The first bath had been tinted with dried blood and dirt. It was an ugly color, the hue of battle, watered down. Vidre had scrubbed with pumice until she was clean and pink. She would have gone until her skin was raw, but mere pumice was no longer enough to abrade it. She sometimes thought back on wounds of old, ones she was too powerful to suffer from anymore. Falling from the Ministry of Legends would no longer be cause for alarm.
The second bath was one of soaps and oils, boiling water that could no longer burn her flesh, and a real attempt at relaxation. The oils were from the vast stock of the Iron King, brought in from distant lands and hoarded in great quantities. It brought Vidre back to earlier, better times, when it had seemed like the Zenith would sail the world forever, stopping at every port of importance to forge new legends and spread the old ones. The smell of jasmine was one she would always associate with Erbos. She was romanticizing those times, but after a harsh battle she always felt some need to see the world in a better light.
She hadn’t escaped the fight unscathed. She was still deaf in one ear and the other ear made everything sound like it was underwater. Her hearing would return, but worse than before, as it had too many times in the past. Older illustrati had spoken of a constant sound of ringing or a dull roar of thunder that became their unwelcome companion. The other wounds had been dealt with by Gaelwyn. He had returned the chunk of meat that had been taken from her calf, complete with skin to cover the wound. He hadn’t had the domain of skin the last time she’d been back. She didn’t ask about it.
There were many things that Vidre didn’t ask about these days.
Welexi came into the room where she was taking her bath and cleared his throat loudly. There was a folding screen between them, a token piece of modesty left over from the Iron King’s time. An ancient memory came floating up, unbidden. Vidre had been twenty years old and freshly inducted as an illustrati on the Zenith. She had tried to seduce Welexi, first through flirtation and then, in a moment of bold stupidity, by shrugging off her clothes in his cabin. That moment was now so embarrassing that it was still capable of making her stomach do a flip. Welexi had thought she was only trying to increase her own standing by adding him as a conquest, which was precisely true. It was a wonder that they had been able to move past that.
“I am sorry that I was not there to greet you upon your return,” said Welexi. He sounded stiff and oddly formal, even for him.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Vidre.
“Gaelwyn tells me that you fought the remainder of the Allunio, five against one,” said Welexi. “He believes it to be a suicidal gesture.”
“He worries too much,” said Vidre.
“Did you transfer from those you fought?” asked Welexi. He never called it draining, though everyone else did. It was always a transfer, meant to call to mind an orderly handing over of power from one person to another.
“Two of them,” said Vidre. “Of the domains I can feel, I have …” She closed her eyes. “Steel, copper, gold, sand, rust, heat, cold, fire, birds, horses, insects, skin, hair, vines, wood, light, lightning, and glass. Lightning I have twice now. It’s more powerful for it.”
“Excellent,” said Welexi. For the first time some real emotion crept into his voice, an oozing satisfaction that Vidre found maddening. “Eventually we will find a way to return those links to their rightful owners.”
Vidre didn’t challenge that narrative. The Iron Kingdom was in complete disarray. They had rescued a number of men and women from captivity, including the nominal king Quill, but most of the drained illustrati must simply have been killed. There wouldn’t often be a person to return the link to, if they even had a way to separate out the links, which they did not. Vidre couldn’t decide whether returning the powers was something Welexi said to assuage his own guilt or a piece of fiction he intended to sell the world on.
“I have some good news,” said Welexi. “It is overshadowed by your own good news of course, the end of the Allunio will bring a conclusion to the civil war and no doubt be cause for celebration throughout the Iron Kingdom, yet I feel that I must chime in with my own success.”
Vidre laid her head against the porcelain of the bathtub and said nothing. If Welexi wanted to talk, he would get no encouragement from her, no witty repartee or leading questions.
“Quill has not taken to the throne,” said Welexi. “The loss of his domain hit him hard and his imprisonment did not agree with him. He never had any desire to rule.” He went silent behind the screen that divided them.
“We had said that we were going to find a replacement,” said Vidre, damning herself for responding. “Someone who wanted the job. Once the war was over.”
“I have found him,” said Welexi. “It took time to pore over the books, to untangle the bookkeeping of earlier eras. In his later years the records became immaculate, but I was looking in those years before the reforms had been enacted. Eventually I found the document that I had been seeking, the one which confirmed a nagging suspicion. All of the pieces of the puzzle clicked into place.”
Vidre wanted to scream at him. She had just survived a difficult battle. She had been using her daggers with extreme prejudice for the last few months. This was not a time for him to be delivering a story to her, no matter how well-crafted he might think it was. Instead, she asked the question that Welexi clearly wanted her to ask. “And what puzzle is that?”
“Sometimes the solution comes from small details,” said Welexi. “The puzzle isn’t even clear until the solution is nearly in sight. In this case? A child who was taken into the custody of the kingdom at a young age and brought to the attention of the king — but perhaps it was the king who cultivated the boy in the first place? And why would he have done that? The boy turned into a brilliant man. He was given more freedom than almost everyone in the kingdom. Yet there were more questions. Why, on his deathbed, would the king have spent so many resources in trying to track down yet another physician, where so many had failed before?”
Vidre wanted to slam her head against the bathtub, but she would have only succeeded in breaking it. “Gaelwyn,” she said.
“The Iron King sowed his seed widely,” said Welexi. “He would have been old when Gaelwyn was born, but not implausibly so. The Iron King was known to make trips to the Highlands on a regular basis, sometimes without much in the way of fanfare. He would have had the power and the authority to pull a woman into his chambers and have his way with her. It wouldn’t have mattered whether she was married. And then, once the child was born, the Iron King would keep an eye on the boy. He would ensure that the boy was selected for presentation at one of the stadiums, so that his domain could be known. He would ensure that the boy was sent to get an education, so that his mind could be shaped and his future controlled. It explains the resources that were devoted Gaelwyn’s way when he was running his hospital, the latitude that he was given. It explains why so many letters came from the Iron King while he was dying. The Iron King knew that Gaelwyn was brilliant. He knew that of all his bastards, there was one who was both intelligent and humble, one who would do what it took.”
Vidre resumed her silence. It was all lies, even if those lies came naturally to Welexi’s lips. She idly wondered how good the forgery of the documents was. Would they withstand inspection? They didn’t need to, not really, not with all of their enemies dead. Welexi’s command would become law. Gaelwyn would take the throne and behind him would sit the Sunhawk, pulling all the strings that needed to be pulled. If there were any way that Welexi could have claimed the throne for himself, Vidre was certain he would have taken it.
“I look forward to your support in these coming weeks,” said Welexi. “I’ve spoken with Quill already; the transition of power will be seamless.”
“This will mean war with Torland,” said Vidre. She moved her hand back and forth in the water, feeling the currents. “The parliament we installed there put Gaelwyn on trial. They won’t accept him as king.”
“They’re too busy consolidating power,” said Welexi.
“What better way to unite than a ready-made enemy?” asked Vidre.
“Gaelwyn is the rightful ruler of the Iron Kingdom,” said Welexi. He sounded slightly confused, as though he couldn’t understand her objection and was slightly put-out by it. That was one of his methods of manipulation that Vidre had once thought was base childishness.
“As you say,” said Vidre. She was too tired to argue, too emotionally drained to point out every reason this was a bad idea.
“This is the dawn of a new era,” said Welexi. “We will pull the Iron Kingdom to its feet and institute a new, just rule that corrects for all of the Iron King’s excesses. The story of rebellion is concluded; a new story must rise to take its place.”
Vidre made no response. Welexi gave a polite cough from behind the screen that separated them, but certainly even he would be able to realize that she didn’t want to speak with him. It took some time for him to move away. Once he was gone, she climbed from the bathtub and dressed herself in clean clothes, slowly and mechanically, then began forming the lump of glass she’d removed into armor again. There was still work left to do. She needed to go wait for Dominic.
It would come down to violence. Dominic recognized that. There were other salient questions, like whether he could somehow bring Vidre to his side, or whether he would be able to face Welexi down somewhere that Gaelwyn wouldn’t be able to render aid. At its heart though, the problem was Welexi. There was no other solution than a violent one. There would be no way of talking Welexi down.
That left the question of how. If they had been of equal standing, with evenly matched domains, Dominic would still have been soundly beaten in any fair fight that he could imagine. Welexi had made his name as a combatant. He had mastered every possible technique. Dominic had a month of training in swordsmanship. He was rusty now, two months out of practice, which meant there would be no contest when he faced down what might have been the greatest spear fighter in the world. Dominic had no way of knowing whether Welexi had more than just light and shadow. That was something he would have to figure out before trying to get into Castle Launtine.
It wouldn’t be even remotely heroic, but Dominic could try to slit Welexi’s throat in the middle of the night. Sound was one of the five domains he’d taken from Faye, which would allow him to move silently around the castle and cover the noise of picking whatever locks were on the doors. Welexi had to sleep sometime. The thought of killing the man in cold blood didn’t sit right with Dominic, but it offered odds that were far better than trying a straightforward fight. Perhaps he could even find one of the artifacts and use it to steal his own power back from Welexi. That was a secondary goal, but one that Dominic would try for if it was feasible.
He tried to exercise his new domains as much as possible. The fifth one was weak, likely taken from someone whose fame had begun to wane, or had never fully developed. Dominic had almost laughed when he’d realized what it was: light. He could make simple constructs, but it was slow work and the details were difficult. Sound and blood were the most powerful of the two that he had received, but blood seemed as though it wasn’t going to be useful, given that there was little chance he would be able to make skin contact with Welexi. Still, Dominic practiced with both blood and flesh, making alterations to his own body and undoing them again. He tried to keep his experimentation to places that weren’t vital, just in case he did something which couldn’t easily be undone. Steel, blood, flesh, sound, and light, there had to be some way to use those.
Sound was the most distinct of the domains. It allowed for keen hearing and a differentiation of sounds, so that he could tune his hearing to different places or listen for different things. He could amplify the sounds around him and reduce them to almost nothing. He tried the amplified shout that he’d heard from Corta and found it to be loud enough to shake the trees around him. It would be a powerful attack, but that hadn’t saved Faye. He had no idea how she had managed to speak without the use of her voice, but he imagined that this was a matter of practice. Dominic tried, but he could only make sounds that had no relation to words. He finally made a single word by stringing sounds together, but that took far too much preparation and concentration.
A plan was beginning to form in Dominic’s mind, of silently stalking into the castle with the domain of sound to keep his footsteps from being heard. All thoughts of that were driven from his mind when he heard a human heartbeat coming from behind a small group of rocks some twenty feet away from him. Dominic’s own heart began to beat faster. He was still miles from Castle Launtine, too far for there to be patrols, but the person in question was only barely moving.
“Hello?” asked Dominic. He was ready to run at the first sign of trouble.
“Dominic,” said a familiar female voice. Vidre stepped out from around the outcropping. “You really are a fool, you know that?”
“I know,” said Dominic. “But something has to be done.”
“The Bone Warden’s people aren’t with you?” she asked.
“They didn’t want to upset the balance of power,” said Dominic. “I think they’ll probably stick around for long enough to establish ties to the new regime.”
“Typical of the Bone Warden,” said Vidre.
“Are you going to stop me?” asked Dominic.
“Welexi thinks you’re dead,” answered Vidre. “More specifically, he thinks that I killed you. You can imagine that I would have some problems if you showed up unannounced.”
“No one else is going to do anything about Welexi,” said Dominic. “I don’t know how many of the rumors are true, but … some of them are. He was going to kill me, like it was nothing. He’s hiding secrets. Not just from the world, but from you as well.”
“So you want to kill him for it,” said Vidre. “You’re taking something small and personal and turning it into an international affair. You really want to go up against the most powerful man in the world? Over pride? Over revenge?”
“Yes,” said Dominic. He felt the urge to deny it, to explain that his aims were somehow noble, but he’d been thinking about slipping into Welexi’s room and slitting his throat only moments before. He was confident that a world Welexi stood on top of was worse for it, but he doubted he would feel so strongly if there were no personal connection. If they had parted amicably, Dominic might have said that Welexi was unfit to hold his position of power, but no more unfit than any number of other rulers.
“Fair enough,” said Vidre. “And your plan?”
“I was still working on that,” said Dominic. “If I could get into his room in the middle of the night, act while he was defenseless, then maybe —”
“Let me tell you how I sleep,” Vidre interrupted with a wave of her hand. “I seal my door shut with every single domain available to me. I make a seal of glass around the door, then a second seal of copper and gold. I suppose I have steel now too, so I’ll be adding that to the barriers. I do the same for the windows, leaving only enough of a gap that I can still breathe. It is, in most other respects, a tomb. If I’m feeling especially paranoid, I deploy caltrops across the floor of the room, razor sharp so that they would slice straight through all but the thickest leather.”
“You’re a multistrati,” said Dominic. He had known that, but it was another thing to hear it come from her so casually.
“Yes,” said Vidre. “Welexi is too.”
“And so am I,” said Dominic. Vidre showed no sign of surprise. “There has to be a way. If I can use the domain of sound to keep him from hearing, it won’t matter how indelicate I am in getting to him. He won’t know I’m there until he’s dying.”
“You speak as though I’m going to let you by,” said Vidre. “As though I’ll stand to the side and let you do whatever you’d like to a man I’ve worked side by side with, day in and day out, for nine years.”
“I asked you whether you were going to let me by. You decided to play games with words,” said Dominic. “You already declined to kill me once, when Welexi gave you a direct order. I don’t think you’re going to kill me now.”
“It wasn’t a direct order,” said Vidre. Her voice softened slightly. “He was going to take matters into his own hands, I’ll give him that, but when I stepped forward he was happy to have me do it. Welexi would never give a direct order for me to dirty his hands.”
“He kept you around because you knew when to act without him having to say anything,” said Dominic. He disliked thinking of this line of conversation as manipulation, but it was, in a sense, even if he was trying to get her to do something that was in her own interests. “It made you the perfect cover for him. He could admonish you later, even though you’d done exactly what he wanted you to do. A better man would have been partner to the lies that needed to be told. He would have accepted his part in it instead of pretending to be a paragon.”
Vidre said nothing.
“Let me by,” said Dominic. He tried his best to sound confident.
“Let you by?” asked Vidre. “So that you can march to Castle Launtine and make your best attempt at killing Welexi?” She shook her head. “Do you think I’m so much of a hypocrite that I would allow you to dirty your hands while pretending that my own were clean? It’s what I would do, if I were Welexi. I would make a show of pleading with you, telling you not to do it but hoping that you would. I wouldn’t stop you, of course. Then, if you managed to strike the killing blow, I would have speeches and stories prepared, ones that might agree with your goal but not your method. That’s how I would do it, if what I cared about most was perpetuating a myth of myself as a good person. I could do all that without even doing anything that someone would mark as wrong. I could do it without ever seeming duplicitous.” She sighed. “Do you know, I still don’t know how much he thinks about these things? There’s a part of me that believes he’s cold and calculating behind the mask of himself. But sometimes it seems that’s truly who he is, a man who is fooling himself as much as he’s fooling the world, bound by the part he’s playing.”
Dominic stood his ground. The meaning of Vidre’s words wasn’t clear to him; there was discontent, but he wasn’t sure whether it was discontent that he could use. He didn’t even know whether he should be trying to use Vidre. She was a friend. She’d saved his life a few times and he’d never really gotten the chance to return the favor.
“If I let you by,” said Vidre. “It would be like driving the dagger into his back myself. The only difference being that my thrust would be weak and half-hearted, no offense. If I’m deciding I would rather see Welexi cast down, it would be better to do it properly.”
“Are you saying you’ll help me?” asked Dominic.
“Yes,” said Vidre. “Now, let’s build a better plan.”
Lothaire was awakened from his slumber with a touch, as he always was. The Red Angel stared at him with dispassionate eyes. This too was as it usually went.
“I’m going to be king,” said Gaelwyn Mottram. “Welexi has arranged it.”
Lothaire stretched himself out. “How long was I out that time?” he asked.
“Five days,” replied Gaelwyn.
“I need something to eat,” replied Lothaire. He clutched at his stomach, which was clenched in pain.
“I give your body fat and muscle to feed itself from,” said Gaelwyn. “If I gave you food there would be the issue of waste to deal with. You make a better prisoner when my upkeep is minimal.”
“I’m in pain,” said Lothaire. “A man isn’t meant to not eat.”
“I don’t hold with what is meant or not meant,” said Gaelwyn. “You’re the one who called me a monster, as so many have before. You should know I care nothing for your pain.”
“Why have you wakened me?” asked Lothaire. “I’ve told you all that I could about the Allunio. Before my capture I ensured that I would be useless when taken.” This was always how Lothaire opened their talks. He had been brought out of his unnatural slumber by Gaelwyn twice early on, both times for questioning, both times with Welexi present, but the third time had seen Gaelwyn by himself. Every time after, the physician had been all alone, not seeking any information, but instead looking for someone to speak with in confidentiality. Lothaire asked the same question every time though. He was pretending that they were adversaries so that he could soften as their conversation went on. That was better than pretending at familiarity from the start. It was part of the rapport he was trying to build with Gaelwyn, though he couldn’t tell whether it was working.
“I’m going to be king,” said Gaelwyn. He ran his fingers through his hair. “He didn’t ask me. He only presented me with the story of how my mother was raped by the Iron King and my father was a cuckold. How I had risen to my station through nepotism instead of merit. From anyone else it would have been an insult of the highest order.”
“Not from the Sunhawk though,” said Lothaire. He shook his head, grateful that Gaelwyn had offered him some mobility this time. He tried to ignore his aches and pains. “He who can do no wrong.”
“We could have plotted it together,” said Gaelwyn. “If we were trying to usurp the kingdom, all he would have had to do was to say it and I would have gone along with it. If we had sat down together and talked it over, decided to change my origin story … that’s the way that he is.”
“If that happened to me, I think I would come to the conclusion that I wasn’t trusted,” said Lothaire.
“No,” said Gaelwyn. “Welexi allows me to touch him. Welexi gave me Charnel’s link, along with others.”
“Did he steal it from her?” asked Lothaire. Gaelwyn gave no response. “Do you know whether he stole it from her?” Again, Gaelwyn was silent. “Or did he appear to you one day with an artifact, claiming some story of how the power within it came into his possession?”
“It was hers,” said Gaelwyn. “Who else could it have been from? She had left the castle only the day before. Did he think I wouldn’t make the connection? Or did he think that I wouldn’t question him?”
“Yet there is some part of you which believes that perhaps his story is true,” said Lothaire. “You are almost willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, as you always are.” It was a crack, one which Lothaire might be able to drive a wedge into.
“I killed for him,” said Gaelwyn. “Because he asked me to.”
“You killed my friends,” said Lothaire. “My disciples.” He couldn’t quite keep the bitterness from his voice, even though he was meant to be slowly warming to Gaelwyn, building a rapport between the two of them.
“Before that,” said Gaelwyn. “You knew, somehow. About the assassinations. You spoke to Wealdwood about them.”
Lothaire nodded. It had only been conjecture, something that was halfway toward being a lie. The Iron Kingdom had spies in many places, spies which he’d inherited, but the stories they’d told were always incomplete. If Gaelwyn was going to tell the truth, it was unlikely that Lothaire would ever speak to another human again, but he had given up the chance at living long before now.
“All I had to do was introduce a flaw,” said Gaelwyn. “I had worked on enough people with ailments to know what to do. I had decades of study behind me, mostly in the art of healing and the science of the human body. So many people with my domain understood breaking a person, tearing them apart, but that was easy in comparison to maintenance. Killing was beneath me. But I did it anyway.”
“Who?” breathed Lothaire.
“Rivals,” said Gaelwyn. “Not villains, not those who had pushed themselves to the extremes of wanton violence, just those who he could get me close to. Names that are lost to history now. Legends that faded away after an ignoble end.” Gaelwyn went silent and laid his head against the cold stone wall of the dungeon cell. “Afterward, he would be so pleased with me. Smiling, like I had paid him back double for every ounce of faith he’d shown in me. Yet we never spoke of it. He would mourn these people, these friends. And eventually … I wanted to be a better person. So I stopped. And again, we never spoke of it, I was left to read his moods and wonder.”
Lothaire leaned forward. “You still can be a better person. With or without Welexi.”
“Who would believe it?” asked Gaelwyn. “Would you?”
Lothaire opened his mouth to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. He had never abhorred lies; they were useful things. Telling a credible lie here, however, was beyond his ability.
“No,” said Gaelwyn. “I wouldn’t believe it either. I made an effort, but it was doomed to fail.”
“I can help you,” said Lothaire, trying his best to sound old and wise, as he’d done with his students. “If Welexi isn’t the foundation on which to build your house, so be it, but all rocks are not —”
“You’re only a sounding board,” said Gaelwyn. “You know that you will never see the light of day again. You will never see any face but mine.” He looked at Lothaire with cold eyes. “The last of the Allunio died yesterday. All your plans have crumbled. The next time I wake you, don’t try to convince me of your superiority.”
Lothaire opened his mouth to respond, but Gaelwyn’s touch was already upon him.
“Ambush isn’t going to work,” said Vidre. “We don’t know which domains he has. We don’t know how strong those domains might be.” They sat together in the forest, having found a place far from the road. Dominic was practicing his skill with sound by deadening their voices. In theory, it would be impossible for anyone to hear them. It was more paranoid than the situation warranted, given that Dominic would be able to hear everyone approach and these woods weren’t crawling with patrols in the first place. “Even if you were able to break into his room, past any precautions that he has, he’s going to have both the resilience provided by the highest standing the world has ever seen, and domain immunities stacked on top of each other. If you went for his throat with a blade of glass, it might be you’d find that he’s immune to glass. Same for any of the common metals.”
“I could have a knife forged,” said Dominic. “One made of platinum, or something more exotic. Besides, we don’t need to slit his throat. All we need to do is slip his hand into the artifact.”
“I’m telling you, it’s not going to work,” said Vidre. “Attacking in the middle of the night is the obvious thing that anyone would try. He’ll have laid defenses in place. Worse, he’s a light sleeper. That comes from decades on the battlefield. He knows he’s vulnerable while he’s sleeping, just like I do.”
“That will be our fallback plan then,” said Dominic. “You have a different suggestion?”
“The artifact,” said Vidre. “Until you slip your hand inside, you don’t know whether it’s going to give or take. We don’t need to break into his room, past whatever traps and warnings he has in place, we only need to trick him into giving when he means to take.”
“How?” asked Dominic. “All your same arguments apply. He knows the rules that the artifact operates under, just as you and I do. If you handed him an artifact … would he just put his hand into it without question?”
“No,” said Vidre. “That’s why we’re going to have to make him believe that there’s no doubt.”
“We need a story that will convince him,” replied Dominic. “He told me when we first met that thinking in stories was an occupational hazard. That’s where he’s weak. If we can get him in a public place, with hundreds of people around who will all be ready to spread their own version of the story, he’ll have to act like people expect him to act. We just have to manipulate it so that the pull of the story is too strong for him to resist.”
“We also need to manipulate the artifact,” said Vidre. She reached behind her back with one arm, pulling at a place where the plates of glass were more bulky. She pulled out one of the Harbinger artifacts, with its hexagonal hole and dull gray exterior. Aside from the pressure that it put on the mind, there was nothing that truly spoke of its power.
“You have one,” said Dominic.
“We have almost twenty of them,” said Vidre. “I was going to use this one to drain your traveling companions, if it came down to that.”
“Or to drain me?” asked Dominic. “If I wasn’t able to convince you?”
Vidre shrugged. “The thought crossed my mind, once I realized you had gotten power from somewhere.” She paused. “It was the woman I gutted, wasn’t it?”
“Faye,” said Dominic.
“Really?” asked Vidre. “The same woman who spoke to you in Torland? I had no idea.”
“She’s part of why I have to do this,” said Dominic. “Why I have to live up to the potential of the illustrati.”
“Yet you said that you barely knew this woman,” said Vidre. Her eyes narrowed slightly.
“I didn’t know her,” said Dominic. “She was asking the right questions though, even if I don’t think she had all the answers.”
“Questions like who to assassinate?” asked Vidre. “Whose throats to slit in order to obtain power?”
Dominic shrugged. “I can’t defend them. I’m not going to try.”
“Have you thought about what’s going to happen after we murder Welexi?” asked Vidre.
“We don’t necessarily have to murder him,” said Dominic. “Just stop him.”
“It’s entirely possible that a new civil war follows from this,” she replied. “Even if you’re justified in thinking that he’s not fit to rule. That’s especially true given the turmoil this kingdom has been through of late. Is it worth it?”
“Welexi is hungry for power,” said Dominic. “He’s hungry for attention. When the constitution of Torland was being written, he wanted to inject himself into that affair, even though he had nothing to add. It’s that impulse that’s going to be terrible for this kingdom. The Iron King didn’t seem to care about his people that much, not on the level of individuals, but I think the only thing that Welexi truly cares about is himself. It was much easier for me to see that once he tossed me aside. If he’s in control of the kingdom, that means he’ll be able to accelerate his bid for power. The artifact allows for a king to take from all his subjects, doesn’t it?”
“I want to go in with a clear objective,” said Vidre. “That’s all.”
“I do too,” said Dominic. “So. We have an artifact. I think I can mimic the sounds that it makes, given a bit of time to practice.” He focused on the domain of sound and let a single, solid tone into the air. It was more difficult than merely amplifying a sound that was already there, but he thought it was passable.
“We’ll have to craft a story,” said Vidre. “Something that Welexi will latch onto. He made this story about the two of you having a battle on the top of the castle. We’ll connect to something like that, make the story a continuation.” She sighed. “He talks about it like it actually happened. Listening to him tell it, I almost believe him. He never breaks character, not even in private. We could never have an honest discussion.”
“I’ve heard it,” said Dominic. “All we need to do, if we want to maneuver him into position, is find the right continuation of that story.”
The crowning of a new king was always an extravagant affair, even when a country wasn’t in turmoil. The people needed to be shown that the king was still in control of the country and still fit to rule them. The Iron Kingdom had appointed governors rather than dukes, but they still had to meet the new king and be made to believe that there was a need to toe the line. This was all the more important when the former king had not left a clear line of succession behind, or when there had been a brief war between two factions competing for the throne.
Vidre oversaw the arrangements. It had been years since Welexi had organized anything; she was the one who paid attention to the ledgers. The skill of double-entry bookkeeping was virtually unknown among the illustrati, but it was the only way that the system of bards could actually work. There were accounts held in the banks of two dozen countries, across twelve separate systems of currency, with news traveling at the speed of sail. Compared to that nightmare of coordination, the coronation was child’s play. As usual, the work went unnoticed.
She tested Welexi’s defenses in the middle of the night, to see whether the easy path might still be open to them. She came to his door and slammed against it with an armored fist, hard enough to confirm that there were inches of metal behind it. If the door itself were merely reinforced, she might have been able to break it from its hinges with that strike, but there was no such luck.
Welexi threw the door aside seven seconds later, fully armored and holding a spear of light in his hand that illuminated the hallway around him. There was something fierce in the cast of his face, one she had only rarely seen on him. It was a curl of his lip, a tightening of the brow, as though he were about to crush some insect beneath his heel. The look was gone in an instant, from the very moment he recognized her.
“I’ve been poisoned,” spat Vidre through clenched teeth. She staggered against the doorway and closed her eyes. She was ready with elaboration, but Welexi simply picked her up and threw her over his shoulder to take her down the hallway to the room that the Iron King had once occupied. Gaelwyn was still waking up when Vidre took his place in the massive bed. He tended to her with bleary eyes and a slack jaw.
“Nothing that will kill you,” said Gaelwyn. “I can put you out —”
“No,” said Vidre. “We need to be more careful with what we eat,” she said. Her stomach clenched and she writhed in pain. The poison wasn’t a lie; she had consumed a dose of mistletoe oil, enough that Gaelwyn would find something wrong, but an illness she could recover from within the day. “Even if the Allunio are gone …” she trailed off, more because the poison was working its way through her system than because she wanted them to imagine the threats.
“That story is supposed to be over,” said Welexi with a frown. He turned to Gaelwyn. “We will take precautions. I suppose a coda is acceptable at the coronation. It would be the opportunity to strike, if there are elements within these castle walls aligned against us. The feast following the coronation will have to be watched closely.”
“I’ll handle it,” said Vidre. She moaned again as her guts twisted, trying not to play it up too much. Gaelwyn still had his hand on her armor. He would be able to feel every twitch of her muscles, every contraction of her skin. “When will I be back on my feet?”
“I don’t know,” said Gaelwyn. “It depends on what you were dosed with.” He narrowed his eyes. “I worry that this is a trial run of some sort. Perhaps … it’s not too late to cancel.”
“No,” said Welexi. “You are the rightful ruler.”
Vidre caught the look shared between them; Gaelwyn had never been one to confide in her, especially not after Lothaire had done his talking. It didn’t take a savant to understand that Gaelwyn had his own reservations.
Welexi insisted on two large chairs for the coronation. The first was naturally for Gaelwyn. The second was for a new position to be created within the Iron Kingdom, the role of First Minister. In the days when the Iron King had occupied the throne, all of the various Ministries reported directly to him, with the ministers charged with carrying out his demands. The First Minister would serve as an intermediary step, a position appointed by the king to coordinate the ministers. To hear Welexi tell it, the Iron Kingdom had long suffered from one man at the top relying too heavily on his advisers, trying to engage personally in every matter of business. That the new First Minister would effectively usurp power from the king himself and serve as an adviser with unprecedented power went largely without comment. There was never any real question about whom Gaelwyn would appoint.
Vidre was to sit in the audience. She had done the largest part of the work in bringing the civil war to a conclusion. She had done most of the killing, when killing was what was called for. If Welexi had his way, the bards would sing a different song. It wouldn’t be the first time that Welexi had done something like that, though he was often hampered by the fact that he had given control of the purse strings over to Vidre early in their career. Things like that helped ease whatever misgivings she had about the plan she and Dominic had worked out.
There were two hundred people packed into the courtyard. Most of them had ridden quickly to get to Castle Launtine in time. The castle itself was filled beyond the capacity of its many bedrooms, spilling out into the town below for those too unimportant to rate a room. Vidre had dealt with all of it, from the announcement that had gone out to every remaining illustrati in the Iron Kingdom to the lilacs that adorned the chairs they were using. At every turn there was some new crisis to solve or someone trying to gain her attention so that they might increase their own fame by some token amount.
“I miss it,” said Quill, during a brief moment Vidre had to herself. “Being an illustrati.”
“You might gain your power back some day,” said Vidre. “Not every theft was accounted for. We might find the person who received yours and gain it back for you.”
There had been a time when Quill had a thickness to him, a ready smile and a twinkle in his eyes. They had found him in a dungeon, emaciated and sunken-eyed. Weeks of good eating and Gaelwyn’s ministrations hadn’t managed to return him to full health. Vidre had been in enough wars to know that sometimes people simply broke. “That wasn’t credible even when I was king,” he replied. “Tell me. We used to be friends once. Was I always to be a useful idiot? Someone to hold the throne while you three prepared to take it?”
Vidre had no reply for him. There were other, more important things to do. Yet she wondered whether he was right. Welexi had tried to spin a story about how Gaelwyn had been destined for the throne all along. If he were writing the tale, it would have been obvious from the start, with minor details threaded in early on. He had done the same with Dominic’s supposed betrayal, warping every small detail until it seemed inevitable. How long ago had Welexi formed his plans? Was he driving the story or was the story driving him? The answer to those questions was far from a matter of idle curiosity. In a few short hours, Dominic would lay his life on the line under the belief that Welexi would follow the path that the story demanded.
It happened shortly after the ceremonial crown of the Iron Kingdom was transferred to Gaelwyn’s head.
“Welexi!” screamed a loud voice that echoed across the courtyard. Dominic hadn’t amplified his voice with the domain of sound; that was one of the ones he would need to keep back. Every head turned towards him. The murmurs started rolling through the gathered crowd soon afterward.
Dominic wore armor of steel, with a thick steel sword held in front of him. He’d spent the days before the coronation training with it, enough that he could pull off something that looked appropriately theatrical. He and Vidre had agreed it would be more compelling and thematically appropriate if he had shadow at his disposal, but that simply wasn’t an option. They’d discussed whether he should perhaps go without armor at all, but decided that would stretch the bounds of plausibility too far. Dominic attacking Welexi was already reckless and foolhardy. Doing it without a visible domain would have appeared suicidal and belied the fact that he had a trick up his sleeve. In his other hand he held the Harbinger artifact that Vidre had given him.
“Lightscour,” said Welexi, from the coronation’s second throne. He stood up with his armor of light gleaming and held out his hand to produce a spear of light. Welexi turned to Gaelwyn. “One moment, your majesty, while I deal with this.” The aside was loud enough for all assembled to hear.
“You’re a viper,” said Dominic. “A venomous creature that has everyone convinced that he’s a hero. Have you ever done anything truly heroic in your life? Something not motivated by the need to better yourself at the expense of those around you?”
Welexi walked forward with the spear held in his hand. “You use steel these days?” he asked. “My apprentice has learned new tricks, it seems. You always were a thief. It was my fault for thinking that I could better you at my own expense.”
Dominic had stopped walking. He’d forgotten how imposing Welexi could be. Around him, people were moving away, only far enough that they wouldn’t be caught in the fight. They stayed to watch, of course. If Dominic had learned anything, it was that people liked to watch illustrati fight, even if it came at a detriment to their own survival.
“I killed Zerstor,” said Dominic. “You couldn’t stand the idea of someone else taking that accomplishment from you, that was the only reason I ever found a place on your boat. You had to find some way of taking that accomplishment for yourself. That’s all I ever was to you.”
“It takes a cynical mind to see the world like that,” said Welexi. He came to a stop some ten feet from Dominic. “You imagine that man could only be motivated by self-interest. It says more about you than it does about man. You were always naive, despite my best efforts. I take it you’ve come here to kill me?” He nodded to the artifact in Dominic’s hand. “You wish to take my power from me, as the Allunio did to so many in this kingdom?”
It was going well, all things considered. They were talking, not fighting, which meant that Welexi was still playing for the crowd. He was wearing and wielding light, not presenting other domains. Dominic wasn’t quite ready to breathe a sigh of relief, but this was more or less as he and Vidre had hoped for. There was no need to beat a hasty retreat.
“I mean to expose you,” said Dominic. He held up the artifact. “I mean to drain your essence and take back what’s rightfully mine.”
“Last time we fought, I was intent on letting you live,” said Welexi. “That was a bit of foolishness I won’t repeat this time.”
Around them, the crowd thrummed with murmurs. The play was going as planned. No one was interfering in the duel. Gaelwyn was still seated on the coronation throne, with Vidre standing beside him. That was her primary role; to keep him from entering the battle. Once Welexi was engaged in the fight, Gaelwyn wouldn’t steal the limelight, but there had been a chance that he would act decisively of his own accord. All that was left was the fight itself and the ruse that followed.
“Let us see whether the months have improved your ability with a sword,” said Welexi. He spun his spear of light around, tucking it beneath his arm so that it was held rigid in front of him. The point was so sharp it seemed to fade into nothingness. Dominic put his sword up to guard, knowing that was futile against a spear that could pass straight through metal. He began shedding his armor, curling the metal away from him in order to give greater mobility. It was a show of his power, proof that he was an illustrati, but it was also part of the plan; he needed to be ready to display the wounds he would receive.
They moved with shifting footwork in a way that was familiar from Dominic’s training. Welexi was exercising caution in the fight, either because he expected some trick to be coming or because he wanted to drag the fight out for as long as was dramatically appropriate. Dominic lunged forward, trying to strike with his sword, but Welexi spun away instead of using the opportunity to strike.
“Do you honestly think that you can beat me?” asked Welexi.
“I beat Zerstor with less,” snarled Dominic. He’d practiced that snarl with Vidre a few days before. It provoked a scowl from Welexi, along with a test of Dominic’s defenses with a thrust of the spear of light. Dominic moved back, slightly off his balance, but again Welexi didn’t take the bait. Instead, he held back, seeming unconcerned with pressing the advantage.
“You had so much promise,” said Welexi. “So much potential. Did I go wrong with you somewhere, or were you simply rotten from the start? Should I have known that our first fight together, side by side, would presage the last? Should I have guessed you would one day stare me down with so much hurt and anger in your eyes?”
Dominic attacked again, swinging hard with his sword and putting every ounce of power he could into it. Welexi ducked beneath it, moving faster than Dominic had thought possible, then moved forward to counterattack. His spear slid cleanly into Dominic’s torso, straight for his beating heart.
Dominic had practiced for this. He used the domain of flesh to rend a hole in himself, tearing his own heart apart, then let the blood flow freely. The domain of light prevented the spear itself from harming him, but to anyone watching it would have the appearance of a grievous, mortal blow. Dominic dropped the artifact to the ground beside him and screamed in real pain. This was the most dangerous part of the entire plan, the moment when Welexi might refuse his prize, when he might make a second strike through the head in order to ensure the kill, when any number of things might go wrong which would force Vidre to drive her dagger through Gaelwyn’s skull and then join in an unwinnable fight. They had planned for that, if things didn’t go the right way.
Welexi moved forward quickly, picking the artifact up from the ground. He slipped it onto Dominic’s hand. But the artifact was full, not empty, containing only a single link from a peasant far from Castle Launtine, so the only work that Dominic had to do was to silence the sounds it made and produce others in the air. The tones were different, the one for taking higher and shorter. Dominic had poured his own power into the artifact and then out again over the past few days, practicing until he could mask the sound for giving with the sound for taking, making sure that the moment was instant, that the artifact took its power all at once, that there were as few ways for this to fail as possible. This was another dangerous moment, one where Welexi might see through the ruse, but Dominic’s half-lidded eyes saw a satisfied smile play across Welexi’s lips. Dominic’s role was then, for the time being, to lay on the ground and bleed. He knitted his wounds back together, leaving on the surface of the wound presenting damage to the world.
“He was reckless,” said Welexi to the watching crowd. “I was mistaken in rewarding him for that. I took the risk for courage and conviction. I took it for justice. Yet as all men, his nature was his undoing. Make no mistake, for the story of Dominic de Luca, the man I named Lightscour, is a tragedy which only now finds its conclusion.”
Dominic was on his feet from the moment he heard the first tone of the artifact. Welexi had a serene look on his face that was only just breaking. Dominic had a sword of light formed in his hand as Welexi began to open his eyes; by the time the artifact emitted the second tone, Dominic was thrusting forward. The sword of light went through Welexi’s neck and out the back, spraying blood onto the courtyard that joined Dominic’s own. Dominic grabbed the artifact from Welexi’s hand as he fell, in time for the third tone to sound. Dominic stood there, breathing heavily, knitting his flesh together while holding the artifact in his hand. Welexi gurgled blood from the flagstones of the courtyard. Dominic had done it. The plan had gone off perfectly. The artifact continued its tones, marking every link that Welexi had taken.
Gaelwyn began to scream from the throne as he stared at the scene, but Vidre was beside him with her glass dagger in hand. She drove it into his brain with enough force to flip him sideways; he was dead before he hit the ground.
The courtyard erupted in chaos shortly afterward.