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.