Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 13: Iron Bound

Previously …

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

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

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

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

“Mayhew is out of date,” said Gaelwyn.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

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

“Even his questions are out of date,” said Gaelwyn.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

“Should I not read it?” asked Dominic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A play?” asked Dominic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three,” replied Gaelwyn.

“There were spies?” asked Dominic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have friends in Parance,” was Welexi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The city isn’t natural,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very well,” said Welexi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened to Quill?” asked Welexi.

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

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

Hartwain frowned. “Not a good answer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s manipulation then,” said Dominic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s all I wanted,” said Dominic.

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

Dominic nodded. “Good night.”

“Good night,” said Vidre.

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


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