The Council of Laborers proved unable to formulate a coherent response to the letter. They had been running along with a single plan for too long. If they had imagined forks in the road, places where the plan had different paths to follow, they hadn’t imagined this one. They first tried to deny the truth of the letter. They maintained that Kendrick was a noble martyr. This did not last particularly long; the narrative that the letter had offered was stronger than their denial could ever hope to be, in part because Kendrick was known for his exaggerations. The letter was damning towards both Vidre and Dominic, which called into question why they wouldn’t have crafted something more beneficial, if the letter was a forgery. Various people who had been in attendance at the duel (and some who hadn’t) claimed that they had seen the telltale signs that something wasn’t right, and overnight a number of tavern-dwellers became experts in combat between illustrati, despite having only witnessed this single fight.
The Council eventually began to back down on their denials, but they couldn’t abandon their claim to the truth entirely. If they had, it would have raised too many questions about those men they called the Phoenixes. Some of the alternate explanations being put forth by the people of Meriwall were surely worse than the truth; these ranged from a hypothesis about aid provided by the Iron Kingdom, to the ritual sacrifice of young children. Dominic had asked, but Vidre hadn’t admitted to spreading any of these rumors. Her whereabouts were often unaccounted for though.
Eventually, the Council made an overture.
Couriers traveled back and forth across the city over the course of a handful of days. This was a long-range negotiation between the Flower Queen and the Council of Laborers, a temporary prelude to the conversational melee that would need to take place in order to bring matters to a close. The Council didn’t trust the queen not to have them decapitated, and the queen didn’t trust the Council not to have her assassinated, which made the matter of getting the two of them together quite tricky. Early on, it was determined that the whole thing couldn’t just be solved by letter. This was partly owing to the fact that the letters had begun to descend into petty sniping and line-by-line quotes which received a full paragraph of response, and partly because there was little drama involved in that sort of settlement.
Vidre sat with Dominic on top of Grayhull Palace. The city was splayed out in front of them, though the view was nowhere near as good as from the top of Laith’s Cathedral. Here there was an actual landing, and a door that led to a stairway down into the palace itself.
“So we’re glorified lookouts?” asked Dominic.
“No,” said Vidre. “Glorified would imply that there’s some glory in it. We’re just lookouts.”
“It seems like there would be a better use of our time,” said Dominic. Vidre had pared her armor back for the day, down to her traditional breastplate with closely-fitting trousers and thick boots. The breastplate shaped itself to her body and accentuated her curves, in a way that Dominic couldn’t help but find alluring, even though he knew that was the desired effect. In serious combat, Vidre would reshape the concave surface to better deflect the blow of a sword.
“There’s such a thing as tunnel vision,” said Vidre. “If we buried our heads in the negotiations, we might miss what’s going on outside the palace walls. Look for new construction, or a group of people conspicuously doing nothing. I don’t think they’d assault the palace, unless the negotiations are a distraction.” She touched her glass daggers and used her domain to make some slight change to their shape, so they would be better suited to some imagined task. Dominic was slowly learning Vidre’s tells; she was nervous. “We need to talk about this romance.”
“Ah,” said Dominic. He wondered whether coming up to the rooftop was even necessary, or if it was all a pretense so they could speak alone.
“We’re going to have to use the romance at some point,” said Vidre. “People like romances. It will raise our standing. If we pull the trigger now, we might be able to distract the masses for a moment. The stories that they’re telling about me and Kendrick are a start. The imagined romance between you and I deflects some of the attention away from the scandal with Kendrick. The story about you defending me from Cerulean Bane was told for the first time yesterday, and —”
“It was?” asked Dominic.
“Yes,” said Vidre. “It had to be. We made good time getting to Meriwall, but there will be ships coming in shortly that carry that news from Gennaro. It would make us look like we had something to hide if we didn’t get out ahead of it. The queen might ask for a recounting, just so you’re forewarned. As I was saying, that pushes the romance thread even more.”
Dominic watched a pair of gulls as they landed on a roof two blocks away. He had no idea how to respond to Vidre. She was beautiful, in everything that she did. Dominic wouldn’t have ever tried to deny that. There was a grace in the way she swung her daggers, and the sway of her hips when she walked. Even the small things like the nervous way she would touch the handles of her daggers had the ability to enthrall him. Vidre was known for her beauty throughout the world. She had meticulously crafted her image, and that edifice was part of the allure. Yet the days spent in close proximity to one another brought unguarded moments, and what was backstage — the canvas beneath the layers of paint — had its own appeals.
All the same, the infatuation only went so far. Vidre was more of a mystery than anyone Dominic had met, even moreso because he knew all the stories about her. She had presented several alternate interpretations of well-known events to him, but it was impossible to know whether this was just another layer of lies. He had known her for fifteen days now. In that time, she had killed at least three men and practiced a variety of deceptions against all sorts of people, including Welexi Sunhawk himself. If Dominic was willing to admit an infatuation, he also had to admit to a sense of unease.
“What would this involve?” asked Dominic.
“Nothing much,” said Vidre. “I’m known as a private person. People will make their own inferences if given a few subtle clues. They probably have already, as a matter of fact, it’s just a matter of controlling those stories and bringing them in line with our goals.”
Dominic was slightly unclear on what those goals actually were; it seemed that Vidre and Welexi were at odds with each other when it came to the more distant future. Vidre seemed content to simply sail around the world until the end of time, but that wasn’t enough for Welexi. Dominic didn’t know how he fit in with either of these plans. If everything in Torland went to plan, which seemed far too hopeful, then eventually he would stand next to Welexi and Vidre as an equal. Beyond that, it was unknown.
“It’s the small things that people respond to,” said Vidre. She stretched out and glanced towards him. “Lingering looks and brief, unnecessary touches. Smiles and laughs. That sort of thing. We won’t need to display outright affection. It will be a simple fraud.”
“Right,” said Dominic.
“The only downside is that you won’t be able to pursue other options, which I don’t think you should be doing anyway. I saw how Ember looked at you after you rescued her,” said Vidre. “There are already good reasons not to spend too much time with her. The same goes for the commoners.”
“Fair enough,” said Dominic.
Vidre gave him a slight, unexpected smile. “Good, then it’s settled. Remember, nothing overt. We’ll be leaving Torland soon if all goes well, and we can feed them back whatever story we wish through our bards. It’s always better to draw these things out if they’re meant to last. In the meantime, it’ll help to distract from the politics that Welexi is trying to work on behalf of the Flower Queen, not that he’s making much headway there.”
“Why’s that?” asked Dominic.
“He’s tainted,” said Vidre. “They’re still singing that damned song in the tavern. There are new stories recounting the Peddler’s War written by young men who hadn’t even been born when it started. The common folk of Meriwall haven’t made a complete turn against him, but I don’t know how much longer he can keep up his image of a shining knight. There are other illustrati who would write the whole island nation off as a loss, and accept that they’d be a villain in one place and a hero in others.”
“Not Welexi though,” said Dominic.
“He’s a hero,” said Vidre. “He needs to be a hero. Even if that’s not the wise thing to be.”
“That’s what makes him a hero, I suppose,” said Dominic.
“Sometimes being a hero makes you a villain,” said Vidre. “You can’t please everyone all the time.”
The meeting was planned to death.
The location had to be picked with care. It couldn’t be the palace, because that was too much of an advantage for the queen and too much of a risk as far as security went. It couldn’t be the cathedral, because the Church of Laith had too much of a connection to royalty, and furthermore the Council had been responsible for burning down a church. Amare’s might have been the obvious place, but that was at the nexus of some unpleasantness on both sides, especially given that the Council hadn’t managed to formulate a response that had done them any good. The list of places that would be suitable for a meeting and yet also uncontentious for both sides was a very short one, and neither side wanted to give in to the other’s suggestions, just on general principle.
Traditionally speaking, Welexi’s role would have been to step in as a mediator. He was known for being fair and impartial, and had played a key role in a number of settlements and accords. This was true even in the case when he’d been fighting on one side or the other. The business with Kendrick had tarnished his reputation in Torland, if only slightly. The letter which Kendrick supposedly sent from beyond the grave only implicated Vidre, but the prevailing narrative had always been that she was his knife in the dark. The letter had done nothing to challenge that line of thinking (since the letter borrowed quite a bit of its credibility from the fact that it fit well with the conventional wisdom). Unfortunately, Welexi’s involvement was now somewhat problematic, given that the Council was still maintaining that he was a symptom of corruption and indifference.
“I’m a better speaker than Steelminder,” said Welexi. He and Dominic sat alone in one of the many rooms of the palace, having just finished with dinner. “I have more experience with constitutional documents and peace treaties.”
“If they don’t want you there, what can be done?” asked Dominic. He’d been surprised to be pulled in for counsel, if that was what this was.
“It will tarnish my reputation to be excluded,” said Welexi. His face was set, and his armor glowed brightly with light. Like Vidre, he had his tells, and the illumination that came from his constructs was one of them. This was something under Welexi’s conscious control, but he used it as a form of punctuating his speech and expressing himself so often that it was second nature to him. “What story are we forging here? The duel was meant to be exciting, but it’s been revealed as a lie. It’s too convoluted for easy consumption, and furthermore involves only you. Before that letter you were acting as my protege, but now it’s only of your own volition.”
Dominic didn’t know what to say to that. In their conversation with Steelminder it had never seemed to be an issue. Looking at it in this new light, he could see how Welexi might take some offense. “What do you want to do about it?” asked Dominic. “We can’t say that you had a part in it.”
“No,” said Welexi. “Heroes do not stoop to lying. You should have known that. Leaving the criminal past behind was a condition of joining us our travels. I should have been more clear on that. I fear that Vidre has been a poor influence on you in that regard.”
“What we did wasn’t criminal,” Dominic replied. “There aren’t any laws in place that say people in a duel have to try their hardest to kill each other. It was deceptive, but that was it.”
“Do you wish to debate me on the difference between legality and ethics?” asked Welexi. He frowned. “No, it wouldn’t do, even if you’d had the schooling for it, which you haven’t. Lightscour, if you’re to be my apprentice, you need to follow in my footsteps and learn from me. Why did you even do this thing with Vidre? Why collaborate with Kendrick? Was it fear?”
Dominic was silent. He hadn’t come here to be dressed down, and what’s more, he didn’t feel bad about any of the deceptions: not the initial one with Kendrick, nor the second one with Kendrick’s letter. When Dominic had been younger, and still living with his parents, he had occasionally caught his father’s ire for some small thing he’d done. It hadn’t taken long for him to realize that these moments often came on the heels of tax day, when money was tight and the ledgers had to be balanced. Welexi had been excised from the peace proceedings. He needed someone to direct his frustration towards. It was a simple, human thing, but Dominic had expected better of a self-proclaimed hero.
“Have you spoken with Gaelwyn?” asked Welexi. He cocked his head slightly to the side and stared at Dominic with piercing eyes. His face had fully healed, with the small cuts in the skin left behind by Gaelwyn’s healing now completely closed. He was handsome and imposing; he was the sort of man who begged to be made into a statue. “He’s down in the dungeons right now.”
“I haven’t,” said Dominic. He felt a small pang of guilt at that, more than for any of the other things he’d done.
“You should,” said Welexi. “I had to deliver the news of your lies to him. He was none too pleased.”
“I’ll speak with him,” said Dominic.
“Gaelwyn believes that if he had been informed of the plans, he might have been able to provide a better reaction to Kendrick’s treachery, and I’m inclined to agree,” said Welexi, as though Dominic had said nothing. “Lightscour, if Vidre asks you to engage with her in some scheme a second time, you must come to me and inform me at once. You have some loyalty to her, I can see that. You’re smitten. Many men have been. But do you recall the Harbingers?” He shook his head. “I would have thought the artifact would leave some impression upon you, if not my words.”
“I’m sorry,” said Dominic. “If Vidre asks me to do anything out of your sight —” Dominic remembered the conversation he’d had with her earlier about pretending at romance. He wondered only briefly whether that was the sort of thing that Welexi would want to know about, before deciding that his answer would be the same either way. “I’ll let you know.”
“That’s all I ask,” said Welexi. “Gaelwyn has told me that I have four weeks before my bones are fully healed, though I think it will be closer to three. When that time comes, I will take a more firm hand in your training. I’ve often found Vidre to be an excellent sparring partner, but in terms of instruction I think we would both agree that I am her superior. You have not yet distinguished yourself in battle, but the time will come.” He smiled. “I don’t begrudge your youthfulness. If I’m harsh with you Lightscour, it’s only because I want you to grow into the illustrati you demonstrated yourself to be on the day we met.”
Dominic walked down the hallways of the palace. He’d been there enough to know most of the main thoroughfares, though there was an entire society living behind the wainscoting that Dominic could admit he was mostly clueless about. More than once, he’d see a panel open up where he never would have guessed there was a door, only to see some maid or butler appear for a brief moment and then disappear back into another hidden passageway. Dominic didn’t think that there was any place in Gennaro that had been so ornate as Grayhull was, nor so infested with staff. He had half a mind to ask Vidre whether it was safe to have so many mostly-anonymous people running about when any of them could potentially be one of the disguised illustrati, but he assumed that this was something that had been thought of long before he’d had the idea.
When Dominic heard the word “dungeon”, he thought of a dank, dark, and cold place with chains and irons. He’d seen the inside of a jail enough to know their type, but a dungeon was supposed to be something more. In the stories, men were always killing rats to drink their blood, or shackled so tightly that they could never move, to say nothing of what happened in the catacomb-prison of the Bone Warden.
Gaelwyn’s dungeon had a tall ceiling, and the upper portion of one of the walls had finely made windows that would have been the envy of any shopkeeper on the main streets of Meriwall. Midday light streamed down into the room, providing ample illumination. The room itself was clean. The same furniture was used here as throughout the palace, some of it created with illustrati hands, and others simply made with considerable care. The room was larger than the bakery that Dominic had grown up in. There were two guards, who looked Dominic over closely, but they let him in without comment and closed the door firmly behind him.
“At least it’s none too bad here,” said Dominic. He tried to smile, but faltered when Gaelwyn opened a bleary eye and glared at him. He was laying on a lounger, with a foot dangling down.
“I’m somewhat drunk,” said Gaelwyn. “It’s not becoming on a physician, but there’s nothing much that can be done about that. They’re giving me all the wine that I can handle, and then some.”
“I’m glad they’re treating you well,” said Dominic.
“Well?” asked Gaelwyn. “Oh yes, very well indeed. That’s part of convincing me to stay within my prison cell. Tell me young Dominic, how much effort would it take for you to escape from here, absent any outside help and with very unfavorable assumptions?”
“Ah,” said Dominic. He looked around, at the rug on the floor, the windows high above, and then to the door itself. He could picture the two guards standing behind it; they’d been wearing armor and carrying polearms, but that meant little. If they had any standing at all, it was so minor that neither of them had been clad in even the most minor token of their domain. “Five seconds, perhaps, depending on how I wanted to get out. I think … perhaps I could make footholds of shadow and climb up to the window. Or simply jump, I suppose, if I didn’t care about breaking through the glass. Fifteen feet means little to me anymore.”
“You didn’t mention the guards,” was Gaelwyn. “But of course, they’re listening to everything we say and making notes for the queen, so perhaps that’s prudent.” He smiled slightly. “It would suffice to say that this is not where they keep the truly dangerous people. It’s for those, like me, who understand that there are consequences. It’s a prison of mutual agreement. Hence the furnishings, and the wine. They want me to think that being accused of a murder I didn’t commit, so that politically expedient theater can take place, is ‘none too bad’.”
“I don’t think there’s going to be a trial,” said Dominic. “That letter exonerates you.”
“Whether there’s a trial or not has nothing to do with how obvious it is that I’m innocent,” said Gaelwyn. “It’s all about the public, and what they’ll accept.” He closed his eyes, and laid back. “If a peace can be brokered, do you think that my trial would simply be swept under the rug? I doubt it. It would be a fresh affront that the people of Meriwall would likely not stand for, and it would strain the peace that everyone is currently working so hard for.”
“We’ll protect you,” said Dominic. “Torland can’t risk going to war with the four of us.”
“Three,” said Gaelwyn. “Everyone keeps forgetting that I’m a pacifist. More likely, it would just be two, because Vidre’s connection to me has always been weak. And more likely than that, it would only be a single person fighting for me: Welexi. You, Lightscour … I believed you. I trusted you. I thought that you were stepping into the fight to protect me, to save me. I told you of my childhood, how I worked for the Iron King, the progress that I made, and I thought that you understood. But no. No, when it came down to it, it was all for show, wasn’t it? Better to have a duel where you can be assured of victory, even if it throws me overboard. Taking the duel was all about increasing your own standing. It was all about putting yourself at the forefront of peoples’ minds.”
“No,” said Dominic. “Gael …”
“You only came down here at Welexi’s behest,” said Gaelwyn. There was hurt in his voice.
“There were other obligations that I had to take care of, the palace needed to be secured, we were working against a lack of knowledge and needed to —”
“No,” said Gaelwyn. “Answer me honestly, and know that I’ll confirm it with him. Did you only come down here because Welexi told you to?”
Dominic frowned. “Only is putting it strongly,” said Dominic. “Welexi told me to come down, and that made me realize that I had been neglecting you.”
“It’s not in your instinct to be my friend,” said Gaelwyn. He held out a hand. “Let me touch you.”
Dominic didn’t move.
“You see?” asked Gaelwyn. “You fear me, the same as everyone else.”
“You’re drunk,” said Dominic. “I can return when you’re in a better state of mind.”
“I’m tipsy,” said Gaelwyn. “Enough to lubricate the truth, the better that I can disgorge it.”
“I apologize,” said Dominic.
“Do you know, if you had told me that you and Kendrick were in cahoots, I might have been able to avoid the whole thing. I would have known to look for the signs of a faked injury. I would have been able to pull myself away from him the moment after I’d touched him. I could have kept my composure. I thought I’d killed him on accident, that’s easy enough to do, but if only I’d been informed. If only, Dominic. But you didn’t trust me with your plots.”
“I’ll make it up to you,” said Dominic, though he had no idea how he would do that.
“Go away,” said Gaelwyn. “We’ll talk later. Welexi has been yearning to broker a peace. Perhaps he’ll have time to try making one between you and I. In the meantime, I have wines to drink.”
Dominic left, with a glance towards the stony-faced guards who were pretending they’d heard nothing. This was an unplanned story, one that he hoped would go no further than Grayhull, but he wasn’t terribly optimistic. Dominic tried to imagine how the conversation would have sounded to an outsider. He decided that it didn’t paint either of them in a terribly favorable light.
The negotiations between the Council and the royalty eventually happened just outside the city. There was an estate owned by a noble who was in the unique position of having a father who came from House Walton (making him of the same approximate lineage as the queen) and a mother who had come from a long line of dockworkers. He was generally disinterested in politics, only a minor illustrati, and rarely seen around Grayhull, even though he was welcome there. His estate, inherited from his late father, was one of the few places that had the proper symbolic meaning for both parties and didn’t give either a great advantage.
“It’s a trap,” said Vidre. “But even if it’s not, we should treat it as though it is. We’re each allowed three at the table and another three for guards. All of ours in both positions will be illustrati, and we should assume that all of theirs are too. Even if we manage to sober the Flower Queen, which I’ll believe possible when I see it, she’s still useless in a fight. Same goes for the vicar. That means that if the enemy is smart, it will be four against six. If they can choose their domains, we’re in for a very rough fight.”
“Much of the agreement has been hammered out by courier,” said Welexi. “Much of the negotiation has already been done. A peace has been hammered out, and now it’s simply a matter of adding the embellishments.”
“What kind of peace?” asked Dominic.
“A sharing of power,” said Welexi. “If this were my country, I might have balked at it, but the Council wants to fold itself into the apparatus of the kingdom.”
“The Flower Queen will allow that?” asked Dominic. “Why not do that right from the start?”
“She’s unhappy,” said Vidre. “But she’s also been feeling the pressure. I believe there was some compromise regarding the line of succession.”
Dominic frowned, but Vidre answered his question before he could ask it.
“You will have noted that there is a distinct lack of the pitter-patter of little feet in the palace. The Flower Queen is past fifty, and it is virtually certain that she’ll never have children, baring some miracle or misdirection. For all I know, the possibility of falsifying an heir was discussed, but if it was, nothing ever came of it.”
“So who becomes king when the Flower Queen dies?” asked Dominic.
“In the past? It would have been a succession crisis. House Walton was always a small one. The Flower Queen has no children and no aunts or uncles. There were three claimants, each with varying levels of internal support and strength of claim, but who knows which of them would be left alive when the Flower Queen finally died. If she lives as long as Laith, she has many decades of rule ahead of her. With the peace that’s been reached though, she’s the last queen. When she dies, the vast majority of the powers of the crown transfer to the Council, and whoever becomes king or queen will be little more than a figurehead.”
“So … they won,” said Dominic. “The Council gets exactly what it wants.”
“If control of the kingdom some decades from now is what they want,” said Vidre. “Most men don’t work towards goals they won’t see accomplished in their lifetimes. Hence my skepticism.”
“It will be fine,” said Welexi. “We will be there to stop any attack.”
“You like our odds, four against six with unknown domains?” asked Vidre.
“It won’t come to that,” said Welexi. He held out his hand, and a spear of light materialized there. “But if it does, then my concern is not whether we will win, but whether we can do so while protecting the queen.”
The estate covered a large area, but was small as these things went. There was an orchard in the back, a garden of flowers that left a sickly-sweet scent in the air, and tall hedgerows to keep out passersby. The place had been nearly emptied of people, and the small ballroom had been appointed for the negotiations. A coach carried the Council members in from Meriwall. Dominic watched from the door as it trundled its way down the smooth flagstones that made up the central entrance.
When the coach came to a stop, only three people came out of it.
“You seem to be somewhat short,” said Steelminder. “Are the others coming?”
The man who’d gotten out first, an elderly fellow, had a smile on his face. “Oh, I had thought the guards were in poor taste. Weapons to use against each other doesn’t make for good conversation, I’ve found. We’ve brought only those of us with a talent for speaking.” All three of them wore simple clothes; the other two were young, a man and a woman, neither of which seemed like they could have had much experience. The woman had her hair drawn up into a tight bun that sat on top of her head.
“You have me at a disadvantage,” said Steelminder. “The Council has thus far kept their names hidden, your, ah, Phoenixes aside.” If he noticed the lack of formality on the old man’s part, he said nothing about it.
“Chester Welling,” said the old man with a pleasant nod. “And of course you understand that secrecy was something of a priority. The members of the Council have families and businesses. It would be unfortunate to lose those things should the kingdom feel threatened. But no, I think the moment has passed for that. No use making another martyr, eh?”
“I don’t like this,” Vidre whispered to Dominic. He could feel her hot breath on his neck, and was momentarily startled by the closeness before remembering that they were supposed to be playing at having a greater familiarity.
“Well, we hope to bring this whole business to a close,” said Steelminder.
“It has been so very difficult,” said the Flower Queen. She had sobered somewhat, thanks to the efforts of those around her, but this had left her morose. It was widely agreed that Steelminder would do the talking.
They went into the ballroom, where a long table had been set up, with a variety of documents. There were two scribes, who had been agreed upon by both sides. It was somewhat accepted that this process would take at least a day, even though the framework was already in place for it. Dominic, Welexi, and Vidre stood off to one side, carefully watching for sudden movements, hidden blades, and or hints of something untoward. There was nothing.
The negotiations themselves were tedious. Dominic heard them as nothing more than a stream of unintelligible words shortly after the first twenty minutes had passed. He would snap to attention every once in awhile and correct his posture, but he had no practical experience with guard duty. He now gathered that being a guard was mostly about staying awake and alert even when there’s nothing going on. For the most part, it was the old man who did the talking. He hammered out each word, offering suggestions or minor changes that would clarify, or corner cases where their agreement might cause problems. In large part, he was the one driving the conversation, with Steelminder keeping pace. The Flower Queen slumped in her chair, and after her first two suggestions were shut down, she became silent and sullen.
After two hours, they took a break. What waitstaff remained at the estate brought in platters of food, one for each side of the table.
“I’ve never had such fine food in my life,” said Chester. “There are many benefits to knowing the right people, I suppose.”
“It’s not polite to gloat,” said the Flower Queen.
“Was I gloating?” asked Chester. “I was only making an observation. Besides that, the purpose of this agreement is not that I have won in some respect, only that we are moving towards a mutually beneficial understanding.”
Vidre came closer to Dominic, and whispered in his ear. “Come with me?”
Dominic nodded, and followed her across the ballroom to a spot near a pair of wide windows. “What is it?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
“This doesn’t feel right,” said Vidre. “If the Iron King is involved, what does he stand to gain from this deal?”
“Nothing,” said Dominic. “He’s going to go before the Flower Queen does. To me, that points to him not being involved.”
“Then where did the Phoenixes get their power from? What support were they given, and by whom?”
“I don’t know,” said Dominic. “These aren’t new questions. If it’s a trap, they’ll have to spring it here. If it’s a distraction, there are illustrati back at Grayhull who have pledged their support in stopping whatever happens.” They both knew how much that support meant though. “And the deal isn’t so terrible for them that it has to be a trap of some kind. It doesn’t always have to be violence.” Dominic’s roaming eyes caught sight of Welexi, who was looking at them with a raised eyebrow. “You should speak with Welexi about this.”
“His mind is less twisted than yours,” said Vidre. “I mean that in the kindest possible way.”
“I just don’t see it,” said Dominic.
They went back to their guard duty after the recess was over, and stood around patiently while more lines were gone over one by one. The Flower Queen would have some veto power over the Council, but this power wasn’t absolute. There were disagreements and clarifications to be made about the scope and nature of this veto, and the possibility of a “soft” veto wherein the queen would fail to exercise her right yet still hold up the process without saying no. It was unbelievably dull, and by the time they were into the fifth hour (and onto their second recess) Dominic had lost all semblance of interest. He wasn’t native to Torland, and if their internal politics were slight one way or the other, it was never going to matter to him. This time it was Welexi who pulled him aside.
“I need to be able to take part,” said Welexi. “I gave Steelminder as much instruction as I could, but he’s rolling over to every new suggestion.”
“Is that so bad?” asked Dominic, but Welexi’s face told him that was the wrong question.
“The future of the country is decided here today,” said Welexi. “We’re acting as mere guards, here to protect against knives, but it’s the words that are doing the heavy lifting.”
“It will be alright,” said Dominic. “It’s a terrible story anyway. No one will praise you for setting a cap on taxation. They’ll only care that you were here at all, if that.”
Welexi scowled, but if there was anything more that he had to say, he was cut short by Chester’s loud voice calling for a return to the documents.
By the time night fell, Torland had a constitution, with the ink still wet on it. There was no attack, and after they’d come back to Grayhull, there was no fresh disaster waiting for them. Vidre seemed mildly disappointed, and Welexi was still upset by the fact that he had been excluded from proceedings. So far as Dominic could tell, the proceedings had gone exactly to plan, with no drama to speak of.
“Chester Welling is a mystery,” said Vidre. She sat down to breakfast with Welexi and Dominic, with a stack of papers in her hand. Two days had passed since the new agreement was put into place, and the first Parliament of Torland was already meeting in a warehouse, with plans for a new building to house them being hurriedly drafted. “At first I thought that it was just a false name, but it’s not. Supposedly, he grew up in Meriwall before traveling abroad with a sum of money given to him by the crown. His wife died young, when a supply of improperly stored gunpowder was ignited on accident. It’s impossible to say whether that actually happened or not, given how long ago it would have been, but none of the older people I spoke with remember anything like that happening. It seems that this was a story that he told about himself that everyone believed.”
“Does it matter?” asked Dominic. “It’s over.”
“Of course it matters,” said Vidre.
“I agree,” said Welexi. “This man is an agent of our enemies.”
“There’s peace now,” said Dominic. “And you said we’re only staying until Gaelwyn’s trial is over.”
“The man has access to Harbinger artifacts,” said Welexi.
“Or connections to the Iron Kingdom,” said Vidre. “We can’t rule that out. At any rate, the man who called himself Chester Welling has disappeared. He told people that he never wanted any power for himself, and didn’t want to make himself into an illustrati by virtue of his role in the Council. He sailed off, though the reports about where he went disagree with each other.”
“You think he might be the man that Wealdwood spoke of?” asked Welexi. “No, of course he is. Our adversary.”
Dominic was silent, but he wasn’t quite certain that he agreed with any of what they were saying. They had started with the idea that what was happening in Torland was part of an overture on behalf of the Iron King, a way of weakening the country in advance of an invasion, or a way to give himself some excuse for war. Yet if this old man who went by Chester had been a part of some plot, and he had accomplished what he set out to, then the end game of the plot seemed to be a practically bloodless revolution. A dozen people had died, and a few buildings and businesses had been burned to the ground, but everyone had already agreed that it could have been much worse than it was. There didn’t seem to be any disagreement about the fact that the Flower Queen was a terrible and ineffectual ruler, and now rule had been more or less stripped from her.
“Where do we go next?” asked Vidre. “When the trial is over, we have our options. I might try to narrow down Welling’s destination, but for all I know he might have left us a dozen false trails.”
“If he’d wanted to burn down the city, he could have,” said Dominic. “If the intent was to open up Torland for attack, it failed. Why follow?”
“We’ve been attacked by assassins twice now,” said Vidre. “Once in Gennaro, once here. The Phoenixes will never be tried for their crimes, that much is clear, but justice isn’t what we’re after.”
“It’s the story,” said Welexi. “The adversary. If this worked out in his favor, then all the more reason to go on the offensive.”
“Alright,” Dominic frowned.
Yet if he looked at the end result, he couldn’t help but get the feeling that perhaps he was on the wrong side.