into his seat and tried his best to pretend that they were on the ground floor.

“A small office for one with such a senior position within his Ministry,” said Vidre.

“I apologize for the lack of amenities, your Majesty,” said Jacques. “There are renovations being done on the floor above, so for the time being, this is where I must do my business.”

“You have records for us to look through?” asked Welexi.

“Yes, of course,” said Jacques slowly. He fumbled at one of his desk drawers for a moment before pulling out a sheaf of papers.

“I note that this temporary office has no windows,” said Vidre. “Curious that they weren’t able to find you a better place, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone,” said Jacques. He leaned forward, over his desk. “Now, the illustrati we’ve lost track of worked primarily in the mills, though there a number of more independent illustrati —”

Vidre stood up from her seat. She drew her armor up over her as she moved, adding on glass until it was more thick and protective. She moved to the room’s single door, inspected the knob for a moment, then tried to open it. When it didn’t open, Dominic stood up as well, pulling up more armor and making a sword appear in his hand.

“I was given to understand we could leave at any time?” Welexi said to Jacques. His tone was even; it almost seemed like he was enjoying himself. “I do find it curious that this small, temporary office would have a lock from the inside.”

Vidre drew back a fist, coated it so throughly in glass that it resembled a sledgehammer, then slammed it into the door. This was met with a resounding clank of metal. Pieces of the door fell away, revealing a thick slab of iron where the wood had been covering it; Vidre’s attack hadn’t even dented it.

“I’m sorry,” said Jacques. There was sorrow in his voice. “He asked it of me, and I could not resist him.”

“Who?” asked Welexi.

“We need to get out of here,” said Dominic. “We need to break through the walls, or —”

Vidre whirred around the room, with her daggers trailing behind her. She left marks on the walls, deep enough to cut through layers of paper, plaster, and paneling. When Vidre had cut to the metal on each wall, she began on the floor and ceiling as well, raining plaster down on them.

“Who?” asked Welexi again. “Who is your master?”

“The Iron King,” said Jacques, in nearly a whisper.

“We need to get out of here,” said Vidre. “Now.”

“How?” asked Dominic. He had his sword of shadow at the ready, for all the good that would do. “How thick are these walls?”

“Too thick,” said Vidre. She spat on the ground and spun her daggers in her hands. “I can punch through steel plating, but solid iron a few feet thick …” she shook her head. “Everyone, hold your breath.”

Dominic barely had time to take a deep gulp of air while Vidre formed a sphere of glass in her hand. The sphere crumbled to a fine dust, which Vidre began to liberally spread into the air. She screwed her eyes closed, allowing the full use of her domain sense.

“They’re sucking the air out of the room,” said Vidre. She dashed over to a small bit of paneling and ripped it from the wall, then quickly formed a stopper of glass. “That should buy us some time.”

“Not poison?” asked Dominic.

“They want our power,” said Welexi. He still hadn’t budged from his seat. His eyes were firmly on Jacques. “We’ve come to the heart of the matter. The Minister of Legends has turned against us, which means that we now count the Iron Kingdom as an enemy.”

“That does us no good unless we escape from here,” said Vidre. She moved towards Jacques with daggers drawn. “Tell me the plan.”

“I do not know,” said Jacques. “I was told only to bring you to this room and keep you here.” He looked between the four of them. “He did not say it was a trap.”

“Yet you knew,” said Welexi.

“A person breathes two gallons of air every minute,” said Gaelwyn. “I am in agreement with Vidre that our situation is dire, especially given that an unknown quantity of breathable air has already been removed.”

Vidre advanced on Jacques again. “Tell me how we escape.”

“There is no escape,” said Jacques. “There would not be, for the Iron King to have done something so brazen.”

Vidre’s dagger flashed forward and slit the minister’s throat.

“Vidre!” shouted Welexi.

“He was breathing our air,” Vidre replied. “I’ve given us an extension on life.” She turned to survey the room, oblivious to the blood on her dagger or the slight choking sounds as the minister pawed at the wound in his neck. “We need to find a weak point and break through there. If I made a large enough lens for you to focus light through?”

“We would cook before we began to melt the iron,” said Welexi. He stood from his seat and spared only a glance at the minister’s body. Dominic recalled what Vidre had said some days before; there were certain things that Welexi needed to have done but — whether for his image or his internal beliefs about himself — could not do himself, or even ask.

They moved around the room trying to find a way to break out, but the metal was thick enough that it seemed impossible. Each punch or hammer blow brought another loud clang that echoed around the room, destroying more of the dressing that had marked it as an office on first glance. They could make dents in the metal, but there was nothing to grip onto to tear into it, even with implements forged of light and shadow. Vidre briefly removed the stopper she’d placed in the vent, but that did nothing but confirm that someone was sucking air from the room, fast enough that it created a noticeable breeze.

“If we run and jump,” said Vidre. “All at once, towards a single side of the room, we might be able to knock this cage loose from its moorings. The rest of the building will only be a skeleton of iron, not so solid.”

“And then what?” asked Welexi. “We cause this room to tumble hundreds of feet to the ground?” He shook his head. “It won’t work.”

“Then we die here,” said Vidre. She had the same manic intensity that Dominic had seen on her face when her life was on the line, she held her daggers tight in her hands, even though both of them were useless in the current situation.

Dominic tried to think of everything at their disposal, some weapon or tool that they’d been overlooking. The construction of the room emphasized the solid, with walls that were at least three thick feet of pure iron. They were all strong, but not quite so strong that they could punch through it. And when it was impossible to break through an obstacle, better to avoid it altogether.

“Your constructs of light can move through metal,” said Dominic. He looked at Welexi. “When you were fighting Zerstor, your spears passed straight through his armor. It’s a technique at your disposal.”

“It does no good,” said Welexi. “When they pass through, they do no damage.”

“No,” said Dominic. His breathing had already become labored. “But you can turn yourself into light. You became this luminous being and his sword passed straight through your midsection.” Dominic looked toward the iron door, which was at least as thick as the wall and so far as they could tell, slotted into the plate of iron that made up the floor. “You should be able to run straight through the wall.”

Welexi frowned. For a moment, Dominic thought that he would deny the ability altogether. Instead the illustrati of light replied with a soft voice. “You don’t know what you’re asking of me.”

“It takes effort, I know that,” said Dominic. Vidre was continuing to bang away at the walls, oblivious to the conversation.

“More than that,” said Welexi. “It takes a loss of self. A moment of no longer being human.”

Gaelwyn stepped forward. “And is that so high a price to pay, in order to save us?”

Welexi didn’t answer. Instead, he squared himself up and turned towards the flat metal of the door. There was no countdown or warning, only a simple sprint from one of the fastest people in the world. At the moment he made contact, he became so bright that Dominic was momentarily blinded, even though he’d known that it was coming. When he blinked away the stars in his eyes, Welexi was gone.


Welexi came out the other side, reconstituted by some alchemy he did not understand. He was riddled with fear, as he had been the three times he’d used the technique before. Was he the same man he’d been before? Were his thoughts his own, or were they now mixed with the imaginings of his domain? He had only a few seconds of heavy breathing and clutching at his heart before the man standing in front of him came out of the daze. The man held a sword up in a defensive position, but it was short work to slide a spear past it. The first opponent fell to the ground just as the others rounded the corner; these were illustrati and would not be so easily dispatched. Welexi welcomed the fight, the better to let his mind move away from squirming, uncomfortable thoughts. He turned his armor bright enough that it would be blinding and moved forward with spear spinning in his hand.

Both the illustrati were clad in their domains. It was a weakness of the illustrati that they gave such a tactical advantage to their enemies by revealing themselves so; in his early years, Welexi had gone as long as he could before revealing his domain as light, or even revealing that he was an illustrati at all. He had dressed in a simple soldier’s uniform, or something that befit a caravan guard. Only when the moment was right would he give up the advantage of anonymity. He had become a hero by leaving those ways behind, by shining forth like a beacon, yet there was still a pang of regret at times, knowing that the way of the hero was difficult.

The two illustrati he now faced had no clever ideas about hiding their natures. The one on the left wore blue and yellow, with jagged bolts of lightning embroidered into the cloth of his coat. If that were not enough, a circlet of electricity sat upon his head. Lightning was an erratic domain, difficult to control and hard to understand even to those who claimed it as their own. The illustrati of lightning would stay towards the back, trying to throw thick bolts from a distance. Up close, he would channel the lightning directly through his hands. He would be hampered the most by blindness. The one on the right had armor of ice nearly encasing him, which was growing thicker by the moment. A chill had already started to seep into the hallway, along with a few generated flurries that would let the illustrati see even when his eyes failed him.

Welexi darted forward, aiming for the left. He made a lunge to the right to mimic a feint, but released his spear to the left. It struck the illustrati in the arm, which produced a cry of pain. Welexi met with the illustrati of ice soon after, another spear freshly made in his hands. He was stronger and faster than either of these men could possibly be; these days, as his body had aged, this was how he’d won most of his fights. The illustrati of ice dodged away from the spear thrusts, driving him backwards. When Welexi saw a spot of snow land upon his spear, he dismissed it and summoned a new one; there were still bits of ice on him and a creeping cold in the air, but it was difficult if not impossible to judge the position of a weapon merely by seeing two points on the hand that held it. Welexi kept his armor as bright as possible, though it gave him no true impediments.

The illustrati of lightning was the first to die. Welexi stabbed him in the stomach with a spear after an errant bolt of lightning slammed against the iron door. As soon as the spear was dismissed, blood began to spurt out in great quantity. It would take some time for the man to die, but he would be in shock soon enough. A second spear through the chest ensured his death. Welexi narrowly dodged to the side as an ax of ice came swinging down, but this put the second illustrati far too close. Welexi slammed his fist forward to catch him on the chin, shattering armor of ice in the process. That put the illustrati off his footing enough that it was easy to sink a spear past his armor and into his heart.

Welexi was left breathing heavily in the hallway, more from the lack of oxygen inside the prison than any real exertion. He tried to clear his head and think about his goals; he needed to find a way to open the death trap back up. He slipped forward with a spear in either hand, trying his best not to remember how he’d escaped.


“There’s no guarantee that he’ll find a way to release us,” said Vidre. She had given up on attacking the iron walls. Now she was slumped down in one of the chairs, trying to keep her breathing slow and even.

“We don’t even know if he made it through,” said Gaelwyn. “He might have been trapped inside the wall itself.”

“We have no choice but to wait for rescue,” said Dominic. “We should try to conserve our air.”

Dominic tried to limit his breaths. It was difficult, because each breath seemed to do less than the one before it. There was a vague sense of panic at the back of his mind. He kept half an eye on Vidre, remembering the way she’d slit the minister’s throat even before they’d started to feel the effects of suffocation. He didn’t think that she would try to kill them to prolong her own life, but the casual violence had shocked him. Early in the morning they’d talked about her reputation and the truth of the stories that were told about her. She hadn’t remarked on all the men she’d killed in her time, but it was clear that this was part of what she’d meant when she said that most of her reputation was earned.

Dominic was light-headed, with wandering thoughts that seemed to run themselves in circles. It wasn’t quite a dream and not quite a hallucination, though none of it made much sense. In the stories, people always had portentous dreams that revealed something about their hopes and fears, but Dominic only saw mice chasing after cheese and a fat man belching smoke from the top of his head. He turned to remark on this to Welexi, but realized that he’d gone somewhere. Vidre had gotten up from her chair and was banging against the door again, even though she was using up their precious remaining air.

There was a hissing sound from the door which caused Dominic to scramble towards it. Vidre had her face stuck near a small, widening hole, trying to suck in more air as it came through. Dominic saw a hand reaching through the hole with calloused fingers, which made no sense until he saw that there was a man behind that hand. He had a knife of light pressed against his neck, held by a hand with missing fingers which had been replaced by constructs of light. They illuminated a face that was pale and splattered with blood. Behind him, Welexi was preternaturally calm.

“Continue,” said Welexi’s voice.

“I feel dizzy,” said the man, an illustrati of iron by the way the metal peeled back at his touch.

“Gaelwyn will heal you,” said Welexi.

Dominic turned back to look at the chairs. Gaelwyn hadn’t moved at the sound of air. His eyes were still closed. Dominic moved forward to pick him and throw him over his shoulder. He moved past Welexi as soon as the opening was wide enough to permit him to, and laid Gaelwyn out in the hallway, where the air wasn’t fouled. His heart was still beating, but it was faint.

“Is it clear out there?” asked Vidre.

“I have no idea,” said Welexi. “I’ve killed too many to have great confidence in our ability to make an easy exit.” He looked past Vidre to where the minister was sitting with his head lolled to one side. “They will not take this lightly.”

Dominic slapped Gaelwyn on the face, just hard enough that he hoped to provoke a response. Gaelwyn opened one bleary eye, then closed it again. It was a good sign for his well-being.

“They won’t take it lightly?” asked Vidre. “What they’ve done is an act of war, nothing less.” Her breathing had settled down and the color had returned to her face. Both glass daggers were long and pointed, now almost short swords. She had them gripped so tightly that her knuckles were white. “If war is what they want, war is what they will have.”


Next …

Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 13: Iron Bound

Previously …

Vidre held the reins to Dominic’s horse as they made their way through the Iron Kingdom. They were following the curve of the Elnor River, which made a snake-like path towards Parance. After the first hour, Dominic’s legs began to get sore from riding. The fresh air and open fields were starting to lose their appeal. At heart, Dominic was a creature of the city. He was more comfortable when in a canyon formed by two looming buildings than with fields around him, never mind the creature he was sitting on.

“Have you been keeping up with your reading, young Lightscour?” asked Welexi. He looked perfectly serene and comfortable on his horse. It was as though he was preparing to be immortalized in a painting. Neither he nor Vidre were using their stirrups; they simply let their feet dangle free.

“Mostly,” said Dominic. He’d spent his nights on the ship reading in the darkness. “I brought along The Five Questions and Greenwich’s Treatise on Theological-Political Structure.”

“Very good,” said Welexi. He patted the flank of his horse. “Pay attention to what Mayhew has to say about the nature of fame.”

“Mayhew is out of date,” said Gaelwyn. The bad mood that had been hanging over him since Torland was now faded to a slight stuffiness.

“He seems to be more concerned with questions than answers anyway,” said Dominic. He’d been reading the book only sporadically. It was now stuck in his saddlebag, along with a few other possessions, mostly clothing that Vidre had helped him get fitted for, all in rich purples.

“Even his questions are out of date,” said Gaelwyn. “If I recall correctly, he spends a great many pages talking about the importance of asking the right questions, but he fails utterly in putting that to practice. ‘What happens to unclaimed fame?’ It implies that fame is ordinarily claimed. A more precise wording wouldn’t have put forward a hypothesis in the same breath as the question. Mayhew came from a school of pure reason though. He didn’t engage in real experimentation. It would be foolish to expect better of him.”

“Should I not read it?” asked Dominic.

“It’s foundational,” said Gaelwyn. The pretense of hostility had been dropped, which Dominic was thankful for. “Later writers will reference Mayhew often, so you need to know what he said before the counter-arguments written decades later make sense. What’s needed is for a clever man to write a new book which does not rely so heavily on the thinkers of the past. I did as much for a number of areas of biology.” He sniffed the air. It didn’t seem to agree with him, as his nose crinkled.

“Are you pleased to be back in your homeland?” asked Dominic. He wondered whether they would see the hospital where Gaelwyn had done his work. He hoped that he would be spared that.

“Homeland,” said Gaelwyn with a bitter laugh. “When I was young, home was the Highlands of the Iron Kingdom. When I was growing, it was a school where my peers vanished one by one as the years passed. After that, my homeland was entirely contained within a hospital. Now I don’t have a homeland, Lightscour. There is nowhere for me to return to.”

Vidre coughed. “And your own home Dominic?” she asked. “It will be quite some time until we return to Gennaro, do you miss it more than you thought you would?”

“No,” said Dominic. He was thankful for the deflection. “I had friends there, but …” When he thought of them, he thought of sharing in the glory of his power, or showing them the incredible feats that he was capable of. He didn’t imagine asking them how they had been. It was hard to say that he’d missed them at all.

“You had friends,” said Welexi. “But you were already detached from your life when you left. You were a feather floating in the wind, ready to be drawn into our wake. I have said before that it was fate, and you do nothing but confirm it.” He let out a throaty laugh, as though this were a grand joke.

“My sister,” said Dominic. “Anna. I don’t miss my father or mother, or my brothers, or Nilda. But Anna I miss. I wish I could hear how things were going back in Gennaro just so I could know what she might be up to.”

“Yet you’ve sent no letters,” said Vidre. She clucked her tongue. “If you miss her so much, it would be easy enough to include mail to her in with the packet service we send to the Sovento States. Letters take a long while to make their way to us, given that we travel so quickly, but it’s better than nothing.”

“I suppose,” said Dominic. In truth, it was one of those things that he had been putting off because he didn’t want to do it. There was nothing that he could write to Anna that would make her truly proud. He might have described climbing the cathedral, or looking at Laith’s Face, but there was little of what he’d done that he would have wanted to repeat to her. He was an illustrati, which was supposed to mean that he was a hero. Yet from the moment he’d watched Zerstor fall to the ground, he hadn’t done one unambiguously good thing. Anna would surely hear the stories of what Lightscour had done; perhaps it was better for her to believe what the bards said instead of the truth. Putting such lies to paper directly seemed to be a line that was better left uncrossed.

They stopped at a ferry crossing for lunch. This was a great cause for excitement from the locals, who crowded around the horses as Vidre and Welexi stepped off.

“I think a midday play would be suitable as a warm-up for Parance, don’t you think Lightscour?” Welexi asked with a wink.

“A play?” asked Dominic.

“I think you’ll know your part, hrm?” asked Welexi. He held his hands out in front of him with his palm up. Light sprang forth from them, displaying a scene that was familiar from the first night at Amare’s Theater. Welexi and Zerstor were both rendered in white light, showing the moment when they had first spied each other in Gennaro.

“There he was,” said Welexi. The show at Amare’s had a choir singing an old song, but here, in the presence of no more than two dozen people, Welexi could speak to all of them. The figures he was controlling were no more than a foot high each, more like puppets than the gargantuans that had been appropriate for a crowd of eighty thousand. “Zerstor had come to Gennaro, jewel of the Sovento States, seeking to end my life for good. Four times we had fought before. Though he had gotten the better of me two of those times, I’d been the decisive winner the other two. We saw each other at nearly the same time. When our eyes locked, we knew that this was the day it would end, one way or another.”

The figure of Zerstor pulled back his hood. Two small children standing near the front gasped. Welexi waited a beat before letting the figures run towards each other with weapons drawn. What followed was a beautiful fight reminiscent of dancing. Dominic was certain it had almost no basis in reality. Welexi’s luxuriant voice continued all the while, providing a narration to the back and forth, leading up until the moment that Welexi fell from the sky with specks of light falling off behind him.

“Little did I know that I had a shadow that day,” said Welexi.

He nodded to Dominic, who had no idea what to do. Almost on instinct, Dominic formed a figure of shadow in his hands. That wasn’t something that he’d ever done before. He had once tried to make a fifteen foot tall shadow to match the ones he’d seen Welexi produce, but he hadn’t been able to stretch his power quite so far. His foot-tall creation was crude and utterly insubstantial. With a little bit of work as Welexi continued to narrate the losing fight, Dominic made his figure more representative of himself, more muscular and with just a bit of curly hair on his head.

The small version of Welexi quickly lost a hand and dropped his spear of light, which was Dominic’s cue. He moved closer to Welexi, and sent his small figure of shadow running across the open air to pick the spear of light up. The rendering was imperfect, but no one seemed to notice too much; this impromptu show was far beyond what anyone would have hoped to see at a ferry crossing. The small figure of shadow touched the small spear of light, which disappeared. Dominic hesitated for a moment before realizing why; the figures they’d both made were insubstantial, easy to put a hand through. They couldn’t meaningfully interact. Dominic had his figure generate a small spear of shadow, then go fight with Zerstor. It was a sloppy, poorly choreographed fight, but when the spear hit home and Zerstor exploded with light, the crowd cheered as though they’d just witnessed a masterpiece performance.

Vidre was ready with spiced lamb between slices of bread when the show was over. She had already eaten, which meant that she was ready to distract the crowd with sculptures of glass and small trinkets to hand out. Gaelwyn moved through the small gathering asking whether anyone needed medical attention, which they were much more receptive to than the people of Torland.

“You could have given me a little more instruction,” said Dominic between bites. “We could have planned that together beforehand, while we were on the road.”

“There was no risk,” said Welexi. “Perhaps you forget, but I do this for a living. If you had proven unable to rise to the occasion, I would have picked up the slack. If you had failed, I would have been ready with a recovery, or a jape at your expense. It would more firmly have established you as my apprentice. I don’t think that would have been a bad thing at all.”

Dominic ate in silence and tried to think about that as a positive. It was difficult not to come to the conclusion that Welexi had wanted him to fail, the better for Welexi to drive home a narrative that served him. The question was why he’d done it for such a small group of people. This became considerably clearer when they’d gotten back in their saddles and returned to the road, having left the score of people behind them much happier than before.

“How many of the king’s men did you count?” asked Vidre.

“Three,” replied Gaelwyn.

“There were spies?” asked Dominic.

“Spy implies many things,” said Vidre. “Were there men who report to the king’s spymaster? Yes, of course there were. We just came to a ferry crossing next to one of the most important roads in the whole of the Iron Kingdom. It would be foolish not to have eyes there. But that doesn’t mean anything untoward is happening. If directly asked, two of those men would readily admit to making extra coin on the side for a bit of service to the Iron King. The third one is there to watch the other two. He would be much more reticent with information, probably a minor illustrati with some small amount of power.”

“But if we know there are spies, what’s the point?” asked Dominic. He wished that he had paid more attention to the crowd so he could make a guess as to who the three men had been. Gaelwyn had been touching many people, though he asked for their consent first. Seeing which had accepted and which had not would have been a vital clue.

“For us, there’s little point,” said Vidre. “A letter addressed to the Iron King’s spymaster was likely sent immediately when we brought ship in to Bordes, and we’ve sent our own letters announcing our arrival in any case. For others though, the spies are a vital part of tracking the comings and goings of important people, especially illustrati. If information can be gleaned about their personal matters, all the better. The Iron King will get a report about what we did for lunch, which will let him know that we’re playing the part of demure guests in his country, come to pay a calling and, perchance, to renew what contracts we have with them.”

“Except that if the Iron Kingdom is the power behind the assassins, we’re walking right into the lion’s den,” said Dominic. He felt vaguely unsettled, and not just because of the swaying of the horse.

“Just so,” said Welexi. “Assassins, or a succession crisis, or possibly both.” He sounded quite happy about the prospect.


They came around a bend to find themselves staring straight at Parance. They continued forward, but if Dominic had been in control of his own horse, he would have stopped to stare, if just for a while. The buildings were tall enough to beggar belief. Some of the ones near the center of the city seemed to stretch up hundreds of feet in the air, not just spires like a castle might have or the rooftops of a cathedral, but entire livable spaces with clear windows and terraces. In other cities a tall building was likely to be a landmark. In Parance, there were dozens of them, possibly hundreds, all huddled together. The city was dotted with small plumes of smoke, which gave it a smell that was obvious even at a distance.

“Where will we be staying?” asked Dominic. He couldn’t take his eyes off the buildings. Some of them stretched to what must have been nearly thirty stories.

“We have friends in Parance,” was Welexi.

“We have people who will give us room and board in exchange for the fame we can bring them,” Vidre corrected. “We’ve sent letters ahead of us requesting their hospitality. They can hardly decline. I wouldn’t call Quill a friend though. Hartwain either. Dominic, have you memorized the list of people yet?”

“Not quite,” said Dominic. He couldn’t take his eyes from the city. There was something about it that was slightly unsettling, sheer size aside. He turned his head towards Vidre, still watching Parance grow larger in front of them. “Hartwain has a domain of cats and Quill has ink?”

“Yes,” agreed Vidre. “Quill always has his ear to the ground; hopefully he can fill us in on what’s been happening here.”

“You’ll see fewer independent illustrati here,” said Welexi. “Most of them are in the Iron King’s employ one way or another. They’ve banned stories about outsiders as well, so watch your tongue.”

“Outsiders?” asked Dominic. “You mean I won’t be able to talk about the Flower Queen?”

“There are exceptions for common sense,” said Welexi. “Just don’t speak too loudly to too many people, or we’ll have trouble with the Ministry of Legends.”

“And we’re not outsiders?” asked Dominic.

“In one sense,” said Vidre. “In another sense, we serve at the pleasure of the Iron King. We have accounts here, as in other places, and a contract which allows the Iron King to call us in for aid under certain circumstances. Given that we represent a significant amount of military might, we are more or less exempt from meddling on behalf of the various Ministries.”

They rode forward, horses moving slowly beneath them. They’d been in the saddle for far too long for Dominic’s tastes. By the time they reached a stable on the outskirts of the city, his thighs were raw. They left their saddlebags behind and ready to be fetched by a servant once they’d found their lodgings.

It was nearly sunset. Long shadows were cast over the city, which Dominic used his domain sense to see straight through. With a start, he realized what had been bothering him about the cityscape.

“The city isn’t natural,” he said.

“No,” replied Vidre. Dominic turned to see her smirking. “Few cities are.”

“They’re on a grid,” said Dominic. “From above, it would look like boxes shoved together.” He wished that he could stretch out wings of shadow and fly with them, so he could see the city from above. Gennaro and Meriwall both had something living about them, an animal quality that sprang forth from how neighborhoods had developed over time. Parance must have been laid out from the beginning to be this hulking monstrosity of a city. It spoke to a frightening level of planning. As they walked down the streets, Dominic noticed other small things that marked this city as distinct from its peers; there were large paintings hung up on nearly every building with faces on them, usually with a name below. These were done in a stark style, something close to a portrait.

“Those don’t work, by the by,” said Vidre with a nod to the paintings. “There are too many of them, for one thing, and even if there weren’t, people just walk right by them without too much thought on their second time down the street. They’re images, not stories. They don’t stick in the same way. The same goes for the daily chants the Iron King often makes his subjects say. It allows for some level of standing, but the effect plateaus too easily.”

The crowds were ever-present. People followed them, in a way that Dominic had almost gotten used to, but there was none of the shouting and jostling that they had experienced upon their arrival in Torland, nor the enthusiastic cheers that they’d received when they were leaving Gennaro. At first Dominic suspected that they were simply less well-known here, but he could see enough eyes watching him to see that wasn’t the case. They drew attention, but that attention wasn’t expressed in obtrusive ways. Dominic wondered whether that had anything to do with the Ministry of Legends, or whether this was perhaps just how people in Parance behaved around strangers. Either way, he enjoyed being able to walk through the streets without being harassed.

They crossed a thick bridge of iron and arrived at one of the dizzyingly tall buildings that had been so visible from far away.


“What do you mean he’s not here?” asked Welexi. His brows were tightly furrowed as he spoke with who Dominic took to be the master of the building.

“I mean he no longer holds residence here,” said the man. He had thick gray eyebrows and an imperious tone. “Is there anyone else I can help you find?”

“It’s past sundown,” Welexi complained. “Where can we find him?”

“I’m not at liberty to say,” replied the master of the building. The building was nearly thirty stories tall, which meant that there must have been hundreds of people living in it. The master of the building would nearly qualify as a minor illustrati himself, and he acted like it.

“He’s an illustrati,” said Vidre with her hands on her hips. “Quill can’t possibly be in hiding. He can’t have just run off. I highly doubt that he would have asked you to keep his whereabouts a secret from us.”

“All I can say is that he no longer holds a residence within these premises,” sniffed the man. “Now unless there’s someone else that you would like to see, I’m afraid that I must ask you to leave.”

Dominic looked at Vidre’s bristling armor, which had sprouted more shards of glass in the past few minutes. He had to admire the sheer gall of forcing out a handful of the most powerful people in the world without any semblance of a defense in place. For a moment, it seemed as though Vidre would insist that they be allowed to see the top two floors of the building, where Quill had made his home, but the moment passed and she backed down.

“Come,” said Vidre. “We’ll just have to try for Hartwain.”

The streets outside were dark, but it was a small matter for Welexi to fix that. His armor glowed more brightly and illuminated the path before them, casting deep shadows that Dominic could almost feel. It was nearly the opposite of stealth; they could surely be seen from every one of the mammoth buildings around them. The long streets would mean that everyone knew precisely where they were.

“What do you think happened to him?” asked Gaelwyn.

“There’s no way of knowing without speaking to a few people first,” said Welexi. He paused for a moment and formed a spear of light in his hand, gripped so that it might be mistaken for merely a light source. Dominic noticed that Vidre’s daggers were at her hips, ready to be drawn, and tried to get in the mindset required for a fight. It would be the work of seconds to draw his own weapon from the deep shadows around them.

“He told me once that he was one of the Iron King’s bastards,” said Vidre. “We were in our cups when he said it. I don’t know whether that was true or not, but if he told me, he may have told others. If the throne of the Iron Kingdom is on the line, there might be those with an interest in cleaning up loose ends prior to the succession crisis. It would certainly make things simpler.”

“He might have been exiled,” said Gaelwyn. He had a morose mockery of a smile. “I’ve heard that’s been known to happen.”

“It could be any number of things,” said Vidre.

“I didn’t know the man,” said Dominic. “But if he was murdered as a plot to secure the throne more easily, it would have been done quietly so as not to alarm the other potential claimants. The master of the building must have been instructed to sweep it under the rug. He knows more than he said, but probably not much more.” He shrugged. “I don’t know. We’ll have to ask your other friends if they know what’s happened to him.” He looked to Vidre. “Your associates, I mean.”

“Do we see the work of the mysterious man?” asked Welexi. “That’s the question I’d most like answered. Chester Welling left days before we did; he might have arrived in Parance ahead of us.”

“Or Quill was killed a year ago,” said Vidre. “Saying anything more is idle speculation.”

They walked the city streets. Dominic followed behind, unsure of where they were going. There was no danger to them at present; the four of them walking out in the open with bright light illuminating them would make for one of the worst battlefields that an enemy could possibly choose. The danger was somewhere in the future, when they bedded down for the night. Dominic recalled the ease with which Faye had entered his room. The domain of sound could deaden even the most extreme attempts at entry.

“We’ll have to be careful,” Dominic found himself saying. “If I were them, I would attack us while we slept.”

“That’s treacherous,” said Welexi. “But not out of character for them. They tried as much when I was injured.” He briefly glanced down at the missing half of his hand. His broken bones had mostly healed, but the hand would remain maimed until a number of illustrati could come together to weave bone, flesh, and skin together for him. “We’ll bar the doors and sleep in shifts, at least for tonight. We might only be looking too closely at the shadows.”


Hartwain’s manor was small by the standards of Parance, only three stories tall. The facade was ornate, with balustrades and cornices aplenty. A braid of metals ran around the outer door, one for each of the metallic domains. Welexi brought the large knocker down twice, which brought a small woman to the door after a minute.

“We’re looking for Mistress Hartwain,” said Welexi. “Give her our deepest apologies for the late hour.”

The small woman nodded. “I don’t believe she’s yet asleep. I will have words with her, if you would like to wait outside?” The question was polite, but the door was only partially opened.

“Very well,” said Welexi.

Vidre leaned towards Dominic. “Hartwain doesn’t stand on formality. You’d do well to forget your etiquette lessons for the time being.”

Ten minutes later, they were beckoned into the house. Dominic noticed the smell of cats before he noticed the cats themselves; there were three in the foyer, sitting and watching, and another half dozen in the sitting room that they were led into. Hartwain sat on a chaise with cats flanking her, both of them large and gray. She was an older woman, with multicolored hair in clumps of black, orange, white, and brown. Her eyes were green, with slits for pupils. She watched them impassively as they entered, sipping at a cup of some steaming liquid. Her nails, long and curved, clinked against the porcelain.

“Well, well,” said Hartwain. Her voice was rough, almost calloused. “It’s been quite some time. A woman of glass and a man of light, a monster of flesh and this one, new, a boy of shadows.” She blinked her cat’s eyes. “To what do I owe this nocturnal visit?” All the cats in the room seemed to be watching the conversation intently. Dominic felt a dozen pairs of eyes on him.

“We had an open invitation from Quill,” said Welexi. “We sent a letter ahead to him, asking that he make rooms available for us. Unfortunately, it seems that something has happened to him, which means we’re without a place to bed down for the night. I know I did not request as much in the letter that was to announce our arrival, but we would appreciate what hospitality you could grant us.”

“Let’s not play games,” said Hartwain. “There are places, just not the sorts of places that the world’s mightiest illustrati can be seen in on their first night in the city. The birds and the mice would whisper about how you had taken a room at an inn like a commoner. You couldn’t possibly have that, could you?”

“No,” said Vidre. “But we also need to get our footing here.”

“What happened to Quill?” asked Welexi.

“If we’re not playing games?” asked Hartwain. “He’s one of a dozen illustrati to disappear with no warning. The Ministry of Legends is likely behind it, though to what end it’s hard to say. And now I ask a question in turn.” She swiveled her head towards Dominic. “Boy of shadow. What was going through your mind when you attacked Zerstor?”

“Ah,” said Dominic. He looked towards Vidre, then Welexi, hoping to get rescued, but no help came. “I wasn’t really thinking.”

Hartwain frowned. “Not a good answer.”

“I was thinking that my life wasn’t worth that much,” said Dominic. “And if I died, it would be quick.”

“A better answer,” said Hartwain. She turned back towards Welexi. “This little shadow is the talk of the town. The Ministry of Legends has even encouraged some of it. I do believe that they might think him worth poaching.”

“Lightscour has done much in his short time with us,” said Welexi. “You can speak with him more later on. For now, we need to know more about what’s happening in this city. The Iron King hasn’t been seen in public for a year. We have word that someone has found one or more Harbinger artifacts. What can you tell us?”

Hartwain yawned and stretched out. “We can speak more in the morning,” she said. “But for now, it would suffice to say that I don’t know much more than you do. I’ll have Celeste prepare some rooms for you, though it will perhaps be more cramped than you’re used to. I am a woman of simple means, you understand.”

Welexi frowned at that. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

After a half hour, which was mostly spent sipping on tea with a bit of lemon in it, Dominic was led up to a room that had been made up for him. He carefully checked the windows and the doors; he was on the third floor, though that didn’t mean so much for defense, given how high illustrati could jump. There was a door leading to an adjoining room and a closet with nothing much in it. Welexi would send for the contents of their saddlebags in the morning, when the real work of being in Parance would properly begin. There would be bards to go visit and digests of news to consume, but for now they had a place to work from.

Dominic was mildly surprised when Vidre walked into his room and laid down on his bed.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“We’re sleeping in shifts,” said Vidre. “Or did you forget?”

“No, I just thought … what about Welexi and Gaelwyn?”

“They’re also sleeping in shifts,” said Vidre. She began to take off her glass armor, which involved reshaping it into a coil of glass. “I’m going half-clad. I don’t think we’re in any particular danger here beyond the usual, but I’ll have my daggers close by.”

Dominic cleared his throat. “Are we sharing a bed then?” he asked.

Vidre smiled. “Well, that is what I told Hartwain. She plays at being a recluse, with a sad story about being left at the altar, but in truth she’s a terrible gossip. The scandal will have traveled around Parance by the time the sun rises. Unimportant if we’re killed in our sleep, I admit.”

“You’re not, ah,” said Dominic. His words were failing him. Vidre was making no attempt at sensuality. She was merely removing pieces of her armor so that she’d be able to sleep better. She wasn’t even proposing to take off all of her armor. Yet watching her become partially undressed was having an effect on him, even if she wasn’t exposing more of her body than he saw during any given day on the ship. Yet there was something sour about the whole affair.

“It’s an escalation of our romance,” said Vidre. “The implication will obviously be that we had sex together, for anyone that hears about it, but there will be enough of a seed of doubt to keep it interesting. There will be variations on the story. We can pick the right one later on.”

“It’s manipulation then,” said Dominic.

“We’re illustrati,” said Vidre. “I’ve seen men and women trying to tell only the authentic stories. The best of them tell fanciful stories that they can believe, but which aren’t much grounded in truth.” She nodded to the adjoining room. “Men who can imagine themselves as heroes, no matter the messy truth?”

“No,” said Dominic. “I meant … it’s manipulation of me.” He shifted uncomfortably.

Vidre stared at him, then narrowed her eyes. “I thought we agreed to this,” she said. “This was a tide that was to lift both our boats.”

“We didn’t discuss it,” said Dominic. “We didn’t talk together about the stories we wanted to project, you just decided that tonight would be the night that a certain sort of rumor starts spreading.”

“You’re going to lecture me about taking action without consulting others?” asked Vidre. “Did you ask anyone for objections before you killed Zerstor? Did you ask before you challenged Kendrick to a duel? Or did you just do those things because they seemed like the right things to do?”

“Those were different,” said Dominic. “I didn’t have time to ask.”

“What is it that’s really bothering you?” asked Vidre. “Is it my history? Have you changed your mind and decided that you would rather your sterling image not be tarnished by association with the Whore of Abalon?” She watched his face carefully.

“No,” said Dominic. He turned slightly from her, to look towards the window. “I’ve never cared about that aspect of your legend.”

“But that’s just it, isn’t it?” asked Vidre. “You don’t need to care about my history of promiscuity, you only need to care that other people care.”

“I don’t care that they care,” said Dominic. “I can’t feel so much of a difference in my power from one day to the next. Even if I could, I don’t know that I would be able to ascribe the change to one specific thing. If it’s the idea of Dominic that’s important, as Gaelwyn said, then I have no idea what the best courses of action are to increase my own standing. I trust you in that regard, at least. If you,” Dominic stopped. He had a sudden lump in his throat. “If you have done things in the past, they can remain there.”

Vidre’s features softened. “I’m sorry,” said Vidre. She reached up to pull out the glass shards that held her hair in place. The coif fell down slowly as she plucked the pins one-by-one. “I shouldn’t have made that accusation. Before I can apologize for any other misunderstanding between us, I need to know what it is you think I’ve done.”

Dominic looked at her. She had been sculpted by illustrati hands to be achingly beautiful. Some different harsh alchemy had shaped her into a creature of nearly uncontested death. “I wanted a partner,” he said. “I wanted us to talk about things and make plans together. The best moments I’ve had since leaving Gennaro have been in your company. When you teach combat, or even etiquette, I have the sense that we’re engaged in a dialog together. It’s not a dialog on even terms, I know you have the benefits of experience and age, but it was nonetheless a conversation that we were having together. Do you remember writing the letter with me? Quibbling over word choices and which information to leave in or take out? Wasn’t there something special in that?”

“A nation balanced on the knife-edge of our subterfuge is the epitome of what our friendship should be?” asked Vidre. Her words were mordant, but there was a faint smile on her lips.

“Something like that,” said Dominic. “If it’s important that people believe we spent a night of passion together, I only want you to explain that to me before you go ahead with it.”

“Fair enough,” said Vidre. “I can see where I might have been seen to be overstepping.”

“Issuing apologies was part of our etiquette lessons,” said Dominic.

“I’m sorry,” said Vidre. “Next time, I’ll speak with you first, if that’s something that I can reasonably do given whatever constraints I might be under.”

“That’s all I wanted,” said Dominic.

“And with that settled, you’re taking the first shift of guard duty. I’ll be sleeping as lightly as I can. I’ll take second shift, then wake Welexi for the third. Wake me when a few hours have passed. Don’t lay down, or you’re liable to fall asleep yourself. I can share the bed, or you can take the floor if you would be more comfortable. We’ll find a better place to sleep tomorrow.”

Dominic nodded. “Good night.”

“Good night,” said Vidre.

He had never gone on watch before, but it was roughly as dull as he had expected. He alternated between exercising his domain by making objects out of shadows, watching Vidre sleep, and looking out the window and into the city. He entertained notions of Faye making her return for another conversation. Dominic had no idea what he would say to that, other than to make the case for Vidre as not being possessed of the same attributes that made Welexi troublesome towards any attempt at removing the illustrati from power. He wondered whether that was really the end goal, but three hours of sitting in the shadows didn’t do much in the way of helping him think.


 

Next …

Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 12: Light and Shadow

Previously…

A salty breeze sent the ship away from Meriwall, off on the next great adventure. For all that they were being exiled, the send-off had still been rather grand. The Flower Queen had taken one last tea with them aboard the ship, with Steelminder standing beside her and a number of the more favored members of the court milling about and making conversation. Dominic had been around them enough over the past two weeks. He was ready to see the last of them, the queen included. Through it all, Vidre was not quite flirtatious with him, but she had done her part in keeping the pretense towards romance. The songs and stories that they were leaving behind were much more explicit about these things. Dominic had read one draft of a song which had male and female parts written for it, to be sung as a duet. It was filled with double entendres related to swordplay. In the coming weeks, packet service to the rest of the world would carry that new material to the public that so eagerly awaited it.

Dominic’s eyes were on Laith’s Face as the ship took its leave. He hadn’t told anyone about his nighttime visitor, and wasn’t yet sure whether he would. He’d already let it go too long; every hour that passed without him telling them was another mark against him. There was a series of excuses that had led him to this point. The first excuse, the one which occurred just before he’d been about to knock on the door of Vidre’s room, had been that telling them was part of Faye’s plan. She had been listening in on their conversations, likely for the entire time that they had been in Meriwall. With all that information at her disposal, with one or more Harbinger artifacts in her possession, with the powers that came from being illustrati, she had decided to come to him the middle of the night to seek his assistance.

Vidre had said that a good plotter prepared for many contingencies. Faye and her master, the man who had called himself Welling, were known to be good plotters. They would have a contingency in place, in case the conversation had not gone ideally for them. Dominic hadn’t hesitated because he’d realized what they had planned, only because he had realized that there probably was a plan. It had seemed to make sense to stop and think before committing to any action, no matter what. If Faye had anticipated that he would go to Vidre, what plan followed from that? Dominic had stood at the door thinking for a good while.

The first answer that came to Dominic’s mind was that this was an attempt to drive discord between them. If a soldier came to his captain and said that the enemy had sought him out as someone susceptible to turning traitor, Dominic couldn’t imagine that the proper reaction would be for the captain to trust the soldier more. The attempt at recruitment would raise suspicions which would ever after be difficult to cast off. This was doubly true given that Faye had eavesdropped on an unknown number of conversations. It didn’t take a terribly paranoid mind to think that perhaps he had said some things that had made him a likely traitor. A paranoid mind, like Vidre seemed to possess, might even think that this was part of a plot that a traitor might think up.

In retrospect, it was obvious that this was an excuse. At first he’d thought that walking back to his room was only a way to buy some time to think. That seemed like an excuse too. Dominic kept thinking back to what Faye had said. Did he like the illustrati? No, not particularly. Did he believe that they were fit to rule? Well, he had only seen Torland thus far, but he suspected that the answer was that they weren’t.

Dominic stared at Laith’s Face, and tried his best to forget, but that wasn’t quite the proper view for it. Laith had spent enormous resources carving his face into the mountain. Had he been any more fit to rule than the Flower Queen was?

“Three days to Parance,” said Welexi, breaking Dominic’s reverie. The illustrati of light was in high spirits, despite their apparent exile from Torland. More and more, Dominic was coming to understand Welexi as a creature of moods. “I always feel refreshed after an adventure. Unless we receive another call to arms, or we have cause to visit the colonies, Meriwall now lays years in our future. The story is at an end, and a new story awaits on the horizon.”

“A new story, but likely with the same players,” said Vidre. She came up from the cabin of the ship wearing her blue dress and heavy boots. The only glass showing on her were the bracers she wore and the pins that skewered her hair in place. “We’ll have to work hard to make Torland into a satisfying narrative. Some of the work has already been done, to be sure, but it’s a story with too many rough edges. Especially if we want to come out looking good.”

Welexi waved his hand. “All in due time. Let’s not dwell on Torland; it’s behind us. Instead, let us speak of Parance and the Iron Kingdom, and the story that lays ahead of us. I spoke at length with Gaelwyn last night, and he feels that he might have some insights into the Harbinger artifacts that our mysterious enemy has used.”

Gaelwyn had been giving Dominic the cold shoulder ever since the dungeon visit. They hadn’t had much opportunity to spend time together, given Gaelwyn’s imprisonment and trial. In those moments when they found themselves in each other’s company, Dominic felt a sense of unease, if not outright hostility.

“There does not appear to be a biological component to whatever mechanism gives illustrati their powers,” said Gaelwyn. “I had time to read, in my cell, and was brought a number of books which had been taken from the Iron Kingdom. I cannot vouch for their accuracy; if there were some principle which had been discovered, I doubt that the Iron King would have let it leave the confines of his country. Take what I say with a grain of salt.”

“Get on with it,” said Vidre. “We’re not going to pillory you over inaccuracies.”

Gaelwyn pursed his lips. “As we have been made well aware in these past few days, I led many experiments in the course of my service to the Iron King. Before the conclusion of the Peddler’s War, I was involved with the study of the effects of twindom on standing. I was secondary to these experiments. The Iron King had a number of philosophers in his employ, and I restricted myself to matters of the body.”

“You’re tarrying,” said Welexi. “You can describe what was done, and we will not think less of you for it, especially not after the trial laid bare so much.”

“The goal was to find the answer to the second of the Five Questions, as written by Elder Mantis two hundred years ago. How does fame attach to a person?” Gaelwyn held up a hand. “I’m working my way around to the experimental procedures, give me time. What we know from observation is that standing is singular. The Premiers of Oresant do not have a communal standing, despite the fact that they were almost always referred to in the collective. Instead, their standing varies with their personal fortunes. We know that standing cannot be transferred, or could not be without the aid of an artifact whose function we are ignorant of. People have tried, in the past, to suborn the standing of one another. Yet dressing up as Welexi Sunhawk and claiming his name does not give you his powers.”

Dominic blinked at that. It was one of those obvious things that he’d never really considered. “But why?” asked Dominic.

Gaelwyn looked at Dominic like he’d forgotten that he was there. For a moment, Dominic thought that the question would simply be ignored and the stony silence would continue. The need to explain won out over keeping up the grudge. “That’s the question,” said Gaelwyn. “That’s what the experiments were intended to discover.”


 

Identical twins were rare. The Iron Kingdom was unique among the kingdoms that surrounded the Calypso, in that it kept careful record of births and deaths. This had originally been a matter of public good rather than scientific inquiry, but it was quite useful to the Iron King’s thinkers all the same. The records were routinely collected from the parishes and brought to Parance, where the information they contained was organized into forms which were more readable. There were four twin births for every thousand, and identical twins were perhaps one out of those four. Mortality of infants and children meant that it was unlikely for any two children to both survive until the age of ten. Because twins were often born early and underweight, it would be even more unlikely for disease or accident not to claim one or both. Beyond that, there was the usual hesitance that some parents showed at letting their children be tested for domains. Still, the Iron Kingdom had a population of some thirty million people, which meant that it was only a matter of searching.

Cadoc and Siors came from the highlands of the Iron Kingdom. They had unkempt red hair and pale skin, much like Gaelwyn; it wasn’t uncommon in that part of the country. They were ten years old, which was widely agreed to be the correct age to test for a person’s domain. The audience of ten thousand had been prepared for them, and they waited with both trepidation and excitement, no different from the other thirty children that would be tested. The only difference was the the amount of attention they were being given backstage.

Cadoc went first. He was introduced, and the master of ceremonies began his free-wheeling storytelling with the intent of rapidly increasing the youth’s standing to the point where the domain could be chosen. Cadoc began to go through the known domains one by one, touching their purest forms so that he could know one for his own. Once a piece of stone clung to his fingertips, he was given the congratulations of the master of ceremonies and ushered off-stage with a note made in the ledgers. So far, this was nothing unusual.

When Siors was brought forward by the men in masks, he was introduced as Cadoc. The master of ceremonies took this in stride, and invented a story of how the domain seemed to have been confused, or didn’t quite take. For his part, Siors was silent about the deception, as he’d been instructed to be by the men backstage. He went through and touched each item in turn, laying hands on the animals and bringing his fingers close to the flames of the candle. After half an hour had passed — quite a while as these things went — he still hadn’t found his domain. The audience was beginning to express some real interest in him now, given what happened to those who were uncooperative, and his standing should have been high enough that he could easily find which domain was his, but he continued to have no response from any of them. In the meantime, in a separate room backstage, his brother Cadoc was displaying his newfound (and presumably short-lived) talents to the king’s scholars. For as long as his brother was trotted around, Cadoc’s powers held.

It was known that twins did not share standing between them; this knowledge predated the experiment. However, it was also known that name alone was not enough. There had been innumerable heroes and villains with the same names throughout the ages. While impostors had been unable to steal the standing of the people they were pretending to be, it was entirely possible to pick a name that was already in use, or which had some cultural or historical significance. Prior to the experiment that had been done with the twins, it was entirely possible to believe that Siors should have received his own standing. The important conclusion it demonstrated was that standing relied to some extent on the beliefs of the audience; they saw Siors and were told he was Cadoc, so it was Cadoc that gained power.

The king’s scholars were not yet done with the twins. After a brief period of discussion, it was decided that the experiment needed to be taken further. Siors was selected for elevation, while Cadoc was taken to the dungeons. Siors was stripped of his name, and was to be referred to by his brother’s name instead.

Work was found for Cadoc nee Siors. He was given a position as an assistant to the tax collector, which helped him to see the sights of the Iron Kingdom. At the same time, it also allowed him to be seen by the people of the kingdom. Stories were circulated about Cadoc the young tax collector which played into the normal resentments that people felt towards one of his profession. No mention was ever made of Siors, and so far as a select few people know, the new Cadoc never had a brother. What he felt about these machinations was unknown, but it didn’t take a scholar to imagine that he might have had some reservations. He was never told what happened to his brother.

The man with no name (nee Cadoc) was kept in a cell. The plan was to have their lives mirror each other as closely as possible, the better to get some concrete information on what differences between them might be attributable to fame. He was given good meals and made to walk around his room, in the way that it was assumed his brother would be walking on the well-kept roads that laced the Iron Kingdom. Despite this, the man with no name proved unruly. Somewhat as expected, he had the powers of a minor illustrati, which grew as the carefully crafted stories spread. After a near escape, one of the Bone Warden’s acolytes was brought in at great expense; she twisted the bones of his arms and legs so that he would be unable to escape. The king’s scholars showed some consternation at this, as it would undoubtedly make their experiment worse.

Six years passed, and the twin boys grew into men. The one who had been called Siors never gained any standing at all; it went to his brother instead. After the six years had passed, the Iron King noticed the expense of the man with no name’s cell in passing and ordered the experiment ended.


 

“My role was minor,” said Gaelwyn. “I performed the vivisections on the two of them, one after the other, looking for some difference between the two which would explain why one had powers and the other did not. I had a hypothesis that we would find something in the brain; an illustrati with his arm removed does not lose standing.”

“Nor his hand,” said Welexi. His right hand had glowing fingers, which he could now use with some deftness.

“I apologize,” said Gaelwyn. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“I know,” said Welexi with a smile. “I was only bringing it back around to more practical areas.”

“Yes,” said Gaelwyn. “Well as I was saying, the brain is the seat of the mind, and I was expecting that I would find something there. The flesh is known to me, and the bone is known to others, but the bodily domains cannot touch the brain except to ruin it. Yet in making my examination, I found no difference between the twins.” He sighed. “It was an important thing to learn, but it’s difficult not to be discouraged by negative results. This was some years ago, at any rate, and came near the end of my term of service; the latest from the Iron Kingdom builds on that experimental result.”

“To what end?” asked Vidre. She’d gone to lean against the railing of the ship while Gaelwyn spoke. The ship was rocking gently on the waves, and they were all finding their sea legs again.

“There exists an idea of Cadoc,” said Gaelwyn. “Just as there exists an idea of every person. Those ideas live inside our minds, like small animals. I have an idea of Lightscour, as does Vidre, and Lightscour himself.” He looked to Dominic. “We can be reasonably certain that these internal ideas are important in some way, and that there is a connection between ideas and practical reality. The idea of Cadoc attached to Cadoc, and Siors gained no standing because he was only building on the idea of Cadoc, not the idea of Siors. It’s more complicated though, because names aren’t the only thing that matters, and ideas themselves are nebulous. You and I assuredly have a different understanding of who Cadoc is. The animal that lives inside your head, the one we both might recognize as Cadoc, has a different character for you than it does for me. I should think, given what we know, that it might make sense to say that my idea of Cadoc is in some sense larger than yours. Yet we can presume that both would feed into Cadoc just the same, even given the differences, if Cadoc were alive.”

“Which Cadoc?” asked Dominic. “There were two people who went by that name, in the end.”

Gaelwyn nodded, not even seeming to mind who the question was coming from this time. “True. Yet all of the standing went to the first Cadoc, the one who originated the idea of Cadoc. There is some mechanism by which all the variant ideas of Cadoc become centered around one actual person, even if they are far removed from him. There is a link between the two.”

“A link which Gaelwyn believes can be shifted,” said Welexi. “The enemy has a Harbinger artifact which can accomplish as much.”

“We don’t know that,” said Gaelwyn. “There are other mechanisms which can explain what we have seen. It could be that the artifact amplifies the idea in the same way that spreading a story does, though that leaves open the question of domains. It’s also possible that the Phoenixes had their standing raised the old-fashioned way and the artifact’s role was simply to change their domains — that being a less understood sphere of questions. These would make sense. Yet it appears to me that the most likely hypothesis is that the link between idea and person is altered in some way, and the domain comes with it.”

“Which is why we’re going to the Iron Kingdom,” said Welexi. He stood tall and proud in the sunlight, with his dark skin smooth and unblemished. It was easy to imagine that he had been born for moments like these. “If it is the links that have been altered, it should be possible for us to find the originators — the first Cadoc. If it is the domains that have been altered, then the standing still must have come from somewhere.”

“We’re certain that ‘somewhere’ is the Iron Kingdom?” asked Dominic. “I don’t see the benefit to the Iron Kingdom in giving Torland a parliament.”

“The parliament?” asked Gaelwyn. “Were you there at the trial? They’re no better than the queen was, the only difference will be in their foreign relations.”

That logic didn’t sound right to Dominic. The Iron Kingdom couldn’t possibly be implicated by some imagined event that lay in the future. It was no secret that  Gaelwyn had a complicated history with his home country though, which would account for some of the distrust. In the interests of making peace, Dominic nodded along.

“We were going to the Iron Kingdom anyway,” said Vidre. “If we hadn’t been called to assist the queen, we would have gone there first after our stay in the Sovento States. Even if there’s nothing to be found, no legends of fire illustrati who have suddenly gone missing, we’ll have stories to spread and new stories to make. The people need to be reminded that we exist.” She had turned one of her bracers into a dagger, and was balancing it on one finger.

“And we’ll see the Iron King?” asked Dominic.

Gaelwyn and Welexi shared a look: worry from Gaelwyn, concern from Welexi. “No,” said Welexi. “Not unless he calls us to him. Parance is the capital city, a day’s ride inland, but the king makes his home another day past that, in a large castle he finds more suited to his tastes. The last few times we have been in the Iron Kingdom, we have not asked for an audience, and he has not requested one. Gaelwyn’s status within the kingdom is questionable.”

Dominic had no idea what that meant. From what he had heard, Gaelwyn had avoided execution at the end of the Peddler’s War only through exile. The doctor had been something of a scapegoat for the war crimes perpetrated by the Iron King. Welexi had long-ago secured a pardon from the Flower Queen, allowing Gaelwyn to walk the streets of Torland. Dominic wondered whether some other agreement had been reached, or some understanding that negated the exile. Welexi’s words did little to put Dominic at ease.


 

The ship’s small room seemed cramped compared to the palatial bedroom that Dominic had spent several weeks in. The bed was naturally much smaller, and the window let in little light, not that he needed it. When he’d come back aboard the ship, Dominic had found a stack of books waiting for him, courtesy of Vidre. He’d been derelict in his studies, and now that the moments of crisis seemed to have passed, it was time for more learning. He was midway through a book on historic uses of the metal domains when Vidre stopped by.

“You’re going to have to learn languages,” she said. “Go further east than the algalif’s court and you’ll start running into problems. We’re not going to stay circling the Calypso forever, and you’ll have a far easier time if you start now instead of waiting until we’re sailing down the Black Straits.”

“Always more to learn,” said Dominic with a sigh. He closed the book and looked at Vidre. He decided he liked her better without the weapons and armor so readily apparent. “Say, do you think the Harbingers have an artifact for helping people learn languages?”

“Almost certainly,” said Vidre. “You can find all sorts of stories about what it was they could do, each story more outlandish than the last. Ask Welexi, and he’ll tell you that it’s virtually certain that they not only had a way of putting thoughts in a person’s head, but a way of extracting them as well. However, even if that’s true, it’s not going to help you. Learning languages is difficult work with no easy shortcuts.”

“Did you stop by to give me lessons then?” asked Dominic. He found that doubtful.

Vidre stepped forward and sat at the edge of Dominic’s bed. She brushed a strand of hair from her face and tucked it behind one ear. “I’m worried about Welexi.”

“Oh?” asked Dominic. “Just the usual worries, or something more?”

“The quest for the Numifex — for the Harbinger artifacts — was always something of a sideshow,” said Vidre. “We would make our circuit around the world, visiting distant lands and speaking with other illustrati, spreading stories and setting up bards to sing our songs and tell our tales. Now I think this quest is overshadowing the structure of our travels.”

“Shouldn’t it?” asked Dominic. He folded his legs in towards him and set his book on the floor. “If there really is a device that can change how powers are granted, isn’t that more important than just,” Dominic waved his hand, “using fame in order to get more fame?”

“I’m worried we won’t find anything,” said Vidre. “If that happens, I’m not sure how he’ll take it. He sees the stories too clearly for my liking, and when a story doesn’t go the way that he planned it to go … well, you saw how he was before we left Torland. This time it was sullen anger, but in the past it’s been depression. He’s in high spirits now, but what will happen after weeks of fruitless searching?”

“What is it you want out of me?” asked Dominic.

Vidre frowned. “I don’t only come to you because I want things,” she said. “Sometimes I only need someone to talk to, and I think it should be easy to see why you’re the only candidate worth considering, especially when the topic of conversation is going to be our cherished leader.”

“I can talk, if you’d like,” said Dominic. “I just didn’t think that you would have come to me without first thinking of some way that I could help.”

“Be his apprentice,” said Vidre. “You’ve been pretending until now, but we both know that you speak with me more than you speak with him. You don’t go to him for counsel, and he hasn’t taught you much in the way of practical skills or combat expertise. If this Harbinger business falls through, he’ll need his protege in his moments of doubt. It’s what you would expect from a story. When all hope is lost, the young trainee rests a hand on his master’s shoulder and talks about courage and fortitude. That’s precisely the sort of thing that will keep him on an even keel.”


 

Dominic held his shadow blade out in front of him.

“You’ve made sure it’s dull?” asked Welexi.

“Yes,” said Dominic. He touched the edge of the sword to confirm that it had no bite to it.

“Sparring is dangerous,” said Welexi. He formed a spear of light in his hand. “And it’s at its most dangerous when one party is inexperienced. I don’t need to lose the rest of my fingers,” he said with a laugh. He twirled the spear around in his hand and nearly lost his grip on it. He was using his maimed hand, and quickly switched to his left hand instead without any comment. A good deal of the joy left his face before he continued.

“You know your stances, which is good,” said Welexi. “You have a killing instinct, which is regrettable but entirely necessary. What we shall learn today is treachery.”

Dominic gave an involuntary look towards Vidre, who only shook her head and nodded towards Welexi.

“Treachery?” asked Dominic.

“Fighting dirty,” Welexi clarified. “You must know how to fight treacherously so that you can know how to think like your opponents will. Once you have that knowledge, you will be able to combat them. So, let us say that you come across someone with the domain of light. What do you expect of how he will fight?”

“He would fight like you,” said Dominic.

“And if he were treacherous?” asked Welexi. “If he had no honor, and cared only about killing you, not about the story he would leave behind?”

“He would blind me,” said Dominic. In fact, in that first battle, Welexi had nearly blinded everyone watching him; the afterimage had stayed for quite some time.

“Yes,” said Welexi. “Good. And what would you do, in that circumstance?”

“It wouldn’t matter for me,” said Dominic. “I don’t need the light to see. I would switch over to watching the shadows instead.”

Welexi smiled. “You see, I had known you were clever. And this is precisely what most illustrati would do in that circumstance. Not all are so blessed with your domain, but Zerstor would use his second sight to track the rust, and the Blood Bard would spray you with blood in order to give him something he could see. Not all domains are gifted with a useful domain sense, and not everyone you fight will have enough standing for them to use it effectively. The animal domains will stay blinded. The domain of flame can’t simply engulf their target in flame, because if they could, the fight would have already been over.”

“I use glass dust, if I have to,” said Vidre. “Though blindness is always chancy.”

“Just so,” said Welexi. “So today, I think you will practice fighting blind. Close your eyes and watch the shadows.”

Dominic did as he was instructed, but immediately noticed a problem; Welexi’s spear was made entirely of solid light, and though it cast shadows, there were no shadows upon it. Welexi himself was visible as a series of shadows cast by the ridges of his armor. His head was apparent from the shadow that his nose cast on his face, and the shadows that his eyebrows cast on his skin. It wasn’t a good rendering of the man, but it was enough to know where he was. The spear was utterly invisible to Dominic’s eyes.

“I can’t see the spear,” said Dominic. He opened his eyes to see Welexi’s smiling face.

“Our domains are counter to each other,” said Welexi. “If we were to blind each other, you with shadows in my eyes and I with light in yours, we would both be unable to parry or feint. There would be no weapon for us to follow. Given a treacherous mindset and a killing intent, what would you do?”

Dominic gave the matter some thought. “I could swing my sword wildly and hope to hit something vital,” he said. “Except … if you knew that my domain was shadow, you would be more fully clad in armor of light, which would make you more difficult to see. If you were covered from head to toe, I don’t know that I could see you at all.”

Welexi grinned. The light that formed his breastplate began to spread itself out into interlocking plates of armor that covered his arms and legs. The helm was the last thing he made. Dominic closed his eyes, and found that all he could see was a reverse silhouette where Welexi was standing. Welexi was casting shadows across the deck of the ship now, but there were no shadows visible on him. The light wasn’t nearly so strong as the sun, and tracking Welexi by the movement of the shadows he was making would be nearly impossible.

“So it’s impossible for us to fight?” asked Dominic. He opened his eyes. “If I can blind you, and you can blind me, then I don’t suppose that we could ever hit each other.” Not only would Dominic be able to cloak himself in solid shadows, he would be able to strengthen his shadow and then swivel it around to project against his opponent. Hopefully that would be enough to completely obscure him.

“Just so,” said Welexi. “And let us pretend for a moment that you are still intent on killing me. How would you accomplish that, if you were treacherous?”

Dominic kept his eyes on the man dressed in light while he thought. Being unable to see the opponent was a major difficulty, and his first thoughts went towards trying to rectify that somehow, but nothing immediately came to mind. His second avenue of thought was that given sufficient killing power, it wouldn’t matter whether the opponent could be seen or not, but nothing came to mind there either. He closed his eyes and looked at the gap in the shadows where Welexi stood.

“I wouldn’t try to fight you head-on,” said Dominic. “I would kill you in your sleep instead.”

Welexi’s visor dropped, to reveal a smiling face. “It would seem that treachery comes naturally to you, Lightscour. That was a lesson that I almost learned too late; I was attacked in my sleep when I was young, and nearly died from it. Before that point, I had not considered that enemies would attack while I was at my most vulnerable. Now then, suppose that you are tasked with defending a traveling caravan …”

As the lessons continued, Dominic tried his best to play the fool when it was required of him; he was certain that he knew far more about how to be tricky than Welexi Sunhawk did. The primary insights seemed to be about the domains and how to combat them, which Dominic was ignorant of. As the day went on, they practiced sparring, though Welexi was forced to fight with his left hand instead of his right. When lunch came, they all ate together, and Gaelwyn’s previous cold looks had seemed to evaporate into the sea air.

 

 

 


The greeting they got at the town of Bordes was much more pleasant than the one they had received upon their arrival in Meriwall. The story of Dominic’s battle with Zerstor had reached them almost two weeks ago, and they had been eagerly awaiting the illustrati. As they were making dock and waving to the crowds who had gathered to see them, Dominic rested his hand on the small of Vidre’s back. She gave him a faint smile he was sure was calculated for the audience, which was nonetheless gratifying; it meant that he was performing his role in their fake romance correctly.

Dominic by now had a suit of armor that could almost entirely cover him. There were still gaps at the joints, but all of his limbs were covered in solid shadow. He had taken a look at the map of the world; the story had likely not yet spread too far east of the algalif’s court, though it was unlikely that those countries would take as much interest in things which had happened a world away. The colonies to the west would receive word in some weeks time, but they were not yet so populated that any illustrati felt compelled to make the journey out there. Vidre had warned him that a time would come when his power began to plateau or even wane, but for now he was still on the upward climb, feeling better and stronger with every day that passed. It would be some time before he was forgotten in Gennaro and the story of Zerstor’s death was replaced by some new tale.

If they had any cargo to speak of, they would have sailed up the Elnor River and used a series of canals and locks to arrive at Parance. That route took three days though, in part because of the numerous stops that would need to be made, as well as having to deal with the Iron Kingdom’s customs office at every step of the way. Instead, they made port at a smaller city that served as a point of defense for the river. They hired out horses, and left the Zenith behind.

“Better for us to run,” said Vidre. She patted the flank of her horse and made kissing noises to it. “I can outrace a horse. We could be there in four hours instead of ten.”

“Running is unseemly,” said Welexi. “That aside, it’s been some years since we’ve been to the Iron Kingdom, and we need to get the lay of the land. The greeting we’ve had so far has been pleasant enough, but if we’re here to gather information, it would do us good to speak with the locals. The Iron King has not been seen for at least a year, and I’d like to know why that is before we get to Parance, or whether that’s still true.”

“He’s old,” said Gaelwyn. “He’s been old for a very long time. It might be that he’s on his deathbed.”

“Which means a succession crisis,” said Vidre. “A change in power that’s far less clear-cut than the one we just took part in. I’m hoping we’ll be gone from the Iron Kingdom before that happens, if it happens.”

“The Iron King has no sons?” asked Dominic. “No daughters?” Everyone else had gotten up onto their horses. Dominic was giving his a skeptical look. It had a white diamond shape on its forehead, with a dull look in its eyes. Dominic had never ridden a horse before.

“It’s the opposite problem,” said Vidre. “The Iron King has many sons and many daughters, by many different women. There’s no question about which heir is legitimate, because none of them are; the Iron King never married. There will be dozens of illegitimate claimants, each arguing over how theirs should be the new bloodline, or more likely, going at each other with muskets and bayonets. The Iron King keeps his power close to him. Even if he designated a successor, I doubt that the transition could be handled smoothly.”

“We can be part of that story then,” said Welexi. “Assuming that it happens while we’re here. It’s nothing to fear.” He looked over at Dominic. “You’ve never ridden before? You could have said.”

“Sorry,” said Dominic. “I … I somehow thought that it would be easy.” He looked over the unfamiliar assortment of leather and metal that was somehow wrapped around the horse.

“You sit in the saddle,” said Vidre. “We’re not going to do any heavy riding today, not if we want to speak with the locals along the way. I can hold the reins for you, and all you’ll need to do is stick your feet in the stirrups and try not to fall out. These aren’t even illustrati horses; you should see the beasts that equine illustrati can make, given enough time.”

Dominic climbed up by placing one hand on the pommel and one foot in the stirrup. He tried to remind himself that he was stronger than the horse. If he fell, he would bruise nothing but his pride; he’d taken falls of several stories and had no broken bones to show for it. The horse seemed unimpressed by him, but after Vidre grabbed its reins, it trotted along. Dominic tried his best to look dignified.

Dominic had always thought of the Iron Kingdom as a place of rust and steam. The stories there always took place in mud and squalor, and if not there, then in the foundries where men with great scars worked with molten iron. Dominic saw none of that as they traveled. There were fields with furrows of damp dirt and small houses beside them, with long stretches of woods and the roar of the river beside the road they traveled. It didn’t seem much different than Torland, nor even all that dissimilar to Gennaro. Dominic wondered whether life was similar the world over. If you went to the fields around Maskoy, would you find that the only difference was the crops that were grown? Would the people speak with a different accent, or a different tongue, but ultimately follow the same patterns? All the differences he spotted seemed superficial as they traveled down the road. It was easy to imagine that aside from landmarks like Laith’s Face, the countries of the world had more similarities than differences.

He would change his mind when he saw the city of Parance.


Next …

Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 11: Trials

Previously …

Dominic stood on the roof of Grayhull Palace, and flapped wings made of shadow. He’d made them as long as he could, stretching them out to nearly three feet each. That wasn’t quite as long as Welexi’s were at their full extension, but it was as much as Dominic could manage before they began to lose coherence. He had grown more powerful in the last two days. He’d mentioned as much to Vidre, and she had pulled out a map of the world to show him the slow spread of his story. The most likely cause for the increase in fame was that one of the packet ships had finally reached Maskoy, and the death of Zerstor had become known to the people there. Dominic had tried making the wings before, but had never managed to create anything worthwhile. Now he had wings that looked respectable.

“Do those things work?” asked Ember. The queen’s alchemist had followed him up to the roof, completely unbidden, and she had watched him carefully as he’d set to work crafting his wings. It had taken him half an hour before he had something that seemed right, and Dominic had nearly forgotten that she was there.

“No,” replied Dominic. “I mean, I haven’t tried, but I don’t think they would. Welexi spends a half hour making his in the morning, and he’s had decades of practice. His are also larger. There’s something internal to them that makes them capable of lifting him up.”

“Have you asked him for help?” asked Ember.

“No,” said Dominic. “Partly because I’m worried that he would refuse me.”

“The wings are one of his three great insights,” said Ember. Fire licked her bare skull. “It would be understandable if he wanted to keep the secret. Flight is a powerful ability. The fact that he’s the only one that can do it is a source of great fame.”

“What are the other two?” asked Dominic. “The penetrating strike must be one of them, but …” Dominic shook his head. “I should know this. I’ve been too busy reading the histories of the people of Torland to absorb all of the stories about my traveling companions.”

“Oh, the third is a secret,” said Ember. “That’s the rule of three. The power to fly through the air like a bird, the power to bypass any armor, and a third so dangerous that he never uses it.”

Dominic immediately thought back to the first fight between Welexi and Zerstor, and the moment that Welexi had seemed to turn into light. Vidre had said that it was impossible, and Welexi had never offered comment on it, but Dominic had never really stopped thinking about it.

“If the wings don’t work, what’s the point?” asked Ember.

“Image,” said Dominic. “Welexi spreads his wings to show off for the crowds, even when he’s not using them to fly. Obviously shaping the wings is the first step towards flight, but in the meantime, perhaps I can fake it if I need to. That would be a good story, wouldn’t it, if Welexi’s apprentice managed the feat in a matter of months instead of the years that Welexi took?”

“It’s a good story for you,” said Ember. She shook her head, causing the flames to twist. “It’s not a good story for Welexi. It overshadows him.” She smiled. “Appropriate, in terms of domains, but no one ever made friends through surpassing their contemporaries.”

A few days ago, Dominic might have argued that he and Welexi were already friends. Now, he was less sure. “Well, odds are I won’t be able to fly without years of careful training. Welexi made a study of flight. He figured out how to build his wings by looking at birds, and he sat down to do some complicated math that I’m sure I’d need months to understand, let alone to apply it to flight. I’d probably also need considerably more standing than I have now.” Dominic wondered whether any of that would placate Welexi. Ember was right; wings were unique to Welexi, and someone else having them was a threat of sorts, even if they didn’t work.

“I never asked after you,” said Dominic. “After the fires.” That seemed like it was weeks ago, but it had only been a few days. Life moved faster as an illustrati. Soon they would be leaving this place, and the whole course of their adventures in Torland would be like they’d lasted for years, or possibly like it had all been over in the blink of an eye. “How have you been faring?”

“Oh, it was hard on me,” said Ember. She shifted in her seat. “I had always liked being an illustrati.”

Dominic had a feeling that this was why she’d followed him up to the rooftop. “You don’t like it anymore?”

“That man’s hands on me,” sad Ember. “When he was trying to kill me. He was trying to use flame to do it, and if I’d been anyone else, he would have succeeded. And then going into those burning buildings to put out the fires, worried that a wooden beam was going to hit me in the head so hard that it would kill me … well, you can imagine. I’m sure you saw the state I was in afterward. I kept thinking about the men and women who were in their homes, far enough away that they didn’t even have to worry about the fires. They could sleep through the riots altogether. They had a low enough standing that they could simply let life pass them by. I envied them. I don’t think I’ve really stopped envying them.”

“Ah,” said Dominic. He couldn’t confess to having felt the same. “Well.”

“I remember what it was like before I was famous,” said Ember. “I think perhaps you’re the only other illustrati at court that shares that memory. The queen, I love her dearly, but she was born into the fame and power. Most of the others as well. They were the sons and daughters of nobility, with their names being known to hundreds of thousands days after they were born.”

“We don’t have that in Gennaro,” said Dominic. “We have nobility, and the senatori, but they don’t introduce their children to the world until after their tenth birthday. I think I’ve heard it’s too difficult to control a child if they have an appreciable amount of standing.”

Ember frowned. “It’s supposed to help keep a baby healthy.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Dominic. “As you said, I’m new to this arena. I didn’t have much interaction with Gennaro’s illustrati beyond a single morning. Maybe there’s a reason they do it that way.”

“Either way,” said Ember. She shifted her dress around and smoothed it out. “The men and women here are born knowing who they are, and they are, in large part, invariant. The stories that they tell about each other, or about themselves, are centered around personalities and ideas that have been in place since childhood. They’re not naturally kind to outsiders like you and I. Even after five years in the court, and serving at the pleasure of the queen.”

“We’re kindred spirits then?” Dominic asked with a smile. Ember’s face was serious though, and she nodded.

“I know you’re leaving soon, just after the trial has concluded, but I thought you might understand me better than they do.” She smoothed down her skirts again, and then ran her fingers through the flames on her head. “I’m leaving this life behind.”

“Leaving?” asked Dominic. “You can’t leave. The queen needs you. You’re valuable.”

“The hair will be the hardest part,” said Ember. “Did you know I shave my scalp every morning? My hair is immune to the fire, and to have real hair layered beneath hair of flames didn’t look pleasing. I’d had the idea early on. One day I just —” she ran her hand over the flames, and where her hand passed, only bare skin remained. “If I don’t want people to know that I’m an illustrati, I’ll have to stay bald until the hair grows back in. Perhaps I’ll take to wearing turbans.”

“Why are you going?” asked Dominic.

“I’ve said, haven’t I?” asked Ember. There was a faint look of puzzlement on her face. “I was thinking of all the people in their houses. The ones who could go back to bed and forget that anything was happening.”

“You want to be poor?” asked Dominic.

“Oh, well of course I won’t be poor,” said Ember. She seemed mildly alarmed by the thought. “I’ll be selling all the dresses, and the jewels, and I am still an accomplished chemist, after all. I won’t be poor. But I will be unknown. The fame will fade, with time.”

“You won’t be asked to fight fires anymore,” said Dominic. “How often do you really get called upon by the queen? How often has your life been in danger, before the events of today? There were many in the court who stayed behind.”

“It’s sweet of you to try to talk me out of it,” said Ember. “The Flower Queen would appreciate it, I’m sure. But no, I’ve already thought of every objection you might raise. My mind is quite made up. You’re right that there were those who stayed behind at the palace, but they were there for the purposes of defense. It doesn’t matter whether they were cowards or not; if the conflict had reached them, they would have been compelled to action. I want to live a life free of that compulsion. I want no one to depend on me, or really to think of me at all.”

Dominic looked at Ember carefully. She had a calmness to her that he hadn’t expected following the night of the fires and what he’d seen of her afterward. Now it was starting to make sense. Ember hadn’t gotten over anything. She had instead decided on a drastic course.

“People will eventually forget me,” said Ember. “The queen will find someone else to refine her flowers into narcotics, and the court will have a new alchemist. My hair will grow back, and my powers will fade, until I can no longer hold a flame in the palm of my hand.”

“I don’t remember life before fame so fondly,” said Dominic. “Some of that was my own fault though.”

“Well,” said Ember. “At least wish me luck?”

Dominic nodded. “Good luck.”

“And if you ever decide that the life of stories is too much for you … well, perhaps you’ll come across a lowly alchemist who you carried across the city one night.” Ember moved towards him and kissed him on the cheek, and after she had left, Dominic could still feel the spot of warmth.


 

A building was being constructed to house the Parliament of Torland. The plans were still in flux, but a site had been agreed upon. Three banks had been burned to the ground on the night of the Five Fires. That prime real estate might have seen the banks risen again, if not for the agreement that the Parliament needed to be located somewhere that spoke to its stature, and the general disarray that the loss of dozens of ledgers had caused.

There was no question of waiting until the Parliament had been built. It would have taken far too long, which would have left Gaelwyn stuck in his nominal prison for months if not years. More importantly, it would have blunted the impact of the story far too much. However, not being entirely without a sense of drama, the first Parliament of Torland had chosen to hold the trial on the site of the building.

The wreckage was quickly torn down and carted off, and the ground was swept and tamped down. There were places where the floor plans of the gutted buildings were still visible, and the lot still smelled strongly of ash, but that was all part of the theater of it. A new foundation would be built on top of the old. Years down the line, the first Parliament would be able to tell people how they had been there when Gaelwyn Mottram had been put on trial, and how that trial had been the first real action that the Parliament had accomplished, pushing Torland into the modern era of democracy. The foundation of the Parliament was first and foremost the people, and before there had been any no-doubt iconic building, it had been the people who did the business of government in the dirt and ash. Some of the new ministers were saying that already.

Chairs were brought in from all over the place, and a quick stage was built for the judge, witnesses, and the defendant. It quickly became clear that this was a moment which was to cement the Parliament in history, and so great care was taken to getting the seating right; it was naturally going to translate over into the full Parliament, and there were inevitably going to be paintings. They ended up with two columns of seats which angled towards the stage, each with a large number of rows. There were many ministers, the better to reflect the diversity of Torland, never mind that the first Parliament was composed almost entirely of the Council of Laborers.

One of the benefits of holding the trial on an empty lot was that it allowed the public to freely watch. Just beyond the line of demarcation that showed where the trial would take place, there was a noisy crowd that watched the proceedings with considerably less decorum than the ministers were trying for. This was almost certainly by design, the better to give the ministers a sense of legitimacy simply by contrast.

“It’s all a show,” said Welexi. He stood beside Dominic, watching from the window of a building. Gaelwyn was not yet part of the proceedings, though he would be made to sit in a chair on the stage before too long. “The verdict has already been determined.”

“Are you thinking of mounting a rescue?” asked Dominic. He hoped that the answer was no, and if it was yes, he hoped that Welexi wouldn’t ask for material aid in that mad quest.

“What I mean is that the verdict will be ‘not guilty’,” said Welexi. “That letter was too effective for them to ignore it entirely. They could try to shape the story in a way that better suits them, but there are easier paths to accomplish their goals. The trial is not about the truth of what happened at Amare’s Theater. It’s not about who killed Kendrick Eversong. This is a trial which has been designed to manufacture legitimacy for this parliamentary system.”

“How much of that is guesswork?” asked Dominic. “What are you going to do if the trial turns ugly and they decide to execute him?”

“Words have been exchanged. I’ve heard those words secondhand,” said Welexi. “The Council has gotten what they wanted from the queen. They have no desire to turn their back on the agreement that we helped to hammer out.” Welexi let out a long breath. “No, they’ll not risk trying to kill him, especially given that they know it would provoke a reaction from me. Instead, they’ll simply use the platform to give speeches. Speeches about the Peddler’s War, and the ways that the queen has failed the country. Speeches about how the Parliament is a good and necessary measure to ensure that proper governance takes place. Gaelwyn’s name will be dragged through the mud, over and over again, until he’s left weeping. In the end, they’ll declare that he’s not guilty of this crime in particular, but of others, for which he was already pardoned. It will show that they are fair.” He spat the final word.

Dominic watched the men down below. They wore different shades of black, and most gave the impression of having dressed up in their finest clothing for this occasion.

“Have you read their pamphlets?” asked Welexi.

Dominic shook his head.

“They claim that their numbers will prevent the tyranny of the illustrati from happening,” said Welexi. “Obvious nonsense, of course. This trial has a judge, whose name will be heard far and wide. Fame gives power, but power also gives fame, and no man with a role so large could remain without standing for long. The constitution also allows for leaders within the factions, and it’s natural that they will gain a significant amount of standing from that, assuming that they have some role in governance.”

“They can hide their power,” said Dominic. “There’s no reason for anyone to know that they’re illustrati. If people don’t want the illustrati to rule, better to pretend at not being one.”

“I could kill them all right now,” said Welexi. He looked down at his hand and clenched it into a fist. “I wouldn’t, of course. It would be immoral, unethical, illegal, and unwise. Yet a man can’t help but think such thoughts when he sees an injustice brewing like this. It’s part of why they’re doing this, of course. I have enough hope that I imagine some of those men to be good. They might see the power we hold, and see that it’s sometimes misused. And they’re foolish enough to think that this is the answer.”

Dominic looked at the crowds. He wasn’t actually certain that Welexi could kill them all. He was fast and strong, and surely wouldn’t have been in much danger, but a crowd of people could scatter quickly. In Gennaro, his group of friends would scatter whenever there was serious trouble with the guards, and most of the time the guards were forced to choose a single target for pursuit. Welexi was fast, but it would take him some time to dispatch the ministers one by one.

“Do you ever think of not being an illustrati?” asked Dominic.

Welexi turned slowly and studied Dominic carefully. “I have always endeavored to keep my standing as high as possible. I know of nothing that would cause it to vanish.”

“No,” said Dominic, “I meant … do you ever think that perhaps you might be happier if you weren’t an illustrati?”

“There are burdens that come with our position, certainly. Yet I have never thought to myself that I would give up any of it,” said Welexi. “Gaelwyn has often asked the same question. Fame is less pleasant for him. If something were to happen to me, I believe he might go back into hiding, where he was when we found each other. The world would be deprived of his healing powers.” He waved his hand towards the proceedings below them. “As the world sometimes seems intent on doing anyway, by his will or not.”

There was some commotion from the crowds as Gaelwyn was brought forward. He was in manacles that Dominic was sure could be broken with not too much effort. The manacles were secured to two poles with hinges on them, so that his captors wouldn’t have to touch him as they marched him forward. There were shouts from the crowd, screams echoed around the empty air, but the ministers had put on calm faces. When Gaelwyn reached the crude stage they’d made for the trial, a chain was threaded through the manacles to ensure that he could not leave the trial until its conclusion.

“Gaelwyn Mottram,” a loud voice called out. The judge was sitting behind a podium. His name had been said, but Dominic had forgotten it quickly afterward. The man would be a minor illustrati within the next few days, and Dominic wondered what his domain would be. “You stand accused of the murder of Kendrick Eversong, the vaunted Blood Bard, loyal citizen of the realm. How do you plead?”

“Not guilty,” said Gaelwyn, so softly that it was difficult to hear.

“He says not guilty!” called the judge. “Let the record show.”

The beginning of the trial was marked by medical personnel. Meriwall had two coroners, and both had inspected Kendrick’s body several days after the duel, when it seemed that an agreement would be arrived at. Both men gave official statements of explanation which posited that Kendrick’s injuries were more consistent with a surge of blood than any manipulation of the flesh. The crowds murmured at that, but Dominic gathered that no one cared all that much.

Witnesses were brought forth to speak on Kendrick’s behalf, including (to Dominic’s mild surprise) Vidre. She came to the stand wearing her suit of glass armor, made a small bow to Gaelwyn, and answered every probing question put toward her.

“Kendrick cared about his country,” said Vidre. “He cared about its people. Perhaps a little too much. He would have torn himself apart if he had thought that this was what was best for Torland.”

“You spoke with him, despite the things he had said about you?” asked the judge.

“I did,” replied Vidre.

“And you harbored no ill will towards him?” the judge asked.

“Of course I did,” said Vidre. “But I harbor ill will towards many people. I have enemies, as one might expect of someone in my position.”

“Do you believe that Gaelwyn Mottram harbored ill will towards Kendrick Eversong?” asked the judge.

“No,” said Vidre. “I never saw Gaelwyn express hatred or even dislike towards the man. He was fearful and saddened, but never hostile.”

The judge nodded along. “And what is it you suppose happened on the day of the duel?”

“Kendrick saw an opportunity to do something for his country,” said Vidre. “He had lived within the world of stories for too long, and the world of stories is a world of lies, as I well know. He thought that if he sacrificed himself his death might serve as a call to action for the people, and so, in the moment that Kendrick and Gaelwyn touched each other, Kendrick took his own life.”

Welexi watched this with a frown. “You won’t be called forward,” he said. “Don’t worry about that. Even though you were a central figure. They wanted someone pliant, someone they could rely on to craft a narrative.” He turned to look at Dominic. “You’re not that person, not yet. I hope that you never will be.”

The judge was in a side conference with a minister, and Vidre waited patiently for him. “They’re going to ask her about the letter,” said Dominic. “They’ll have to probe.”

“No,” said Welexi. “As I told you, this was a sham. The trial is not about the act itself; it is about securing the currently tentative pillars of power. Kendrick’s letter reflects poorly on the Council, which means it reflects poorly on the Parliament. It won’t be brought up again, and everyone will eventually forget about it. This is how peace happens. We store our weapons away in caches, and watch the other party do the same, never quite trusting each other.”

“They’re going to say that Kendrick did it all by himself?” asked Dominic.

Welexi nodded. “They need him to seem slightly unhinged. Acting all alone. No matter that he was their vanguard, or that he was central to their plots. That letter can be best explained as a moment of paranoia, but I would wager you won’t hear it brought up at this trial at all. That’s the sort of thing that gets circulated later on, unofficially. Kendrick was trying to do the best for his country, but he failed it in some crucial way with a deception that was his entirely. He’s both martyr and scapegoat.” He sighed. “I will be glad when our time in Torland is over.”

Dominic nodded, though the thought of going to another country to have some new adventure now seemed utterly draining to him. “Where are we going?”

“I would have thought Vidre would have told you,” said Welexi. “We’re going to the Iron Kingdom.”


The second day of the trial was the worst. Gaelwyn had sat in the mild sun on the first day, trying not to chafe at the manacles on his wrists, and trying not to hear the lies that were being told.

He turned his thoughts towards biology, which was always a comfort to him, not only the tissues that he could control through his domain, but the entire majesty of the interlocking systems that made a body work. There was a tendency, even in his own writings, to see the human organism in the abstract, but it was more complex than that. If Gaelwyn looked at the creases on his knuckles, he had to wonder at the mechanisms by which those were formed. Skin was not like paper; it showed no crease from being folded. Skin would return to a given shape moments after it had been stretched, pinched, or pulled. The crease existed in order to give the skin of the knuckles room to stretch out. Yet how did the body know that such a thing was needed? It was a fine question to distract oneself with, because the answer nearly seemed as though it could be divined from base principles. There were experiments that could be run, of course. Gaelwyn couldn’t recall whether babies had that same crease, but it wouldn’t be too difficult to find out. He began constructing an experimental method in his head, and that kept him from listening too closely to the witnesses that were brought against him. (Lies spilled from the mouths of the coroners; Gaelwyn had studied the decomposition of corpses enough to know that little useful information could obtained from them so many days after the fact, especially relating to matters of the soft tissues.)

But on the second day of the trial, biology offered no escape for him. It was precisely the study of biology that was at issue; they were making a haphazard review of his life’s work.

“I was fed the flesh of my friends,” said a witness. He was supposed to be addressing the crowd, but he had eyes for only Gaelwyn. “Meat from their forearms. I refused, in the beginning. They tried to force the food down my mouth, but I clamped my jaw closed tight. The Red Angel came in and discussed the issue with one of his nurses, right in front of me. He needed a way to control me. He wanted to know what would happen, when one man ate another. Some of us were fed meat without knowing where it came from. Some of us were fed our own bodies, piece by piece. Every variation had to go into the ledgers. In the end, the Red Angel simply touched my face and willed my mouth to open, and I was made to choke down the meat of a man I’d fought beside.” He spat to the side. “Fought beside on the orders of the queen.”

Gaelwyn didn’t remember the man’s face. The hospital he’d conducted his experiments in had been large. Perhaps that one consultation had been the only time that the two of them had met. Most of the men who had been part of those trials had been vivisected; it was possible that this man was only telling a story that he’d heard secondhand.

“And for this crime,” said the judge. “Gaelwyn Mottram received a pardon. Thank you for sharing.” The witness nodded, and stepped down. “At question in this trial is not whether Gaelwyn Mottram committed crimes against the people of Torland. We are well aware of these crimes, and they are uncontested. We have no power to remove the pardon which the queen has granted, only the power to give a veto towards future pardons which are contrary to the dignity of the people of Torland.”

There were more witnesses to come. A man who walked on crutches spoke about the amputation that had been performed on him, and nothing was said about how that experiment had led to better surgical practices in the Iron Kingdom and beyond. A woman talked about how her twin sister had been made insensate by surgery done upon her brain. An old man gave a long speech about how his son had vanished into the hospital entirely; no record had ever been found. The Iron Kingdom had not seemed to care too much, and the Flower Queen had never responded to a petition on the matter. The old man looked at Gaelwyn with rheumy eyes and asked after his son, but the name was foreign to Gaelwyn. Many people had gone through the hospital, some only briefly.

Gaelwyn wouldn’t have done those experiments again. Yet how could everyone be so blind as to the good that he had accomplished? It would be one thing for them to say that the cost in humans lives was too high to justify what had been learned, a point which could be debated, but they seemed to treat the experiments as base torture with no purpose at all. This was simply not the case. Welexi had coached him not to say such things out loud.

“In the matter of the death of Kendrick Eversong,” said the judge. “How do we find Gaelwyn Mottram?”

The ministers replied, “Not guilty,” with a grumble of discontent in the matter, and Gaelwyn let out a slow breath. It had been as Welexi said, and he was thankful for that. He was certain that without Welexi he would have hanged.

“Yet it is clear that even if he is not guilty of this crime, and has been pardoned for others which he surely committed, it is also clear that it is detrimental for this country to ever see Gaelwyn Mottram set foot upon its shore. In the matter of exiling Gaelwyn Mottram from Torland, its colonies, and its vassals, how do we find?”

A round of enthusiastic “aye”s went up from the assembled ministers.

“Gaelwyn Mottram,” said the judge. “You are hereby exiled from this great country. Should you set foot upon its shores, the penalty will be death.”


 

“They’re exiling us,” said Welexi. “We have a contract with the crown.”

“Gaelwyn isn’t part of that contract,” said Vidre. “And it’s only him that they’re exiling. When we come back to Meriwall, we can simply … I don’t know. We can leave him aboard the Zenith, I suppose. Or if that’s not sufficient, we can leave him in a different port and come back for him.”

“He would die without me,” said Welexi. “It is only through my protection that his safety is ensured.”

“We’ll figure something out,” said Vidre. “It’s an insult, nothing more. And if Meriwall is attacked, they’ll need us. That would be a better time for negotiations.”

“It’s a compromise,” said Dominic. “Better this than a guilty verdict, right?”

“It’s not important,” said Vidre. “We won’t be coming back to Meriwall for years, and by then the Parliament may have collapsed. In the meantime, the trial raises Gaelwyn’s standing, and he’ll be more powerful for it.”

“I don’t need more power,” said Gaelwyn. None of them had seen him come into the room. It was impossible to know how long he’d been standing there. “I can already heal with a touch. I don’t need to be faster or stronger. It does me no good.”

“We’ll protect you,” said Welexi. “I will protect you.”

“Yes,” said Gaelwyn. “I wonder sometimes if it wouldn’t be better if I were exiled from the civilized world altogether.”

“We leave tomorrow,” said Welexi. “You’ll feel better when we’re to sea. I think we all will.” He glowed faintly with light. “Let us leave this mess behind us.”


 

Dominic was awoken in the middle of the night by a whisper in his ear.

“Vidre?” he asked. There was a woman’s shape clouded by the darkness, standing at the foot of his bed. He shook the sleep from his head and remembered for the tenth time that he could see in the dark. The darkness washed away, and Dominic was staring at a woman who looked only marginally familiar. She was dressed as a serving girl. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“You leave tomorrow,” said the woman. She had a flat voice, as though she were completely uninterested in him. “We’ve had our eyes on you since Gennaro. We think it’s time to speak.”

Dominic pulled his covers to the side and formed a blade of shadow in the same moment. He leapt up from the bed and fell into a fighting stance, with the sword in front of him. The woman made no reaction. “Help!” he screamed. “Intruder!” If it was just a serving girl snuck into his room, he would feel foolish, but it was their last night in Torland anyway. A man couldn’t always be thinking about stories.

“Do you like the illustrati?” asked the woman. “Do you think that they are fit to rule?”

“Help!” Dominic screamed again, but the words came out sounding hollow to him. It was an effect he’d experienced once before; the domain of sound, held by his former employer. Shouting would do nothing for him.

“I’m here to speak with you,” said the woman. “You may call me Faye. We know much about you, Dominic de Luca.”

Dominic hesitated. It would be possible to dart to the side and burst through the window, hurtling himself down towards the ground and then bounding away to find Vidre. Welexi and Gaelwyn were already on the Zenith, making preparations to leave early in the morning. The palace guards would be torn apart in the fight, and none of the illustrati were likely to throw their lot in with him. Instead of trying again to raise the alarm, Dominic stayed where he was. If the woman had disguised herself as a serving girl and snuck into his room, it would have been easy enough for her to kill him in his sleep.

He kept his sword pointed towards her. “I don’t know what it is you’d wish to discuss.”

“My question,” she said. “Do you like the illustrati? Do you think they’re fit to rule?”

“They’re just people,” said Dominic. “We’re just people. People with fame and power, but people all the same. You can’t talk about the illustrati as though they’re a group.”

“They are people united by their acquisition of fame,” said Faye. She had small, unblinking eyes. “Some fall into it in one way or another. Ember was a proficient alchemist who came to the attention of the queen. You had a small moment of heroism. But illustrati are not just marked by the acquisition of fame, but the retention of it. They are seekers of power, consumers of attention. That marks them as distinct from the humble baker, don’t you think?”

“Is that a threat?” asked Dominic. His sword wavered in front of him. “Speaking of my father?”

“No,” said Faye. “I apologize, I know these circumstances are exceptional. I only thought that it might be a profession you could relate to more easily. I might have said fisher or cobbler instead.”

“Then yes,” said Dominic. “I can agree that perhaps illustrati are different from normal people.” Welexi and Vidre had been like no one he’d met before. And with Gaelwyn, the thoughts of the testimonies that had been heard at trial were still flitting through his head whenever the name came to mind. “They’re still diverse though. Some are heroes and some are villains.”

“They are driven by the same things,” said Faye. “And they are not fit to rule.”

“You’re behind the assassinations then,” said Dominic. “Behind the men who tried to kill us.”

“We knew you less well then,” said Faye. “Now we believe that you might be amenable to our cause.”

“And what is that, precisely?” asked Dominic. He had no idea what level of power this woman might have, but it was entirely possible that he could overpower her. The domain of sound was supposed to be a tricky one to fight when the illustrati had a higher standing though. Vidre had said that eardrums could easily be burst, and that was something that none of the bodily domains could fix. Sometimes it seemed as though every domain was Vidre’s least favorite one to fight.

“Precisely?” asked Faye. “We seek to restructure the world in a more just way.”

“The Council,” said Dominic. “The Parliament. Were you watching today’s trials? Did you think that this was justice?”

“We have not attained perfection,” said Faye. “Yet surely you must admit that Gaelwyn has received only the lightest of slaps for what he has done?”

Dominic knew that if he were a better friend, he would have risen to Gaelwyn’s defense, but the trial had left a bad taste in his mouth. “So you seek to depose kings and queens? Illustrati will rise in their place, as senatori or presidents. If the crown is diminished, there will still be illustrati.”

“We have a solution for that,” said Faye.

“A Harbinger artifact?” asked Dominic.

Faye shrugged.

“Well, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline to enter this conspiracy,” said Dominic.

“I’ve listened to your conversations,” said Faye. Dominic blinked. Domain sense would turn the muffled sounds from behind a wall crystal clear. If this woman had been dressing as a servant, it would have been easy for her to hear all manner of things. “Welexi despises you. Vidre thinks you’re a fool. They’re both using you, in their own ways. And you disagree with them on fundamental issues which so far lie beneath the surface.”

“I’m still going to have to decline,” said Dominic. “Remake the world with some other pawn.”

Faye shrugged. “Some day, we may call on you, and hope that you have changed your mind.”

Dominic nodded. “You know I’m going to have to tell them all of this, right?”

“Of course,” said Faye. “There is little strategic information to be gained from revealing this conversation. Failure was not unanticipated. It’s a disappointment, but little else. And of course we may still call on you, once you have changed your mind.”

Dominic was ready to defend against an attack, but Faye simply walked from the room like she had just gotten done changing the sheets on his bed. He followed after her, but by the time he had gotten to the corridor, there was no sign of her. The palace had a dozen hidden doors. If it were possible for her to pretend at being a servant for at least the last few weeks, she would know all of the passageways for easy exit.

Coming to him was dangerous and daring, but they’d done it anyway. Which conversations had they listened in on that made them think that he was going to be their man? Dominic dismissed the sword and made his way to Vidre’s room, trying to think on what to tell her. He wasn’t sure that it made sense for them to raise the alarm; the palace was so large that there would be a hundred places to hide, and an illustrati would have little issue with making a quick exit.

Dominic raised his hand to knock on Vidre’s door, and hesitated.


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