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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One thought on “Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 11: Trials”

  1. Sometimes it seemed as though every domain was Vidre’s least favorite one to fight.
    Just like every choir of demons is the most dangerous.

    Interesting that Dominic was recruited. Shouldn’t be hard to guess what they were angling for…

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