Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 3: Nighttime Ballet

Previously…

There were people waiting outside. Some of them had small glass trinkets with them, on chains around their necks, or held in their hands. It wasn’t one of the enormous crowds, not one like at the fight or down by the docks, but there were enough people that it was hard to see the gaps between them. Vidre’s followers tended to be younger girls and older men, the former because of some combination of envy and adoration, and the latter for more lecherous reasons.

“Thank you for your patience,” Vidre said to them. “I have retrieved the fledgling hero Dominic Lightscour from the clutches of that criminal woman, and all is right with the world, save for one thing.” She turned to Dominic. “You lied to me.”

“I’m sorry,” said Dominic. Everyone was looking at him. “I’m not sure what else I can say, how I can explain myself, but … perhaps it would be better as a private conversation.”

“It’s easier to bend the truth when only one person is listening,” said Vidre. “Anything you have to say can be said in front of these people. They kindly waited here while I went in to deal with your mess. Explain for them how you came into this predicament. And don’t lie; I can see the truth in a man’s eyes.” She nodded for him to continue, and there was something in her countenance that made him consider his words carefully.

“I was a runner,” said Dominic. Vidre couldn’t actually tell when a person was lying just by looking into their eyes, he was almost entirely sure of that. It was just poetic language, even if she probably preferred people thinking she was being literal. He saw her raise an eyebrow just a fraction, and knew he had to continue. The thought of losing this opportunity was like a stab to the heart, and he needed to say whatever it was that Vidre wanted to hear, if he could figure out what that was. He went with a confession, and pitched his voice to the crowd. “But before I was a runner, I was a thief.” There was some murmuring from the crowd. They were all watching him, unabashedly. “I stole from shops because I didn’t have any money, and then I began to steal from shops because I was good at it, and I didn’t realize the harm I was causing.” Dominic had seen enough of his friends go before a judge to know how these things went. There were rules to it. Don’t admit to anything specific, show contrition, promise reform, talk about your crimes like they’re all in the past, and maybe you get a few days in the stocks instead of a year of back-breaking galley slavery. “After a while, all of my friends were thieves, and we started trying to show each other up. We would steal fancier things from more difficult targets, making a game out of it. The older boys taught us how to pickpocket. I started taking orders, so I could get my cut from the larger schemes, and then one day I realized that I had begun working for Corta without even knowing it.”

Vidre nodded. “You could find a similar story in any city in the world,” she said, more to the crowd than to him. “That’s how we sin, a little at first in a way that seems harmless, a bit of bread taken because we’re hungry, and by the time we realize the depths that we’ve sunk to, it can seem too late to crawl out. We make our sin a way of life.”

“Yes,” said Dominic. The story was flowing easily now. “I didn’t feel like there was any way to escape it. I picked up the spear and attacked Zerstor because it felt like my final chance.” He watched Vidre closely, trying to divine the meaning of every small movement of her face and the subtle shifts in her posture. Outwardly she was projecting power, speaking to him like she was the sole person in charge of his fate, which was effectively the case with Welexi so badly injured. This was just as much an act for her as it was for him, a presentation that they were giving to the crowd, but whatever Vidre was feeling beneath that surface was hidden to him.

“I can see truth in a man’s eyes,” said Vidre. “But I can’t see his future. You saved Welexi and thereby took a first step towards redemption. For that, I forgive your crimes. If you stray from that path, I will not hesitate to slit your throat, whatever else passes between us.”

“I won’t, my lady,” said Dominic. He wasn’t sure of the proper form of address. “I regret not explaining matters to you earlier, and I can only hope that I prove myself to you in the days to come.”

“Welexi is injured, and in need of our assistance,” said Vidre. “Consider that assistance your first task as his apprentice.” She turned and began walking, and he followed just behind her. Some of the people who had been watching left, but at least a dozen of them fell into step, hanging around like a cloud of bad air. Dominic’s eyes were firmly on Vidre.

As the story went, Vidre had been sold into marriage by her father for a sum of forty drams. Her purchaser was the king of Geswein, who had seen her while strolling through a market and taken an instant liking to her.

He was forty-eight, and she was nine.

The king doted on her, more like she was his daughter than his wife. The indulgences were stories of their own, grand feasts of a hundred courses, cunningly crafted toys plated in gold, and festivals that lasted for weeks. Vidre had already become one of the illustrati on the basis of her royalty and the scandalous circumstances of her marriage, but the stories of her extravagant life spread quickly, and she was thereby granted  extraordinary power for one so young. She used her domain to shape glass trinkets for herself and those who had found her favor. When she was unhappy, the glass would shatter beneath her fingers and form sharp edges that never seemed to cut at her flesh. For seven years she played in her husband’s gardens, spending his money on earthly delights and generally being a terror to anyone that didn’t amuse her. When her husband died, she was unceremoniously booted from Geswein by a group of merchants who had pretensions towards democracy and no respect for her nominal title of Queen.

She ended up in Abalon, a small kingdom with a hundred nobles. She had grown into a woman, and her appetites had changed. Where once it was toys and treats, now it was men. It was said that she slept with all hundred of Abalon’s nobles, sometimes two or three at a time, and when that had been accomplished, she moved on to the lower classes. The stories of her childhood were still circulating the world, and now they were joined by stories of adult promiscuity.

She stepped onto the battlefield by accident. She had been sharing a bed with one of the generals of Abalon during a brief border war, and had taken the whole thing for a lark until the camp was overrun. Her suitcase had been filled overflowing with her trinkets of glass, and from this great mass she fashioned weapons for herself. She was one of the major illustrati, her comings and goings spoken of in taverns across the world, and when the soldiers came to her tent, she moved through them like a wind made of blades. Thereafter she came out to meet the army and turned the tides of battle. It was sometimes said that she was nude for that battle, her bare skin hidden only by crystal-clear glass, but Dominic thought that was far-fetched, even for a story of the illustrati.

Vidre became something of a mercenary after that, as bloodshed joined her growing list of appetites. Money was of little concern to her, so she instead sought out wars that were interesting in some way. She had no training in warfare, but summers in the Conto Mountains and winters hunting warwolves in the Sverna Valley worked their own sort of magic on the woman clad in glass. Men were eager to teach her, if only to put themselves in her company. She sliced a path through dozens of wars, almost always at the frontlines, her swiftness and strength compounding the advantages that her razor-sharp blades gave her.

She was just starting to get bored with the killing when Welexi found her, and they had been sailing together ever since.

That was how the stories went, anyway. As Dominic watched her walk, he tried to sort out what of it was likely true, and found that he had no real way of knowing. It was certain that it wasn’t all true. They said that in her childhood Vidre had kept a puppy as her constant companion, and when the puppy grew too old for her liking she had fed it shards of glass just to see what would happen. Dominic didn’t believe that one, but it was something his mother had repeated more than once. There was a persistent story told among his friends about how Vidre had once had sex with an elephant, but Franco had admitted to making it up. That didn’t stop anyone from repeating it, with new details added every time. Before he’d met her, he was willing to entertain the possibility that the woman was almost entirely mythological. Now, he wasn’t so sure. If it was an edifice, it was a masterfully constructed one.

When he realized that they were heading toward the ship, he almost asked whether they could stop by his shared apartment first, but his reasons for returning there were more sentimental than practical, and he couldn’t very well say that he was going to be a hero and then ask for permission to pick up a second pair of pants—not with all these people around listening in. He would have to speak to her privately later on.

It was sunset when they reached the ship. Gaelwyn came out on the deck to meet them. His apron and hands were both bloody, but he greeted them with a smile.

“I put him out,” said Gaelwyn. “A simple constriction of the carotid, not terribly good for him but better than having him endlessly pushing himself. After I released it, he stayed down. He needs more blood, but there’s no one with that domain in Gennaro, not at the level of power needed for domain genesis.”

“He needs to be able to make an appearance tomorrow when we leave,” said Vidre. “Whatever that takes.”

Gael’s face fell. “He needs to stay in bed. It’s a small miracle that he was able to stumble back here. It will take a month and a half at a minimum for all the bones to mend, and he’s going to have to learn how to use a hand made of light, at least until we can make a trip to the Bone Warden.”

“I’m not asking,” said Vidre. “And you know that Welexi would agree with me.”

Gael nodded, but he didn’t look happy.

“And stay by his side tonight,” Vidre continued. “There’s a good chance that we’ll have visitors. Not the courteous kind.”

“What do you expect me to do about it?” asked Gael. His voice wavered.

Vidre rolled her eyes. “Whatever your conscience demands. Keep him company, tend to what wounds still remain, be there to raise the alarm. I’m not asking you to rip anyone apart at the seams.”

Gael winced. “Alright. Another sleepless night. Before we leave tomorrow we’ll need new sheets and bedding, he’s bled through what was there. His armor is in a shambles as well.”

“I’ll see to it,” said Vidre. “Our new companion and I need to have a talk, if you don’t mind.”

Gael went down into the ship with only a brief, pitying glance at Dominic. Vidre rested her hands on the pommels of daggers.

“The pecking order on the ship is becoming clear to me,” said Dominic. He tried to smile, but it faltered when Vidre’s mouth remained in a thin line.

“We got the public explanation out of the way,” said Vidre. “That went well enough, I can give you credit for that.” She looked to the dock, where the sailors with swords were making sure that people were staying well back. “I shouldn’t have sent you out there on your own, I see that now, and I can take some of the blame.”

Dominic kept silent. Vidre’s eyes turn back toward him. Though the light was fading, Dominic found that his ability to see wasn’t impaired at all. It wasn’t exactly as though the deck of the ship was brightly lit, but he could see clearly all the same. His connection to his domain had deepened, and he ached to test his new limits.

“Any man who inserts himself into a battle between the illustrati is a fool,” said Vidre. “If you stab a man through the heart, if you do it perfectly, if his blood is flowing swiftly, it takes a matter of seconds for him to drop. Any other mortal wound, aside from piercing or cutting through the spine or the brain, will leave you with a man that can still fight you, even if he’s not long for the world. I don’t think you properly understand the damage that Zerstor could have done. Zerstor should have killed you before you could touch him. And even though you touched him, it shouldn’t have killed him. And even though it killed him, he should have had enough time to drive his sword through you. I can’t overstate how lucky you got. You were an absolute fool, one unhindered by his total lack of knowledge, and you were rewarded for it. What probably saved you was that Zerstor couldn’t get over your sheer, idiotic audacity.”

“You’re upset that I wasn’t punished,” said Dominic. His cheeks were flushed, and he hoped that the lanterns the sailors were lighting wouldn’t let her see it. “You think that if someone does something brave but reckless, they should be smashed down for it, ground into paste just because you think that’s the way of it. You would rather I had died, and that Welexi had died too, just so that the world could be ‘fair’.”

“The next time I’m in the middle of a fight, the kind that unfortunately tend to happen with a large number of civilians around, one of those bystanders is going to think to himself, ‘Well, Lightscour did it, why can’t I?’ I’ll be bristling with glass, armed with unimaginably sharp blades, and I’ll be going up against someone wreathed in flame, and this hypothetical idiot, inspired by you, is going to try to be a hero, and I’m going to have to watch him die for it.”

Dominic was silent. Vidre’s hands were clenched around her daggers.

“I’ve watched so many men die,” said Vidre. “The ones that go willingly to their end are easy. They don’t want to die, but they’ve accepted that it’s a possibility, or even an eventuality. There are these other men though, the ones that think they’re somehow invincible, who think that they’re going to engage the enemy and walk away unscatched. Sometimes I was that enemy, and I had to prove their vulnerability to them. I hated it. Still hate it, though my line of work has made it more rare.” She shook her head. “And I just came in and rescued you from a situation of your own making, and it’s not so much that that bothers me, it’s the fact that you haven’t learned anything from it except for the fact that you can escape unscathed.”

“I do understand,” said Dominic. “I should have at least been more honest with you. It would have made things go more smoothly. I wasn’t thinking.”

“No,” said Vidre. “That’s the problem, you were thinking, but you were thinking that you could get away with it, and sail off across the sea with us before your recent past could catch up to you, without having to jeopardize your place on this ship. You underestimated how badly things would go for you, and you’re lucky that I showed up when I did. I was only coming to speak with her, not expecting to find you there. If you had been dragged in there an hour later, we wouldn’t have had a choice but to leave without you.”

There was a small, stubborn part of Dominic that was fairly confident that he could have handled it himself. He could have convinced Corta into letting him go, pretended at being defeated so that she wouldn’t see him as a risk, and made it back to the ship. He could feel some newfound strength coursing through him, though less than he would have expected. It seemed like it would have been enough to make a difference. He resisted the urge to say as much to Vidre.

“Welexi needs me,” said Dominic. “I’m part of his story now. You can’t have so much buildup between two titans and then have it end with a random civilian turning a defeat into a victory, Welexi explained that much to me. He’s using me, and I’m getting a lot out of it, and that’s all well and good. But that does mean that we’re going to be traveling together, so … look, I’m sorry. I am. I’m not sorry that things worked out for me, but I’m here now, and I want to get along.”

“Fine,” said Vidre. “I had one of the cabins cleared out, it’s the second one on your right. Go get some sleep, and Welexi can deal with you in the morning.” She turned and looked out towards the sea. There was indistinct chatter from the docks that drifted over to the ship. The ship was a fair distance from anyone; some of the sailors had been put to guard duty and closed off a portion of the docks. Dominic could still see them in the dark though, small clusters of men and women on shore leave, and a few people who were watching the ship, waiting for something exciting to happen, even if the nighttime view left something to be desired.

“You said visitors?” asked Dominic.

Vidre didn’t turn around. “How much did you know about Zerstor? I know there are laws in the Sovento States against talking about people like him, but I know how effective those laws tend to be.”

“He was a villain,” said Dominic. The sound of a man’s skull being crushed had left its impression. “He killed people so that he could be famous, so that he could get power, so that he could kill more people, on and on.”

“That unfortunately describes a hundred men and a fair number of women,” said Vidre. “But Zerstor was special. He was smart. He picked his fights carefully. He made a name for himself by meddling, isolating those topics that people couldn’t stop themselves from talking about and inserting himself into that discussion with all the subtlety of a cannon. He was an abolitionist for a few years. He would descend on plantations with sword in hand, or stowaway on slave ships and unleash hell when they were out to sea. He freed thousands, maybe tens of thousands.”

“And they would talk about him,” said Dominic. The purpose was clear enough. He had heard of illustrati freeing slaves, but hadn’t realized that Zerstor was one of them. The Sovento States held no slaves, and didn’t allow slaver ships in port. “They would tell stories about the man in rusted armor that saved them.”

Vidre nodded. “And when the slaves were recaptured, they would spread those stories to other slaves. The slaves wouldn’t have the same incentives not to speak his name. The laws would stop them even less than they stop everyone else. Not that the taboos do much good in the first place,” said Vidre. “Some of the slave masters took to cutting out the tongues of their property, in the hopes of curbing Zerstor’s power, but a single person is inconsequential when it comes to our fame, no matter how much of a fanatic they are. Zerstor didn’t really care about the slaves, of course. It was just a path to power. Once the legend had been cemented, he moved on to other schemes, other places that he could barge into the global conversation. He’d pick fights with powerful opponents, not for any real reason except that it would make waves. For a better part of a decade he was a thorn in the Iron King’s side.” Dominic had heard those stories. Zerstor had rusted hundreds of the Iron King’s cannons, and they had fought each other a few times as well. “And then he was killed by a street rat.”

“You said visitors,” Dominic reminded her.

“Yes,” said Vidre. “That was one of the ways that Zerstor was clever. He would team up with other rogues, so that both their legends would grow. These were always temporary alliances, never more than a month or two, but it was the sort of thing that people couldn’t help but talk about. Zerstor and Sanguin, Zerstor and Boletus, Zerstor and the Animal Twins, on and on. He was a dangerous friend for anyone to have, only an ally for as long as you were useful to him, but there was something about him that many found compelling.” Vidre sighed. “So there’s a good chance that he came to Gennaro with someone, and with Welexi being injured as he is, it would be an opportune time to strike. Those are the sort of visitors I’m talking about.”

“Ah,” said Dominic. He watched her carefully.

“They might also want to kill you,” said Vidre.

He almost asked why, but it was obvious enough. He was Welexi’s would-be protege. Of course that would make him a target. “I can take care of myself.”

“Alright,” said Vidre. “Let’s spar then.” She turned to look at him, and slowly shifted her position so her feet were shoulder-width apart and her hands were held loosely in front of her.

“I didn’t mean like that,” said Dominic. He made no attempt to match her fighting stance.

“Come on,” said Vidre. “There aren’t too many ways that I can get out my frustrations, especially if no one takes the bait and goes after Welexi.”

“You’d kill me,” said Dominic. “And you’re fully armored.”

Vidre looked down at her glass breastplate. “You haven’t seen me fully armored,” she replied. “When I’m serious about battle, I don’t have an inch of skin exposed. The bodily domains are too dangerous.” She pulled her armor apart at the middle, as though there was a hidden seam there, and laid the two half shells of it beside one of the ship’s masts. “It should probably go without saying that one doesn’t normally kill one’s sparring partners. I pledge not to hurt you too much more than what Gaelwyn can fix. You think you can handle yourself? You think if Leiptora comes slithering up on the ship you’ll be able to do a damned thing about it? Show me.”

Dominic settled into a crouch and put his hands in front of him. Vidre was four or five inches shorter than him, and he had at least fifty pounds of muscle on her, so it wasn’t absurd to think that he could beat her, so long as she didn’t have use of her daggers. What’s more, he could feel his newfound power, a speed and strength that would be easy to tap. The whole city must know his name by now. The story of the fight in the plaza would have spread to every home and every tavern. He wasn’t on her level, but physical strength was still supposed to count for something.

“My god you’re a fool,” said one of the sailors. Dominic realized only belatedly that they were being watched, not just by the faraway hopefuls, but by the men and women that made up the crew. The sun had set some time ago, and the deck of the ship was lit by lanterns. It was easy for him to see, almost as though it was daylight, and that would give him an advantage over Vidre.

“Seaman,” said Vidre. “Give us a count.”

“Three,” said one of the sailors. Dominic’s thoughts went to Corta’s booming voice, and the moments before a race began. There was nothing on the line here though, nothing but his pride. “Two. One.”

Vidre launched herself towards him and kicked forward with both feet, hitting him squarely in the chest. Dominic tumbled backwards and slammed his head up against the railing of the ship before slumping to the ground. The sailors applauded, and Dominic heard a few drunken cheers from the docks. Apparently this humiliation was clear enough to be visible from there.

“I did a backflip when I kicked you,” said Vidre. “You missed it.” She was smiling wide and feral. “Don’t ever try anything like I just did in a real fight, by the way.”

“You’re fast,” said Dominic with a cough. The back of his head was throbbing, but he got to his feet anyway. “Really, really fast.”

“I am,” said Vidre. “Also quite strong. I also have a decade of experience, and trained under many masters. Ready for round two, or are you going to give up?”

Dominic spit over the side of the ship. “Ready.”

“Three,” called the same sailor. “Two,” Dominic was ready this time, in a more defensive position and prepared to grab her, “One.”

Vidre just stood there. She wasn’t even in a fighting stance. She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to the side, grinning at him. “Welexi looks down on exhibition matches. He thinks it’s poor form to flaunt our power. The only reason I stopped doing them was one too many dangerous people making their way past my security. You sign up to fight twenty yokels at once, and all of the sudden there’s a man growing horns from his forehead, ready to gore you to death.”

Dominic responded by manipulating his domain. The lanterns were casting shadows where the panes of glass met at an iron strut, he thickened those until the light was completely obscured, as though the lanterns had been snuffed out. He was surprised by how easy it was, and smiled in the darkness. Vidre was lit only by the waning moon, and without the benefit of night vision.

“At least you’re smart enough to cheat,” she said. She was still smiling, and still with her hands on her hips. It would still be bright enough for her to see him moving, but if he could catch her off guard it would be harder for her to block or dodge.

He lunged forward and threw a right hook, and Vidre calmly took the hit, right in the cheekbone. Her head moved only fractionally. She grabbed his wrist and ducked down to push her shoulder into his stomach, and before he knew it, he was sailing up over her, through the air. He landed on the deck of the ship, and Vidre pressed her boot lightly against his neck. Again, the sailors applauded.

“I don’t know how much you think I’m boasting about my abilities, but you have a very long way to go until you can match me,” said Vidre. “It’s my hope that this will teach you some humility, but if not, at least it’s fun to beat you up.”

“Again,” said Dominic. Vidre raised an eyebrow, and pulled her foot back. “Rule of three,” said Dominic as he climbed to his feet. “The third time, I have to win.”

“Depends on the story we’re telling,” said Vidre. “Are you the new recruit who gets his ass handed to him by a waif? Or are you the new recruit who beats one of the strongest illustrati on his first night aboard the Zenith and thereby shows his worth? Which story is more plausible? Which is more true? Is the third time special because you finally get the better of me? Or is it special because I hit you hard enough that you can’t get back up?”

Dominic didn’t wait for the count this time, and moved towards her. For a moment he thought that he might be able to land a solid hit, one she wasn’t prepared for, even if it was sloppy. It was foolish for him to think that he could catch her by surprise. She slid to the side, letting his punch sail past her, then punched him in the shoulder to knock him off balance. She followed this up by kicking his feet out from under him, and he landed on the deck of the ship with a loud thunk. The shadows he’d been maintaining faded away as he lost his focus, and the lantern light returned in full. The sailors cheered a third time.

“I yield,” Dominic groaned from the ground. “I can only hope that beating me so badly has helped you to relax.” He rubbed his hip, which had taken most of the weight of his fall. “Are you faster than Welexi?”

“Not usually,” said Vidre. She wasn’t even breathing heavily, and had dropped from her fighting stance to get into a squat and watch him. “My standing reaches a peak around Velen’s Feast, and I believe I’m higher than him then. There are other seasonal variations, and sometimes a new piece of news or work of fiction winds its way into the public consciousness enough that there’s some measurable impact. For the most part, he’s my superior in terms of raw standing.” She cocked her head to the side and smiled. “Just as you’re my clear inferior.”

“Consider my lesson learned,” said Dominic. He was thinking about the bruises he would have tomorrow, then remembered that he would only have to ask Gaelwyn for them to be removed.

When he looked at Vidre, she was stock still and tense.

“Stay out of the way,” she murmured. She kicked at the pieces of armor that were laying on the ground, and the glass flowed up to her. It solidified into place around her torso and limbs, and quickly extruded spikes at the joints. When the process was finished, moments later, not an inch of Vidre’s skin was bare, just as she’d said. The armor grew thicker with every passing second. When Dominic looked around, he realized that the sailors had all moved, huddled into corners or gone down beneath the deck of the ship.

Dominic’s one prior experience with a battle between illustrati had made him expect that there would be a grand entrance, and banter between Vidre and whoever she had sensed. That was how it always went in the stories. Instead, the fight began with little fanfare. A cloaked figure leapt up from the water and landed on the deck of the ship; Vidre fought him at once, with her daggers flashing out towards him. He was armed with a whip of water and lashed out at her, driving her back before her blades could find flesh. Dominic’s mind was racing, and he held his hand out to the side, trying to summon the shadow into a physical thing. If Welexi could do it with light, then surely it could be done with shadow as well. He grasped at the air and felt nothing.

The whip of water cracked forward and struck Vidre’s armor, which shattered and then reformed in an instant. She threw one of her daggers forward, but her assailant leapt out of the way. Vidre pushed towards him, and this time managed to plunge the dagger into his chest. The glass dagger cracked and then made itself whole in her hand again, and she jumped back to dodge under the water whip. The assailant was wearing heavy armor beneath his cloak.

Dominic grabbed at the air again, and this time found himself holding a dagger of his own. It was a thin, nearly insubstantial thing, and he could see straight through it. He had no armor, and given how tenuous his dagger was it would have been a miracle for him to summon some. Vidre continued to fight against her assailant, and he had no way of knowing which of them was winning. Dominic remembered Welexi’s fingers being cut off, and how quickly the fight had shifted. He imagined that this would be the same, their combat decided by a quick, decisive blow. Another crack of the whip hit Vidre’s armor and broke it, but this time it didn’t pull back together so quickly. Dominic began to move into position, extending the shadows to cover him.

The cloaked figure raced towards Vidre as she began to form a dagger to replace the one she’d thrown. He seemed not to care about her weapons. The thin tendril of water he’d been holding onto became a thick sphere around his hand, and he got in close enough to press it against her helm. It was clear enough that he was trying to drown her, to force the water down her throat until she choked to death. Her daggers kept hitting him, but beneath the cloak he was wearing something of impeccable make, and though her daggers were razor-sharp, they couldn’t get through steel. She was stabbing at his joints, trying to find a chink in the armor, but he had the sphere of water surrounding her head. Even if the helm was sealed tight, Vidre wouldn’t have much air. Dominic moved forward, creeping silently, keeping his concentration on his shadow-dagger. He was only going to get one chance, and maybe not even that.

Vidre dropped her daggers entirely, and began tearing at the man’s armor with her bare hands. She began ripping off pieces of it, wrenching the metal apart and sending links of chain rolling across the deck of the ship. Dominic could see water within her glass helmet. She tore the cloak from her attacker, and Dominic saw a spot on his left side that was now almost bare of plate or mail. He darted forward and swung his dagger in from the side at the exposed flank, and a man’s soft cry of pain seemed louder than it truly was. From there he wasn’t long for the world. Vidre punched him squarely in the face, crumpling his armor there, and darted around, out from beneath him. When the figure stumbled, Vidre pulled a glass dagger from the material of her armor and stabbed him in the side, over and over, with a grimace on her face, until she was halfway supporting him with a hand beneath his armpit.

When he slumped to the ground, Vidre finally let her helm of glass part and spill water onto the deck. She spit a mouthful of water to the side and let out a low hiss. Her arm was covered in blood up to the elbow where she’d been stabbing him.

“That’s what you get,” she said. She stepped forward and kicked the corpse, which produced a loud clang. “That’s what you get!”

There was a muffled sound from the cabin, and Dominic barely had enough time to think two of them before Vidre was racing off again.


Gaelwyn had been watching Welexi sleep. All of the fleshly damage had been fixed, which just left the cuts to his skin, his broken bones, and a deficit of blood. Gaelwyn itched to open Welexi up. All it would take was a cut across the abdomen. Gaelwyn could push the muscles aside, taking the major blood vessels with them, and get a look at the intestines, kidneys, liver, and every other part that his power didn’t touch. It was the fastest way to diagnose a perforation or a puncture. Internal damage could be insidious. He had asked, while Welexi was conscious, but Welexi had said no, and that was that. Still, Gael felt the urge in his fingertips. It was a nagging feeling, the need to make sure that nothing was seriously wrong. He touched Welexi’s bare skin, and again made sure that his friend was still as healthy as possible, given the circumstances. Welexi’s hand was going to be the biggest problem into the foreseeable future. Gaelwyn could have rebuilt the hand, but not the bones within it, and it would have been red flesh, without skin to cover it. Beneath the bandages there was a swollen line where the hand simply ended instead of continuing on. Vidre hadn’t been able to recover the fingers to reattach them, so Gael had stitched together the ragged flesh as soon as Welexi went unconscious.

He heard something behind him, and turned around to see a man in full wooden armor. Behind him, the hull of the ship gaped open.

“No,” whispered Gaelwyn.

Being an illustrati normally meant knowing the name of every person who came to kill you, but this man’s face was covered with an oaken helm, and there were a half dozen illustrati with the right domain and the proper amount of power to push through wood like that.

“Please,” said Gaelwyn.

The man held a length of wood in his hand, and stalked forward with it held high. It was thick at the end like a club, the weapon that the domain of wood most lent itself to. More important than that, a club was the sort of weapon that you used against someone with the domain of flesh. Gaelwyn could heal damage to his muscles almost instantly, but a club was best for breaking bones and cracking skulls. The man’s wooden armor covered him fully, with no place to lay a hand on bare skin. That was the best protection against the bodily domains, everyone knew that. The mask of wood had a vent at the front for air, and two small holes around the eyes, styled like knots of wood. The eyes were intent as the illustrati stalked closer, ready to bring his club down the moment Gael was in reach.

“Turn around,” said Gaelwyn. “Leave, please, just go, I won’t even tell anyone you were here.”

The man raised his club, and Gael stepped forward quickly, to put a hand against his chestplate.

Everyone knew that you had to be careful going against the bodily domains, and that became more and more true as you moved up the ranks, until you arrived at someone like Gaelwyn Mottram. A single touch could kill you. Everyone knew that the solution was to cover yourself from head to toe, so that there was no bare skin for them to find contact with. Lesser illustrati couldn’t kill so quickly, but for someone like Gaelwyn or the Bone Warden, it was the only way that you had a hope of winning. Deprive them of the ability to touch, and you didn’t have so much to worry about.

Everyone knew that.

But you had to be careful about what everyone knew.

Gaelwyn’s power reached straight past the wooden armor. He could feel the yellowish-white fats and the thick red fibers of muscle, and in the first split second of making contact he brought everything to a halt. The arm that was holding the club jerked back, dropping it to clatter against the floor of the corridor. The man’s eyes were wide, and Gaelwyn looked at them with pity. He had to imagine that the paralysis was unpleasant. Before his attacker could get any clever ideas, Gael formed new muscles in the neck and used them to gently squeeze the carotid artery, a quicker, more violent variant on what he’d done to Welexi. The changes in blood pressure caused a baroreceptor nerve response, and the man was out like a light. It had taken an enormous amount of practice to be able to do that without it being lethal, and years of study to understand the mechanism behind it.

When the man fell to the ground, Gael used his power a second time, reshaping the muscles one by one until every important muscle had been detached from its joint, not bleeding or otherwise harmed, but incapable of producing any movement. Gael had watched people try before. You could see the muscles moving beneath the skin, like enormous creatures trapped there.

“I told you not to,” said Gaelwyn to the still form. He tried to keep himself mournful, and to not think about the thrill that came with having another person under his control. It wasn’t something a person was supposed to get their pleasure from. He looked back toward where Welexi still lay in his bed and said another small oath.


Dominic came down into the ship to find Vidre and Gaelwyn standing over a man in wooden armor.

“This is why they hate me,” said Gaelwyn. “This is why they curse my name.”

Dominic stared at the body. Vidre tore the wooden mask away and looked down at his face. He was a handsome man with sandy brown hair, taking in shallow breaths. Dominic didn’t recognize him, though that didn’t say much. The only illustrati he could really put a face to were those stamped on his money.

“Wake him up,” said Vidre. She was still in full armor from head to toe. “I have questions.”

“Promise not to hurt him,” said Gael. “Promise me.”

“There might be a third,” said Vidre. “We don’t have time for this.”

Gael crouched down and touched the man’s armor, and he woke back up with a gasp. Vidre’s dagger flashed forward and into his mouth, where she pressed it against his tongue. He went completely still and watched her.

“Wealdwood. Try to use your power and I’ll stab straight into the base of your spine,” she said. She ground out the words and stared deep into his eyes. “Your muscles have been rendered nonfunctional. Even if you warped the wood of this ship to make an escape, you would drown when you hit water. Cerulean Bane is dead. Answer my questions, and I’ll let you live.” She held up something that would have been nearly invisible in the lantern light save for the fact that Dominic could see clearly in the dark. “Illustrati-forged. Expensive stuff. And you both kept yourselves cloaked. Who is your employer?” The object was a ring of metal, a single link from the chain mail that she’d torn off during the fight. She slowly removed the dagger from Wealdwood’s mouth.

Dominic wracked his brain trying to connect something to the names. After some reflection he realized he heard of both before; Cerulean Bane had rescued treasures from the depths of the ocean with the help of Aspect, and Wealdwood had been part of the Flower Queen’s court before his exile. Neither were villains, and Dominic couldn’t imagine either traveling with Zerstor. Vidre had asked her question with authority, but it had to be a guess on her part.

“I don’t know,” Wealdwood said quickly, as soon as the last bit of glass was out of his mouth. He was bleeding slightly, where Vidre had dragged the edge of her dagger across his lip. “He wore a cloak, he wouldn’t tell us his name.”

“What were you told to do?” asked Vidre.

“Come with you,” said Wealdwood. The words were spilling out quickly. “Cling to the bottom of the ship, wait until it was out in the Calypso, then kill everyone aboard. I was going to make chambers for us, bulbs beneath the hull like barnacles. The two of us could sink you easily, then mop up whoever was left. That’s what he said. After Welexi was attacked, he came to us and said that the plan had changed. We didn’t even know he’d followed us to Gennaro, but we agreed to it. Cerulean was supposed to distract you, and I was … I was supposed to kill Gaelwyn, and then the Sunhawk, and flee.”

“What were you offered for this idiocy?” asked Vidre. Her knuckles were white around the handle of her dagger, and she was trembling slightly.

“Money,” said Wealdwood. “Fame. Stories spread around the world, though this wasn’t going to be one of them.”

“Ask about the third,” said Gaelwyn. He was looking around anxiously and squeezing his hands.

“There was never any third,” said Vidre. “They wouldn’t hold back like that.” She glared down at the man beneath her. “He knows there’s nothing to hope for.”

“If you didn’t know who he was, why did you think he could deliver on his promises?” asked Dominic. Vidre looked up at him, and narrowed her eyes before nodding.

“Answer,” she said to Wealdwood.

“He had a ring,” said Wealdwood. “Forged by the Harbingers.”

“You went to war with us over a bauble?” asked Vidre. She positioned her dagger above his face.

“You said you would let me live!” cried Wealdwood. He tried to turn his head, but the only result was that the muscles in his neck twisted and crawled beneath his skin.

“Wait,” said a rich, mellow voice from the bed. Gaelwyn was standing by Welexi’s side.

“How much of that did you catch?” asked Vidre.

“Enough,” replied Welexi. His arm was in a splint that was wrapped up against his chest, but he used his ruined hand and Gaelwyn’s help to sit up. “Wealdwood, the Forest Knight, formerly of the Flower Queen’s court and now adrift in the world. You hew to the old stories. You saw that you were falling from grace, and thought that perhaps this stranger had a power you knew not.” He was slow and tired. “There was an aspect of story to him, a theatrical compulsion that you couldn’t resist. He had a face he kept in the shadows, and your eyes were drawn to the ring, and the unmistakable presence it exuded. He told you stories about me, stories that you had no way to verify but which sounded right to your ears because of how they tore me down, and with his promises to propel you back to greatness, that was enough to push you in the direction he wanted.”

Wealdwood was staring up at Vidre’s dagger, though he didn’t have much choice in where to look. “It’s true,” he said.

“Tell me of the ring,” said Welexi.

“It was made of a hard metal, dull grey, with a thousand facets,” said Wealdwood. “And I felt it, like a feather landing on the skin of my mind. It was a real and true artifact.”

“Set him free,” said Welexi.

“He put a hole in the side of our ship,” said Vidre. Dominic looked at her hand holding the dagger. He knew that she followed Welexi, but he had no idea how closely. If she wanted to murder Wealdwood right here and now, there was nothing that anyone could do about it. For a moment it seemed as though it was inevitable that she was going to drive her dagger down and destroy him, and Dominic wondered what would happen after that. Would Welexi have her removed from the ship? Or would he be complicit in the crime? But Vidre got up instead, and nodded to the hull where the wood was warped. “We need to have him fix it, before anything else.”

“You promised me that you would let me live,” said Wealdwood. He struggled fruitlessly.

“Promises to dead men don’t mean much,” said Vidre.

“We can’t kill him,” said Welexi. “There’s no justice in taking the life of someone in your mercy.”

“So we take him to the Bone Warden?” asked Vidre. “We somehow weather a voyage far out of our circuit with a man that can sink our ship at any time? We let him go and hope that he keeps his word? We’re done with Gennaro, we don’t need an extended coda.”

“The path of goodness is sometimes a difficult one,” said Welexi.

“Please,” said Wealdwood. “I won’t speak a word of this to anyone, I’ll slink off into the night and never see any of you again.”

“Close the hole in the ship,” said Vidre. She grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him over to the side of the ship, then placed his hand against the wood. He stared at her, and then his eyes swivelled down to her dagger. “Don’t get any ideas,” said Vidre. Dominic stepped closer to watch her. If it had been him, he would have tried to sink the ship, in the hopes of finding some leverage as it threatened to capsize. Once the ship was repaired by Wealdwood’s touch, Vidre would have no reason to leave him alive, and he had to know that.

Wealdwood closed his eyes and concentrated. The wood grew slowly, shaping itself back into straight timbers. It took five minutes in total, all of it in tense silence. Welexi had gone back to resting, and Gael stood beside him, staring at the hull of the ship sealing up.

“There were people on the dock,” said Dominic. “I don’t know what it is that they saw, but if we want to keep this quiet we’ll have to make sure that they’re saying the right things. And we’ll need to deal with Cerulean.” One of Dominic’s tricks for getting through stressful situations was to focus on what needed to be done. Sitting there and waiting would have been more nerve-wracking than putting plans into motion. “We can weigh the body down and dump it at sea after we’ve gone.”

“Good thinking,” said Vidre. She looked down at the mostly dried blood that was caking itself to her forearm. “You’re going to have to deal with the locals. Tell them a story, any story. I set someone up to ambush you as part of your training, a hazing ritual. Check to see how much they saw first. We need to get everything straightened here. I don’t think the deck of the ship would be fully visible from the shore, but they might have heard something.”

Dominic looked to Welexi. He had expected an objection, but Welexi said nothing. Perhaps this was the way it went between him and Vidre, when these things needed to be done. The stories had said that he had reigned her in, and turned a hardened killer to the side of good, but it didn’t seem nearly so simple as that. When Dominic was sure that everything was well in hand, he strode back down the narrow corridor that separated the cabins and up onto the deck. The sailors were gathered together in their white and blue uniforms. Their low conversation stopped when Dominic came up. Cerulean Bane’s body had been covered with a tarp. One of the sailors split off from the others and approached Dominic.

“Is everything okay up here?” asked Dominic.

“Yes,” replied the sailor. “Is everything okay down there?”

“We have a prisoner,” said Dominic. “And we need to get the body into storage. We’ll be doing a burial at sea.” That sounded better than saying that they’d dump the corpse overboard. “Do it quietly.” He had no authority over these men, and they’d just seen him have his ass handed to him by Vidre, but the sailor nodded. “What’s your name?”

“We’re paid not to have names,” said the sailor with a grim smile. “And for the hazards of being around illustrati.” He looked to the tarp, and the long shape that the folds marked the edges of. “But it’s Michael, if you ever need me for anything. I think we’ll all be happy to be back at sea.” He went back to the other sailors, and they resumed their conversation in low voices. Dominic watched until they began drawing straws to see who was going to move the body, and walked down the plank and onto the dock. He double-checked himself to make sure that he didn’t have any blood on him, then looked back to the ship to see if he could tell what the crowd could see. It was as clear as daylight to him, but through their eyes, it would just be a confusion of shapes. He made his way down the dock to where the sailors with swords stood guard, and put a smile on his face.

“What was going on there?” asked an older man with a decanter of wine in one hand.

“Lady Vidre was instructing me on the finer points of single combat,” said Dominic. “Apparently she thought I needed to be taken down a peg, and ended up taking me down three instead.”

“We heard some yelling,” said one of the others.

“I got a lucky hit in,” said Dominic. “I agreed to settle our differences over a bottle of wine, one last taste of home before we set sail tomorrow. Does anyone have a suggestion?”

That seemed to be just the trick, and the men and women began to argue loudly among themselves. Dominic hadn’t intended to leave the safety of the dock, not with Corta still out there and unknown parties who might want to take a piece of his hide just for the meager fame it would get them, but he couldn’t very well ask about wine and then not go to get it. If he couldn’t have seen what was within the shadows, he was sure that he would have been straining his eyes looking for a hidden assailant. The wine was given to him gratis, and he walked out with a cask that he had to hold awkwardly beneath one arm. All the way back, people peppered him with questions. They wanted to know how badly Welexi was hurt, why the Zenith was leaving tomorrow, what Vidre was really like, and whether he knew anything about Gaelwyn’s time in the Iron King’s service. Dominic tried his best to answer in diplomatic ways, but he was dog tired and didn’t even remember half the things he said the moment they were past his lips.

Wealdwood was bound, gagged, and unconscious in Vidre’s room when he got back. The door to Welexi’s cabin was firmly closed, and Gaelwyn was nowhere to be seen. Vidre was at a small desk that folded out of the wall with a quill and parchment, which she set aside as he came in.

“Wine?” asked Vidre. Her armor had relaxed somewhat, leaving her face uncovered and her hands completely free. She had retracted most of the sharp edges.

“They don’t expect anything, I don’t think,” said Dominic. “The wine was free.”

“Don’t leave the ship again,” said Vidre. “These two were sent alone, but we have another enemy. One with an artifact, or the ability to convince people he has an artifact, and a seeming penchant for proxies. Until Welexi has healed, I’m the only one with the will and the ability to save you if there’s trouble. Welexi can’t, Gael won’t.”

“Gaelwyn doesn’t need to touch flesh to kill a man,” said Dominic. That was one of the things that had been moving around at the back of his mind. “Wealdwood was sealed up tight when we came in.”

“Gael’s power extends three inches from the surface of his skin,” said Vidre. “Him and the Bone Warden both. They’re the only ones with enough standing for it. Keep that secret close.”

“He’d be unstoppable if he decided to fight,” said Dominic. Not strictly unstoppable though. It would be possible to kill him from a distance, with a pistol or an incredibly lucky cannon shot, or even a crossbow that hit him in the right place. Maybe it would work with a very long blade of some kind, but there were a whole host of injuries that Gaelwyn could simply heal himself of in the midst of combat, so you’d have to go straight for the head. You couldn’t let him touch you though, even through layers of armor.

“He wouldn’t protect you,” said Vidre. “He wouldn’t even protect me. Only Welexi, and then only with a minimum of violence. He’s not a murderer anymore. He hit his limit.” She ran her fingers through her hair, which was damp with sweat. “And if you believe that … well, I can tell that you don’t. You said that he was unstoppable, and then you began thinking of ways to stop him.” She sat down on her bed, next to Wealdwood’s unmoving form. “That secret getting out is one of the risks of letting this one go.” She tapped at the papers. “And now I have to write letters of instruction to our bards, so that when the story of this assassination attempt inevitably gets out we can stay in control of it. We leave with fanfare, and it comes out weeks later, when we’re not so immediately in the minds of the public. We make up our reasons for not telling anyone, but we technically have the authority of the senatori. It’s something of a mess no matter what we do.” She turned to the bed. “I have half a mind to kill him right now.”

“But you won’t,” said Dominic.

“No,” said Vidre. “Good girls don’t murder their captives, however inconvenient letting them live would be. Look, I have to stand guard; Gaelwyn’s tricks aren’t all that reliable in the long term, not if he’s trying to ensure that a person is going to live through it. So long as a man has his power he’s a threat, even bound and gagged, even paralyzed. You should go get some sleep, because you’re going to have to watch him tomorrow while I’m resting.”

“Okay,” said Dominic. He turned to go, but Vidre rested her hand on his elbow.

“I’m not going to say that I was wrong about you,” she said. “But I will admit that you have some redeeming qualities. Try not to let me down.”

“I won’t,” said Dominic.

He laid down in the small cabin they’d given over to him, and though he thought that sleep would be impossible, he was unconscious only minutes later.


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4 thoughts on “Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 3: Nighttime Ballet”

  1. It’s neat to see some uses of Dominic’s domain, and it flows quite well. The whole introduction-exposition for the sake of the in-world audience was smooth and smart; the actual in-text exposition on Vidre’s past a little less so. I found myself getting a little impatient while reading it, though it wasn’t too bad.

    A question: Why didn’t the dreadnought duo start by sinking the ship and dropping everyone into Cerulean’s domain? Less risk, and while it doesn’t actually deprive anyone of access to their domain, it certainly favours the side with water powers and floating armour. Vidre, for instance, would not do too well.

    I appreciate the cameo!

    Have you tried submitting this to topwebfiction.com ? It’s where I find a few serials.

  2. Just dropping by to say I’ve been keeping up eagerly with this latest work of yours. I’m a big fan!

  3. I feel like dominic knew too much of the fight he walked in on after it ended. Why bother binding a cripple and one who doesn’t Need verbal to use his powers? Interesting how fast dodominic’s power is coming on as if is just a natural part of him like walking or talking.

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