The Zenith was a small ship, with a complement of thirty men and women and little room for cargo. She had seven white sails that carried her all over the civilized world. When Dominic saw the ship, the thing that struck him most was artistry of it. By his estimation, half of the crew members must have been tasked with keeping every piece of wood freshly painted and every piece of gleaming metal polished. There were thin sheets of silver engraved with elaborate designs all over the ship, in the same style as Welexi’s ruined armor, and carved wooden accents that displayed organic curls. The ship’s railings were heavily lacquered, with none of the dents, gouges, or simple weathering that might be expected of a ship that saw regular use. And attached to the bow of the ship was an elaborate sculpture of glass, clearly Vidre’s work. It showed a muscular man reaching forward, a fragile glass finger extended in front of him, as though he was trying to touch the horizon. There were no cannons, and nothing of its design suggested it was anything more than a work of art. Yet it was said to be the fastest ship in the world, able to outpace naval flagships and express packet boats alike.
The palanquin was carried past a line of watchful crew members, to a spot that had been cleared on the dock. Welexi stepped out to the roar of the crowds. He gave a low, somber bow to them, then raised his mangled hand to the sky. He’d used the light to shape a defiant fist. Blood streamed down his forearm, though it wouldn’t have been visible from a distance. Dominic followed Welexi up the plank and onto the deck of the Zenith, and his appearance drew another cheer from the crowd; the story had traveled ahead of them. There were hardly any waves, but Dominic felt unsteady on his feet—nearly as unsteady as Welexi looked. Welexi moved across the deck of the ship like a drunkard, down into the cabin, and gestured for Dominic to follow.
The crew watched them duck into the bowels of the ship without comment. They all wore identical white uniforms, finely tailored and far better than Dominic would have expected to see on a sailor. They had silvered buttons down the front of their jackets, and blue trim around their throats and cuffs. In the stories that were told about Welexi—the ones that took place at sea—the crew were nameless and faceless. With their appearance, it was easy to see how they could fade into the background, like they were just another piece of the ship’s elaborate decorations. They even had similar haircuts. Dominic was keenly aware of his sweat-stained tunic and his shaggy hair.
The interior of the ship was used economically. The corridor that divided up the living space was only large enough for a single person to walk down, and then not without a bit of care. Welexi had already moved into the room at the far end, and Dominic followed. By the time he came in, Welexi was laying on a wide bed and bleeding onto white cotton sheets.
A woman in glass armor stood over him. She had blond hair with a tint of red to it, which was pulled back in a simple braid. The armor was as clear as crystal, and a white blouse showed through beneath it. Glass was Vidre’s domain, and where the armor would be suicidal on a normal person, on her it was both an impeccable defense and a potentially lethal weapon. She was famed for taking two glass daggers into battle, one in each hand, but those were nowhere to be seen at the moment. She had a thick white scar on the side of her face which passed through her brow and down her cheek, but it didn’t mar her—if anything, it made her look more distinctive, more beautiful, and hinted at her dangerous nature. Dominic had heard dozens of stories about her, and now he was in the same room with the Lady Vidre. She had as many names as Welexi: the Queen of Glass, the Whore of Abalon, the Childish Bride, the Princess of Blades, Sharddriver, Thornscraper, the Hand of Pane. She glanced briefly at Dominic when he entered, but barely seemed to register him.
“Are you going to die?” asked Vidre.
“No,” replied Welexi. “I don’t think so. I lost more blood than is probably good for me, and my leg’s broken, held together only by light. My arm too. That will heal. My fingers won’t.” He held up his mangled hand, with the fingers of light still formed into a fist. Only his pinky finger remained, and he was missing most of his palm. “I should have picked them up, so Gael could stick them back on. Send someone to fetch them. Or send someone to make a story out of them. Some urchins probably took them as soon as it was clear it wouldn’t cost them their lives, but you might be able to retrieve them.”
A short man with red hair and a bright green apron came into the small cabin, which really wasn’t suited for three people to stand around in, and clucked his tongue. He carried a leather bag filled with metal instruments, gauze, and small bottles. Dominic had followed the stories of the illustrati well enough to recognize him too; he was a doctor by the name of Gael Mottram. He only had the one name: Red Angel. He had a dark history, though the stories were vague about what it was he had done, and when they weren’t vague, they seemed too disturbing to believe. Experiments, they said. He was another living legend, a man who could kill with a touch. His domain was flesh. Dominic took an involuntary step backward.
“I came as soon as I got Vidre’s message,” said Gael. He laid a hand on Welexi. “It’s bad.” He turned to Vidre and Dominic. “Out, while I deal with my patient.”
“Wait,” said Welexi. “There are things I need to speak of with my young protege.”
“I’m not—” began Vidre.
“Dominic de Luca saved my life,” said Welexi. Gael and Vidre turned and looked at Dominic. “He is to be given our full resources, and a place on the ship, not as crew, but as one of us. We’re elevating him.”
Gael muttered under his breath and began tending to Welexi. Dominic’s eyes went wide when Gael used his power on Welexi’s ruined hand. The bloody flesh folded in on itself and twisted around exposed bone, then slid back over it. Shattered pieces of bone fell onto the bloodstained bed. Welexi cried out in pain and hissed through his teeth. There was an angry red line where the sword had cut through his hand, but the bleeding at least had stopped. Gael began unstrapping Welexi’s armor without much comment. Vidre had turned away as soon as Gael had made his move, and she was staring at Dominic rather than looking at the triage.
“Does he have any standing?” asked Vidre.
“He will,” said Welexi. He was sweating, and his voice didn’t quite reach the casual calm that he clearly intended.
“Does he have a useful domain?” asked Vidre.
“I have no idea,” said Welexi.
“It’s shadow,” said Dominic.
The room was silent for a few moments, and then Welexi began to laugh. “Shadow and light, a story for the ages!” he said. His voice was weak, but he was smiling.
“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” said Gael. He turned to the others. “We can talk about these developments later. The flesh is all healed, but I count ten broken bones, maybe eleven, and he’s low on blood. He won’t get any rest unless I put him out. He can’t help but push himself.”
Vidre pushed past Dominic, and he followed her as she went down the corridor and into a different, smaller room near the middle of the ship. She folded a seat down from the wall for him, and sat cross-legged on her bed. All around the room was glass—small figurines which sat on top of the shelves, long cylinders of glass that were held in place by leather straps, and a jar of glass marbles tucked beneath the bed.
“Dominic de Luca,” said Vidre, like she was feeling the name with her mouth. “Tell me what happened.”
“There was a fight,” Dominic said. He’d heard the stories about Vidre and what she could do with those daggers. He’d also heard stories about what lay beneath that glass armor. He folded his arms across his chest. “Welexi and Zerstor.”
“The story preceded you,” said Vidre. “Details.”
“I don’t know how or where it started, but Welexi came falling out of the sky, straight through the clouds, with his wings breaking into pieces behind him,” said Dominic. “He hit the statue of Gennaro. I thought he was dead. He woke up just in time for Zerstor to come bounding across the city. They talked. A few guards came, and Zerstor killed them. And then they fought. It was … tentative, then fast. Welexi was injured from the fall, or from what came before it. He—he turned into light at one point.”
“He gave himself armor of light?” asked Vidre with a raised eyebrow.
“No,” said Dominic, shaking his head and remembering being nearly blinded. “He turned into light, just for a moment. Zerstor’s sword passed straight through him.”
“He can’t do that,” said Vidre.
“Well, he did. Ask anyone who was there,” said Dominic.
“Within the next hour, half the city will be claiming that they were there,” said Vidre. “And the people who actually were there will be saying that they had a front row seat. This is why I’m talking to you now, so I can separate truth from fiction. Continue.”
“Welexi tried to press his advantage after that.” said Dominic. “But he got his hand cut off. Or, part of it anyway. You saw the result. It looked like Zerstor was going to win, he had Welexi by the throat, so … I picked up Welexi’s weapon from the ground, and I killed Zerstor with it.”
Vidre stared at him. “Zerstor is dead.”
“He is,” said Dominic. He had almost as much trouble believing it as she seemed to. “The spear passed through his armor, into his heart.”
“He’s too fast,” said Vidre. “There’s no way that you would be able to hit him, let alone pierce—no, I suppose if you had Welexi’s spear, if he was distracted—and of course that’s why he wants you to come with us. Well. This buggers things.”
Her words were like slap to the face. “Do you understand that I saved his life?” asked Dominic.
“I do,” said Vidre. “And you’re going to be elevated for it, which I’m sure wasn’t under consideration at all.”
Dominic parted his mouth to respond, but only ended up frowning.
“I don’t mean to slight you,” said Vidre, “But this really does bugger things. It’s a counter-story that needs to find its legs. I need to get moving on this, speak with the senatori, the ship is going to have leave port tomorrow instead of two days from now because we can’t have Welexi showing weakness. I’ll have to inform the bards—look, are you alright with coming with us? We offer fame, fortune, and power. I would say beyond your wildest dreams, but I’ve seen how big dreams can be. We leave tomorrow morning, that gives you the rest of today to get ready.” She watched him carefully.
“Yes,” said Dominic. The world was coming back into focus. He had a path laid out in front of him, which was more than he could say for his life as it had been an hour ago. “Of course.”
“And?” asked Vidre.
“And?” repeated Dominic.
“You were supposed to ask me where we’re going,” said Vidre, like she was talking to a child.
“Where are we going then?” asked Dominic.
“Torland,” said Vidre. “And from there to elsewhere, part of Welexi’s quest for the Numifex. We won’t be back in the Sovento States for years.”
“Okay,” said Dominic. She was speaking too quickly for him, and clearly impatient. It was starting to become clear that this was his life now. He would be traveling with the Sunhawk and the Queen of Glass. He was one of them now, or would be soon.
“You’re supposed to ask what the Numifex is—look, we’ll do all this another time, when I have more patience and you’re less awestruck, or whatever it is that’s clouding your head,” said Vidre. “And I do hope that this is not you at your smartest.”
“Sorry,” said Dominic. “It’s been a long day.”
“Is there anything I desperately need to know about you?” asked Vidre.
“No,” said Dominic, quickly enough that it almost wasn’t a lie; his brain simply hadn’t caught up to his mouth, and it was only after the word was out that a cascade of other thoughts came following which showed how untrue that “no” really was. Right at the top of the list was Corta. He had half a mind to ask Vidre for money, to explain that he owed a debt of four thousand capi on top of the four thousand in his account, but he could very well imagine her laughing in his face and telling him that he wasn’t worth that to Welexi. He wanted her to note some falseness in his denial, to extract the information, so he would be able to lay things out for her.
Vidre simply took him at his word though, and that was that.
The crowds weren’t as thick when Dominic left the ship, though there were still quite a lot of people milling about. When they saw him, a ragged cheer rippled through their ranks, but it was clear that they were waiting for someone else—someone more important. He came down the plank and passed through the sailors in their white uniforms, and was grateful that no one in the crowd immediately began to grab for him, as they’d done in the plaza. The fact that a few of the sailors carried swords might have had something to do with that.
“Is it true you killed Zerstor?” asked an older man, who Dominic took for a pensioner.
“I did,” said Dominic. “It was luck more than anything.” The people parted way for him, but not easily. He wasn’t the man they wanted to see, but he was by far the most interesting person around.
“What did they say in there?” asked a girl a few years younger than Dominic.
“They just wanted to thank me,” said Dominic.
“What’s your name?” asked an old woman.
“Dominic de Luca,” he replied. To his mild irritation, a few of the people had started following him, walking alongside him as he made his way to his parents’ house. Afterward he planned to stop by his apartment and pack his meager possessions away, and get back to the ship before anyone could change their mind. He would be long gone by the time Corta came looking for him. “I’m Dominic Lightscour now,” he said, remembering the name that Welexi had given him. Welexi had a hundred names, each of them a testament to some good deed: Whitespear, Sunhawk, Brightshield, on and on for ages. Dominic resolved that Lightscour wouldn’t be the last of the names he received.
With another two blocks and twenty questions, only the young girl was still keeping pace with him. He hadn’t quite ran from anyone, but many of those who could afford to sit around the docks all day waiting for something interesting to happen were older, and not able to follow quickly. The girl dogged at his steps despite his long strides, asking more questions.
“What do you do for a living?” she asked.
“I’m a runner, packages for the wealthy mostly,” he replied. Usually it was contraband of one kind or another, stolen goods to be sold to those who didn’t inquire too deeply about their provenance, or teas and spices that hadn’t passed through the customs office. Sometimes it was drugs—malum, mostly—and sometimes it was proscribed literature. Corta had fingers in many pies. Dominic wasn’t supposed to look inside the packages, but he did whenever there wasn’t an obvious seal on one of them. There’d been a time when he’d taken his own cut, but he’d stopped that when Santino had been caught doing the same and paid with his life.
He glanced around as they passed through a five-way intersection. He was vaguely worried about another mob forming. Thanks to Welexi, everyone knew his name, or would soon, but practically no one knew his face. He couldn’t have been seen by that many people in all, maybe more if he counted the ones that had been watching from the rooftops or leaning out their windows. Eventually he would be known like Welexi was. He was sure that when he returned to the ship in an hour’s time there would be all sorts of people wanting to meet him, senatori, merchants, and everyone else. He still had time before everyone recognized him on sight. If not for the girl, he would be virtually anonymous.
“How old are you?” the girl asked.
“I’m seventeen,” Dominic replied. “Look, do you think we might part ways here? I’m worried that you’re going to call attention to me, and there are things that I need to get done in the next few hours that I don’t think are going to be possible for very long.”
“Like what?” asked the girl. She continued on, right next to him, and Dominic contemplated running away from her before deciding that he had a little bit more dignity than that.
“I need to speak with my parents,” said Dominic. “And with the friends I share a room with.” And after that, slink back to the ship before Corta had any chance to take his hide. He had a day though, she’d said that.
“I can wait outside,” said the girl with a smile.
“I would really prefer to be left alone,” said Dominic.
Her smile dropped. “You’re new,” she said. “If you want to be an illustrati you need to have an ombra, and I’m as good as any.”
“Aren’t you a little young—” Dominic began.
“Not that kind of ombra,” she said with a moue, “Like an assistant.”
“You’re still a little young,” he replied. They were coming up on his parents’ shop, and he wanted her gone before then. “Look, if you want to help me out, then just leave me to my business. In the meantime, start telling some stories about me. Like a bard. Alright? And if I need your assistance later on, I’ll come find you.”
To his surprise, the girl nodded. “You can find me near the Orrico fountain, in the small building with a blue door.” She held out her hand. “Clarissa Fiscella.”
Dominic shook her hand, and then she was off like a dart. She was playing to her archetype, in the way that those who sought fame often did. He didn’t need a precocious youth in his life though, and he had no intention of ever seeing her again, let alone seeking her out. He would leave Gennaro tomorrow, and when he returned he would be a different person entirely. That was the opportunity that had opened up in front of him. He’d been thinking too small when he’d thought about asking Vidre for money to pay off Corta.
His parents were bakers, and the moment he opened the front door the smell brought him back to his childhood. He had spent many early mornings working dough with his father, and many evenings cleaning the shop while his mother rang up customers. He had stolen sugar from the sack in the back with his sister, sticking a wet finger in it and sucking it clean while listening for parental footsteps. His arms and hands had suffered innumerable burns from the accursed oven. That had been his childhood, the smell of it alone was nearly enough to knock the wind from him.
“Dominic!” called his mother when he stepped inside. It was warm in the bakery, as it always was. The rooms upstairs had never lacked for heat in the winters. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s complicated,” he replied. “Is dad around?”
“In back, I’ll get him,” said his mother. “We’re making a cake for one of the senatori.” She waved a hand towards the loaves of bread that were stacked up in baskets on the wall, with olives, cheeses, and garlic baked into the top of most of them. “Pick out a loaf to take home.”
Dominic waited, and stuck his hands in his pockets. His sister Nilda was behind the counter. She didn’t say hello to him, or give him a particularly welcoming look. He nodded to her, but it was some time before she nodded back. After that, she began cleaning the counter. She was trying her best to ignore him, and so he ignored her in return. He wanted to ask where the others were, but he could make his guesses. Firmino and Marcello would be making deliveries, and Anna would be studying with whatever tutor his parents could convince to work for bread. The patterns of the family had been well-established when he left, and there was no reason to think that they had changed.
His mother came back into the store’s central area and gave Dominic a tight hug. His father came much slower, wiping his hands on his apron. He looked much older than Dominic remembered—he’d gone gray at the temples, and where he’d always been a thick man, now he had a bit of a pouch. He was sagging, in more ways than one.
“Dominic,” said his father. Dominic’s mother stepped to the side, and looked back and forth between the two of them.
“Dad,” said Dominic. He felt like a child again. “Look, I had to come by here because you’ll probably be getting some people that are looking for me—”
“Are you in trouble?” his father asked with a frown.
“There was a fight in Nuncio Plaza,” said Dominic. “Welexi and Zerstor, a final confrontation.” He wasn’t sure how to say the next part. It still didn’t feel like it had really happened.
“Were you picking pockets?” his sister asked from behind the counter. She was scowling at him. “Nothing like a fight to distract people, isn’t that right?”
“I was just watching,” said Dominic. He tried to force down his anger. “Welexi lost part of his hand, cut off by Zerstor’s sword, and it looked like he was about to lose, so I stepped in and … it’s probably better that you hear it from me, because you’re going to hear it one way or another, but I killed Zerstor.”
His mother gasped and put her hands to her mouth, but his father said nothing, and only gave Dominic the same sort of look that he’d always had when he was going over his ledger at the end of the day.
“How?” his father asked.
“Welexi had dropped one of his spears. I picked it up and … it was over quickly. I got him by surprise.” It was a hard thing for Dominic to put into words. There hadn’t been much to it. It could have been any other person in the crowd. It seems like a dozen people should have been going towards the spear the moment Zerstor’s back was turned, but it had only been him. “I got lucky.” The more he thought about it, the more he thought about all the ways that it could have gone wrong.
“Gambling with your life,” his father said.
Dominic nodded. There was no use in denying that.
His father shook his head. “Well, if you’re telling the truth we’ll get a surge in business at least. But we won’t lie for you.”
“Lie for me?” Dominic asked. He could already feel tightness in his throat.
“I won’t make you out to be a hero,” his father said. “I won’t pretend you’re someone to look up to. Now if that’s all, I have a cake to bake.” His father turned back towards the kitchen.
Dominic balled up his fists. “Dad, I’m leaving the city. I’m going to be Welexi’s protege. Don’t you understand how important this is? How big of a thing it is? I’ll be gone for years!”
“So go then,” his father replied. He folded his arms across his chest. “We wish you the best.” Dominic spun on his heel and opened the door to the bakery. He had hoped that his mother at least would offer up an objection, but there was no sound from her. He wished that he could have said goodbye to his brothers, or his sister Anna, but standing in the same room with his father for much longer would have hurt too much. He would have to hope that Anna understood.
He turned the corner to get to his apartment, and came face to face with one of Corta’s enormous sons.
Vidre sat in a dimly lit room with two bards on either side of her. Their names were Leon and Marco, and both had thick beards and curly black hair. They sometimes claimed to be brothers, though that was just a bit of flourish you had to expect from men who crafted stories for a living. They had already talked about Welexi’s injuries, and the stories that would have to be told to downplay them while he recovered. It was almost universally accepted that showing weakness wasn’t worth whatever you gained in short-term sympathy, and besides that, the fight with Zerstor was a capstone on their time in Gennaro, and there was no point in an extended denouement.
“His name is Dominic de Luca,” said Vidre. “He’s going to be a new addition to our crew, Welexi’s protege. His domain is shadow, which should help matters. There’s a duality there. Light saved by shadow, we can use that.”
“I swear I’ve heard that name before,” said Leon.
Vidre shook her head. “I’d doubt that. He’s a complete unknown.”
“The rooftop races,” said Marco. “I lost twenty capi betting on him.”
“He’s one of Corta’s whelps?” asked Leon with a raised eyebrow.
“Corta?” asked Vidre. They’d spent the last nine days in Gennaro, and while Vidre had memorized a flurry of names, that hadn’t been one of the ones that stuck. “Who is that?”
“She’s a criminal, the kind that the senatori don’t have too much of a problem with,” said Leon. “There are the rooftop races of course, gambling, smuggling, bribery, aggressive loans which the banks wouldn’t take, and a few other matters like that. As far as the underworld goes, she’s one of the top three in Gennaro.” He frowned. “I left her out of my brief, I didn’t think she was quite important enough.”
“What does this say about Dominic?” asked Vidre. She had a glass of wine in front of her, which she hadn’t touched. She was too on-edge for alcohol, and had a suspicion that she would have to keep her wits about her until they set sail. Welexi had looked downright sickly when she left. It would be the perfect time for someone to make an attempt on his life.
“Oh, likely your new boy is a criminal himself,” said Leon. “Most of the racers are. Being fleet of foot makes you valuable among the criminal element, in case someone needs a lookout that can outpace the guards. That was the genesis for Corta’s races, I believe.”
“This presents a problem from a narrative standpoint,” said Marco. He turned to look at his partner, then back to Vidre. “We’ve been trying to weave two narratives of redemption, one for Gaelwyn and one for you. Gael is going to be making up for his sins if he lives to be a hundred, and you’re waiting for the proper moment for that part of your story to conclude. To add on a third redemption arc concurrent with those two is going to strain credulity, and by the rule of three, something has to be different about this one.”
Vidre let out a long, low sigh. “Point taken. Welexi as serial reformer is questionable, but to say he’s working on all three of us just doesn’t work.”
“Especially not after what Gael did in Grantholm,” said Leon.
An uncomfortable silence fell over the room.
“We can try to scrub Dominic’s past clean,” said Vidre. “But we’d have to interrogate him first, and if he is a criminal he’s already lied to me once. I could kick him off the ship, but that doesn’t serve a narrative, and Welexi would likely object. So we pivot. It’s not a story of redemption at all, it’s a story of betrayal. We spread some rumors about a shadowy conversation down by the docks, or whispers from cloaked figures, and there’s an implication that Welexi is going to find a dagger in his back, that he was too trusting or too good.”
“Setting the boy up to take a fall?” asked Leon.
“No,” said Vidre. “It’s like I said, the narrative can’t show Dominic valiantly saving the day and then immediately cast him as a villain, even if that’s what his domain naturally suggests. We make the rumors vague. It’s not necessarily Dominic plotting, maybe it’s Gael. Maybe it’s me.”
Leon and Marco looked at each other.
“We need to shape this story,” said Vidre. “Make it into something that people will want to share, to talk over. Betrayal works for that. There’s an element of the unknown that will appeal to people. Will Welexi be betrayed by the monster, the whore, or the thief? Will he manage to survive? And if we need to bring a resolution, it can simply be that one of the crew was the betrayer, a poisoner or some-such thing. A viper snuck into his bed perhaps—some ridiculous bit of showmanship no real assassin would ever use. We have months to figure that out.”
“Possibly we complete the redemption arc for Dominic then?” asked Leon. “Just to get it out of the way. Dominic heroically saves his mentor for a second time, removing any doubts about his trustworthiness. Depending on what his actual crimes have been, or at least what comes to light in the next few weeks that can be treated as credible, perhaps it’ll be easy to say he’s turned over a new leaf.”
“There’s a problem,” said Marco. He gulped down his wine. “We can’t sell this. Not the bit about betrayal. It’s too transparent. Leon and I are known to be in your employ.”
“Use intermediaries,” said Vidre. “You’re going to have to anyway, to spread the rumors we need. Write under a pen name. Figure out a way to make it work. And in the meantime, write the songs and stories about the battle that Dominic brought to an end. I know this is extra work, but it’s necessary. We’ll be in touch.” She stood up without waiting to listen to their complaints. “I need to go find Dominic.”
Dominic’s first instinct was to run, but Corta’s son reached forward and grabbed him by the tunic.
“Mother would like a chat,” said the large man. He was six and a half feet tall, with the musculature of a pit fighter. One of the sons had actually taken to that line of work, but Dominic could never keep them straight, and all of them were of similar build.
“Tell her I’ll pay her,” said Dominic. He struggled, and received a hard blow to the side of the head in return. Dominic wasn’t completely useless in a fight, but Corta’s son had too many pounds on him, as well as years of experience being his mother’s enforcer. He also had a truncheon hanging conspicuously at his side. “It hasn’t even been a day.”
“We got word that things have been exciting for you,” said Corta’s son. Tito? Tino? All their names began with the same letter, which made them even harder to keep track of. “Mother wants you to not do anything foolish.”
Dominic was marched forward with one hand pinned behind his back. A few people took note of them as they made their way to the restaurant where Corta made her headquarters, but no one said anything. Dominic was anonymous again, just another young man in poor clothing, not a would-be illustrati.
Corta was sitting in a booth near the back, her customary spot. The restaurant was empty. Dominic was pushed down into a seat in front of Corta. She grinned at him. She was a full-figured woman, with a blouse that was more unbuttoned than was proper, which showed off her breasts and the brassiere that struggled to hold them. Her wine-stained teeth were large and flat. She had thick rings of gold on most of her fingers, and these clinked against her goblet when she drank from it, which was often.
“You said I could take the day off,” said Dominic.
“That was before I got word that you killed an illustrati,” said Corta. She tapped her painted nails against the wooden table. “And here I had thought you were nothing exceptional.”
“I’ll have the money to you tomorrow,” said Dominic. “Like we agreed.”
“Well, I hardly believe that, now do I?” asked Corta. She sipped at her wine. “I had wondered, after I heard, why a man would so readily risk his life. Even one so foolish as you, even one who had lost an enormous bet. It was a puzzle. So I took a look at the proof of credit you gave me, and I’m sure that you know what I found there. A four turned into an eight. I was going to kill you, but after having some time to reflect, now I think perhaps we can help each other. You’re about to be famous.”
“Alright,” said Dominic quickly. “Partners. And I’ll get you the money I owe you.”
“Ah,” said Corta. “But you were a little too fast to acquiesce, and of course we have the problem that I can’t trust you in the slightest. What plans are going through that thick skull of yours? How do you intend a second betrayal? Do you think that killing Zerstor and saving Welexi gives you so much power that you can stand against me? Do you think that you can find an ally willing to tangle with me?”
The door to the restaurant opened, and light spilled in. The earlier clouds had passed, and the sun lit Vidre up from behind, highlighting the red in her blond hair. Where the light hit her glass armor it reflected into the restaurant, momentarily lighting up the place until she stepped inside and let the door close behind her. A pair of glass daggers hung at her hips.
“Ah, Dominic, I had wondered whether I would find you here,” said Vidre. “It seems that you weren’t entirely honest with me when you said that there was nothing that I should know about.”
“Lady Vidre,” said Corta. She didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see the Queen of Glass come into her empty restaurant. “Come, have a seat.”
“No thank you,” said Vidre. “I’m only here to grab my charge.” She stood some ten feet away from the booth where Corta and Dominic sat, with Corta’s son looming close by. Vidre was halfway turned toward the door with an expectant look on her face.
“Yes, I’ll just be going,” said Dominic. He stood up, and Corta’s son stepped forward to put a hand on his shoulder and roughly force him back down.
“Hush,” said Corta. “The women are talking.” She turned her eyes to Vidre and licked her lips. “You see, the problem is that dear Dominic owes me a sum of eight thousand capi, tried to cheat me, and furthermore is my employee—”
“I’ll pay it,” said Vidre with a shrug. “Anything else?”
“You can’t simply pay—”
“Of course I can,” said Vidre. “You have to know that eight thousand capi is nothing to me.”
Corta glowered at Vidre. “And what is he to you?”
“I don’t have time for this right now,” said Vidre. “Dominic, let’s go. Corta, I’ll authorize you to take money from our vault, go to the Banco Albero at your leisure.”
Dominic again began to stand up, and again Corta’s son moved forward, but this time there was a sound of footsteps and a rush of air. When Dominic looked over, Vidre had one of her daggers pressing against the stomach of Corta’s son, with the other dagger pointed lazily in Corta’s direction.
“I don’t like to judge a book by its cover,” said Vidre. “But when I walked in here, I thought to myself, ‘My, that looks like a very dumb man.’ And lo and behold, it turned out that my first instincts were correct. I hate that—when a man is all surface, no hidden depths, no subversions of my expectations of him. It’s so dull. Now, I suppose the only question that remains here is whether I’m going to have to paint the walls of this shithole of a restaurant with your blood.”
Corta clinked her rings against her goblet with narrowed eyes. “Dominic broke contract with me,” said Corta. “He tried to steal from me, after I provided for him for years. This is about more than money.”
“Then the money is off the table,” said Vidre. “I’m taking Dominic, no payment on offer.”
“I will not allow it,” said Corta. Her breathing had become very controlled. She had both her hands on the table.
“Her domain is sound,” Dominic said quickly.
“Look,” said Vidre. “I think you might have some misunderstanding of who I am. You have your own little realm of influence here. You’re one of maybe fifty people in the city with any real power, enough that you can get some use out of it instead of just having a parlor trick. Perhaps you can even hurt someone with it. That’s you.” Vidre smiled. “I’m one of the most famous women on the planet. There’s a small temple in Luchistan that you can only reach by riding a mule for twenty miles up treacherous mountain paths, and they tell stories of me there. My name is muttered in small jungle villages, in huts on the frozen tundra, in every corner of this earth. I’ve killed hundreds of men with twice your power, and they were all trained soldiers. I’m stronger than you. I’m faster than you. I can bend steel with my bare hands and catch a cannonball in mid-flight. Do you want to make this about raw might?”
Corta wavered. She looked at her son, and then at Dominic, then back to Vidre. “Sound shatters glass,” was her feeble reply. Her voice had been sapped of its confidence.
“And then what?” asked Vidre. “My armor shatters, and I’m left with a million shards of glass to kill you with. It wouldn’t be a new experience. It wouldn’t hurt me. I haven’t been cut by glass since I was ten years old. The domain of sound has never scared me before, and it’s not going to start now.” She spun her daggers around in her hands. “I’m going to leave with Dominic. Do I need to kill you?”
“No,” replied Corta. She sank down and drank what was left of her wine. Her eyes didn’t meet Vidre’s.
“Good,” said Vidre. “And while everything I know about you could fit a pair of sentences, let me assure you that if you do anything to Dominic’s family or his loved ones, or if you attempt retribution because of this unfortunate embarrassment, I will take a great deal of pleasure in slicing the skin off your face. That’s the sort of thing they write songs about.” She nodded to Corta’s son. “That goes double for you. And get some education, find a hobby, something. if you’re going to be a thug, at least be less boring about it. It’s offensive.”
She put her daggers back onto her belt and walked to the door without looking behind her.
Dominic followed, though he wasn’t nearly so nonchalant.