Dominic felt like he had been sick his entire life, and had only now gotten better. Partly this was a result of the magic Gaelwyn had done, and partly it was Dominic’s continued increase in standing, but the combined effect was that Dominic was brimming over with energy and power. He wanted to run, but the ship couldn’t have been much more than sixty feet from bow to stern, and even if it hadn’t been teeming with sailors, there wasn’t enough of a straightaway to put on a good amount of speed. There were another eight and a half days until the ship arrived at Torland, and Dominic was already aching for the chance to sprint at full speed. He’d been able to do that at the outskirts of Gennaro, where the roads were straight and mostly empty; he could run until his lungs ached and he was drenched in sweat.
Dominic needed someone to show off for, or at least someone that could share in his excitement. He held out his hand in front of him, and with just a slight act of will, conjured the same dagger as he had last night. The closer he looked at it, the more it looked like one he’d seen in a display case in Gennaro. A smile split his face, and he couldn’t have hid it if he wanted to. So long as his fame lasted, he would never be truly disarmed. More than that, it was a blade that wouldn’t weigh him down. He would be able to run through the city streets and then reach out to grab his dagger from nothing. The intimidation aspect alone would make him the envy of all his friends, even if the blade itself had been completely non-functional. Dominic’s smile faltered when he remembered stabbing Cerulean Bane in the side, and then fell completely when he remembered spearing Zerstor through the heart.
Dominic shook away those thoughts, and looked at the shadows. He could make the shadows larger or smaller, shrinking them away entirely until he was left with no shadow at all. He closed his eyes to concentrate on the sensation of movement, and was mildly surprised to find that he could still sense the shadows, at least those along the deck of the ship. He continued for some time, testing his limits, from the range of his powers to the strength and speed of them. When Vidre found him, he was trying to alter the form of his dagger.
“You started training without me,” she said with a yawn and a cat-like stretch. She had abandoned her armor entirely, though her daggers still hung from her belt. She was barefoot and wore a blue dress. Dominic realized it was the first time that he’d seen her without pants. She seemed almost absurdly feminine in comparison to the night before, if Dominic ignored the daggers. He could see the graceful curve of her collarbone and the flare of her hips.
“You can’t have a dagger,” said Vidre. She was watching him with a raised eyebrow. “Thematically, I mean. I use daggers, Welexi uses a spear, you need to pick something else.”
“I like daggers,” said Dominic. He thrust forward with the shadow dagger, stabbing at the air. The balance of it seemed perfect, even though the dagger itself was weightless. It was an odd sensation. “And besides, can’t I just pick whatever best suits the moment? Surely you’d use a sword if the situation called for it.”
“Absolutely,” said Vidre. “But as I said before, being an illustrati isn’t all about fighting. It’s not even mostly about fighting. If you want to be an icon, you have to craft an image for yourself, something that people will remember you by. You need a persona that causes an instant association. There are people who have no idea who I am, but they’ve heard the name ‘Queen of Glass’ before, and maybe some stories about my daggers, so when they see me in the flesh they make the connection. What you don’t want is people arguing about what should be a matter of fact. I’ve gone incognito more than a few times, and listened to stories get brought to a grinding halt because two people wanted to argue about whether some illustrati wore a cape or not.”
“Well, maybe he didn’t wear a cape all the time,” said Dominic.
“That’s exactly the problem,” said Vidre. “Variations in personal appearance make it harder for you to stick in someone’s mind. If you see a person once, and they’re wearing a cape, that’s how you think of them until the next time that mental image is challenged.”
“I’ve seen you in four different outfits over the course of two days,” said Dominic.
Vidre looked down at her dress. “This one doesn’t count. No one is around to see it. And as for the others, those were for different occasions. I have one outfit I wear for day-to-day, I have a formal suit of armor, and I have a full combat outfit. That’s the whole of it though. All of them are distinct from each other. If I do switch over to something that’s not one of those three, it’s generally a large departure—an outfit where the whole point is to draw attention to how unusual it is.” She looked back down at her dress. “And of course, when I have some privacy, I can wear whatever I damned well please.”
Dominic looked down to his dagger and let go of it. It faded away in an instant. “So I’ll need to pick out something iconic for myself,” he said slowly.
“I’ll need to pick out something iconic for you,” said Vidre. “You can have some input, but I have years of experience seeing what works and what doesn’t, and I know who has claim to various looks. There’s a fortunate dearth of shadow in this part of the world.” She tapped her lip and looked him up and down. “We’re almost certainly putting you in a dark purple and gold, which won’t step on any toes. It’s no use having people mistaking you for someone else.”
“Fair enough,” said Dominic. “I welcome the help.”
Vidre gave him a quizzical look. “You’re more pragmatic than I expected you to be.”
“I suppose I’ll take that as a compliment,” Dominic replied. “Now then, a sword?” He held out his hand to the side and willed a long blade into existence. The sword that resulted was familiar to him, a shadow replica of one that he had stolen off a noble’s belt and fenced for a small fortune. He hadn’t consciously been thinking of that sword, but it had come to him all the same.
“Mildly impressive,” said Vidre. “Our bards must be doing a better job than I thought.”
“The sky’s the limit,” said Dominic. “And perhaps not even that. I’m fairly certain I could make wings of shadow.”
Vidre smiled. “I have a scenario. You’ve attended a dinner party, followed by dancing, followed by parlor games, but now the hour is late. Your host asks if you would like to spend the night in a guest room. What should your response be?”
“What?” asked Dominic. Vidre only gave him a slight, expectant tilt of the head. “I suppose it depends on how far away I am, and how late you mean when you say it’s late.”
“Wrong. You decline,” said Vidre firmly. “Your host will insist, and only then do you take pragmatism into consideration. If they do not insist, then it was only a nicety that was expected of them.”
“Is that really how nobles do it?” asked Dominic.
“That’s how it’s done among the people you’ll meet in Torland,” said Vidre. “What is the proper form of address for the Flower Queen’s husband?”
“Your Majesty?” guessed Dominic.
“Ealdwine of the House Marburg is a prince, not a king, and as such is styled with ‘Your Royal Highness’ on first address, and thereafter simply ‘Sir’,” replied Vidre. “If you referred to him as ‘Your Majesty’ you would be putting him on par with his wife, which at best would get titters of laughter at your expense, and at worst would be seen as a deliberate slight against the Queen.”
“Well,” said Dominic. He was blushing slightly, despite himself. “I didn’t know that.”
“You don’t know anything,” said Vidre. “There are a thousand things that you need to learn that are more important than learning how to fight, or how to properly use your domain. Etiquette is one of those things, and the names, stylings, and personal histories of the Flower Queen’s court are another.”
Vidre was a surprisingly gentle instructor. She never tried to make him feel stupid, and didn’t berate him for not knowing things. Her corrections were clear and to the point. It might even have been tolerable, if she were teaching a more interesting subject.
“Never leave the table until a meal is over,” said Vidre. She stood with her hands folded beneath her chest and her chin slightly lifted. The sailors worked around them, occasionally calling instruction to each other. Vidre ignored them completely. “However, if you absolutely must leave, where should you place your napkin to show that you intend to return?”
Dominic frowned, and tried to figure it out from base principles. There only seemed to be two options, the chair or the table, but he had no idea which was correct. It was also possible that the answer was “atop the bread plate” or some other ridiculous bit of specificity that he would never be able to guess at.
“I can’t get some leeway as the naive newcomer?” asked Dominic.
“Not forever,” said Vidre. “Some of your social missteps will be excused, and perhaps they’ll even find it funny, but if you want to be regarded as someone on the rise, you need to make an honest effort. I can dress you properly and never leave you on your own, but that’s a short-term solution. Later on you might play the boor deliberately, but that would work better if you were truly foreign. There are more than enough men and women that play the fool though, and I don’t think you’re particularly well-suited to it; not enough to go into competition with the people who have made their livelihoods on being buffoons.”
“Fine,” said Dominic. “I put the napkin on the seat of the chair then?”
“Correct,” said Vidre with a smile. “You’ll get there eventually. It took me two years with the best tutors my husband could buy, I don’t expect you to attain mastery in a week’s time.”
At the mention of Vidre’s one-time husband, a dozen questions seemed to work their way from Dominic’s brain straight to his tongue. He managed to close his mouth tight enough to keep the words from escaping. Gaelwyn had been almost eager to share his past, to frame public stories in a light that flattered him, but Dominic didn’t imagine that Vidre would want to do the same. For everything that was said about her, some of it had to be true, and he didn’t want to make her air it out. He didn’t want her to lie to him either, as he was halfway sure Gaelwyn had.
“Well,” said Vidre with a sniff of the air. She turned away from him. “I think we’re done for the day. Time for real dinner instead of a fake one, at any rate. And after that, we throw Wealdwood and his companion into the sea.”
Cerulean Bane had been wrapped in a tarp. At some point before they’d left Gennaro, someone had been sent out to get armfuls of herbs, which had been placed in with the corpse. The result was a smell of oregano, basil, and thyme, which mingled with the smell of decaying flesh. Wealdwood had been dragged up onto deck, with his muscles restored enough for him to stand, but he looked away from the covered body. Welexi had stayed down in his cabin to rest, but everyone else was up on deck. The ship was nearly still in the water, and all seven sails had been furled. The sailors stood around talking quietly among themselves.
“A man can’t attack someone and not expect them to fight back,” said Vidre. “It’s better not to have to kill a man, if it can be helped, but sometimes it can’t.” She had put her armor back on, and eyed Wealdwood carefully the whole time she was speaking. Dominic had thought she was going to start into a eulogy of some kind, but those two sentences were the extent of what she had to say on the matter.
“He tried to be a good man,” said Wealdwood. His voice was strained. His arms were bound behind him with thick rope, and his feet were embedded in a giant chunk of glass that Vidre had shaped around them. His muscles had been reconnected, but sapped of their strength; Gaelwyn had withered the muscles down, then bled the illustrati, explaining to anyone who would listen that there was a relation between the ratio of blood volume to muscle volume. Wealdwood’s arm had a thick bandage around it, which showed a dot of red. “But being a good man is hard. I didn’t know him well. I was the talker, between the two of us. I wish I’d let him fill the silence more.”
Vidre nodded. “Dominic, grab the feet.”
They picked up the tarp. It was surprisingly light until Dominic remembered how much stronger he was now. Even with the armor still on the body, Vidre could probably have lifted it all by herself. The mixed smell of herbs and death filled Dominic’s nostrils. Together he and Vidre moved the tarp over to the side of the ship, swung it back once, then tossed it over the edge. It splashed into the dark blue water and immediately began to sink. The smell lingered.
“Now you,” Vidre said to Wealdwood. Four long pieces of wood had been brought up onto the deck, and Vidre gestured to them. “We’re letting you go, against my better judgment. Thank Welexi for that. There’s land just visible to the north. Your strength isn’t going to be returned to you; you can find someone to do that for you, or build it back up naturally, but it’s not our problem.” She pointed to the four planks. “I’m going to take off your fetters, and you’re going to make yourself a raft. The wood is a gift, from us to you. If you make any sudden movements, I will kill you. If you say anything unwise, I will kill you. If you use your domain to do anything other than making a raft for yourself, I will kill you. You have a narrow path to life here, try not to wander from it.”
Wealdwood licked his lips and nodded. When Vidre pulled the glass from his feet, he went over to the provided wood and began to shape it. The sailors lost interest quickly enough, but Vidre stared at Wealdwood with unwavering intensity. Dominic had asked whether Wealdwood would be able to sink the ship while standing on its deck, and Vidre had replied that his power wouldn’t extend so far, and besides that he’d be dooming himself. Watching her now, Dominic wasn’t sure how confident she was in that assessment.
“Did you kill me, Mottram?” asked Wealdwood as he pushed the planks together. He ran his finger along the seam, altering the wood so that it was a single solid piece. The process gave off a faint sound of creaking. “Did you introduce some flaw in me? Simple enough to do, for someone like you.”
“You are venturing into unwise territory,” said Vidre.
Wealdwood’s hands were shaking as he repeated the process on another of the planks. “Not knowing is the worst part,” he said slowly. “I’ve expected my death from the moment I was captured, but I don’t know whether this is a charade or not, a performance put on for your crew or a genuine act of clemency.”
Vidre and Gaelwyn were both silent. A light breeze blew across the deck of the ship, carrying away murmured conversation among the sailors, and not much of that.
“I’ll say whatever it is you want for me to say,” said Wealdwood. “I can be a tool for you, an instrument of your will, if only you let me live.” He was working quickly, and finished merging the fourth piece. He turned to look at Gaelwyn. His eyes were brimming with tears. “Please, Gael, if you’ve done it, you can still undo it, you can still let me live, I’ll tell them, all of them, the whole world about how you let me go, how you’re not the man that you were, how you’ve truly changed your ways—or, or how you never were that man to begin with. Please, please don’t let me die.”
Gaelwyn’s lips twitched slightly. His eyes showed little emotion. “You tried to kill me,” he said, “What good would it do, to have me tell you that I haven’t acted in retribution? You don’t trust my word now, and wouldn’t have reason to trust it just because I’d told you what you wanted to hear. If this is a charade for someone’s benefit, I would touch you on the shoulder and tell you that I’d undone whatever it is you think that I’ve done.”
Wealdwood finished the pitifully small boat in silence, shaping the flat rectangle of wood into a crude half-shell. His hands were unsteady, and his breathing was uneven, but he didn’t ever quite cry. After the boat was finished, Vidre made him sit in it, then began pushing it towards where there was a gap in the railing. Her eyes never left Wealdwood. The Zenith wasn’t too high up off the water, and it would be a short drop.
“Dominic,” said Wealdwood, his voice thick with urgency, “If you never see me again, never hear word that I made it to safety, you’ll know what was done to me.”
Vidre shoved his boat hard, and it splashed down into the water. Wealdwood looked up at them, then began the work of fashioning oars for himself. His arms looked pitifully small, and if he weren’t an illustrati, Dominic would have put low odds on the man making it to shore.
“Sailors, go check the bilge and make a survey of the hold,” said Vidre as she pointed to two of them. “Let’s make sure this bastard didn’t try something foolish, just in case. Everyone else, let’s get moving again. The sooner we’re in Torland, the better.”
The sails came down again and billowed up with wind, and the ship began to leave Wealdwood in his small boat behind. Dominic watched from the back of the ship until the boat was only a speck. Vidre stood beside him.
“That’s trouble,” said Vidre. “Welexi thought that the man had learned his lesson by being at our mercy, but I’m doubtful. Wealdwood took a first step down the path to villainy—maybe it was his second or third, I don’t know—but it’s been my experience that people don’t often turn around, not until they’ve reached the lowest low. I’ve already set too much in motion for Wealdwood. Gennaro will know what he’s done within the next week or two, depending on how our bards think the wind is blowing. It’s going to be harder for Wealdwood to come back to the light after that, even if we’ve effectively given him a pardon. So what will he do but turn to villainy?” She sighed and closed her eyes. The wind pushed her hair back, and for the first time since Dominic had met her, she looked content. “It’s a problem for the future.”
Dominic looked around, to make sure that Gaelwyn had gone down into the cabin. “Can Gael do that? Kill a man from a distance?”
Vidre didn’t open her eyes, and a strand of loose hair danced in the wind. “He described the body as a temple, when he was one of his more poetic moods,” said Vidre. “Easy enough to knock down, if you have a siege weapon, and that’s all that most illustrati of flesh have. Gaelwyn is like an exceptionally skilled architect of temples. Is it within his capabilities to introduce a subtle change, so the temple blows down in the next strong wind, or collapses in on itself in the next heavy rain?” She kept her eyes closed and pursed her lips. “He keeps secrets. We all do. But yes, I think that if he wanted to, he could do something like that.”
“Has he, in the past?” asked Dominic. The information was third-hand, or perhaps even more tenuous than that. The ultimate source was Wealdwood’s benefactor, and it was an open question where the benefactor had heard it, or if he had simply made the whole thing up.
“If he has, I didn’t give the order,” said Vidre. She had drawn back her armor slightly, now that Wealdwood was gone. The danger was now well and truly past, and her muscles were relaxed. The piece of glass around her upper arm was clear enough for Dominic to see the muscles of her bicep.
It was only when he looked at it that it occurred to him that Gaelwyn might have enhanced her too. The thought of Gaelwyn’s hand on her, touching every muscle in her body at once, shifting them around and trying to bring about the most aesthetic shape, caused a cold feeling in Dominic’s gut. It shouldn’t have, he knew that, but it made her less beautiful in his eyes. What was to say that her skin hadn’t been made smooth and soft by another illustrati? That her hair hadn’t been made thick and full? The Bone Warden could fix teeth. Vidre’s were straight, and the more he looked between her slightly parted lips, the more her teeth looked preternaturally white. Flesh, skin, hair, bone—she wasn’t perfect, and there was nothing overt, but his guess felt right all the same. He shouldn’t have expected anything less. Vidre was the sort of person who would take any advantage she could grab hold of. Yet she still had a scar on her face.
“How did you get that scar?” asked Dominic. It was white and vertical, and didn’t disfigure her in the slightest. It was suspicious, in that regard.
“Not the time for stories,” said Vidre. “You have books to read, and lessons to learn.”
The next day, Dominic and Vidre fought.
“There is a difference between animal instinct and learned knowledge,” said Welexi. He sat on a chair, fully braced in light, with Gaelwyn beside him. Dominic and Vidre were circling each other slowly. He had a sword of shadow, and she had crafted a sword of glass. “If you go into combat, you must have both. You must know on an intellectual level what your opponent might do, and weigh your options with a keen mind, and at the same time have an understanding deep in your bones, in order to react without thought.”
“There’s too much distance between your feet,” said Vidre. Dominic tried to correct it.
“It’s instructive to think of battle as a drama,” said Welexi. “At a certain point, we all know our lines, but what distinguishes a man is the character of his performance. Patience, attention, rage, confidence, all these things contribute to a person’s expression of martial skill, and to be truly great, you must know how to respond to these subtleties, and control the subtleties of your own.”
“That’s not going to help him if he can’t master the basics,” said Vidre. “There’s still too much distance between your feet. When you step over to circle I could dash in and get you off-balance, and from there it wouldn’t be long before you died.”
“Alright,” said Dominic. He tried to shift his positioning. There were too many things to think about at once, and Welexi’s bits of martial philosophy weren’t helping matters. Vidre had gotten him into a proper fighting stance with his sword held in front of him, but when he moved he needed to focus on keeping his spine straight, his arms bent at the correct angle, his feet the proper distance from each other, his torso presenting a profile, and his shoulders square. As soon as his attention was focused on one of those things, one of the others seemed to slip. Worse, he was being taught only one of three basic stances, and those other two would have to be mastered as well.
“There are three planes of reference,” said Welexi. “From head to shoulders, from shoulders to waist, and from waist to feet. Each is defended in a different manner.”
Vidre darted towards Dominic with what he now recognized as exaggerated slowness, and he brought his sword forward to block her. After a brief contact, she backed away and fell back into a stance that was far superior to his in every way. For the time being, she was pretending at not being an illustrati; techniques for dealing with other illustrati varied widely according to Vidre, depending on the standing of the opponent and their domain.
“I’m reasonably confident that by the time we arrive in Meriwall, Dominic will be able to stand toe-to-toe with any normal man, one-on-one, in a fair fight,” said Vidre. She circled slowly, stepping with care. On occasion she would leave an opening for Dominic, and that was his cue to attack. These openings were wholly by her intent, and he was sure that he was missing half of them, if not more. “That’s good—better than expected. We should work more on etiquette and social skills.”
“There is civil unrest in Torland,” said Welexi. “The odds that we will be forced to fight are high. It is entirely possible that our first visit to the Flower Queen’s court will result in her asking us to take care of some problem. Given that we’re, ahem, short-handed, Lightscour needs to be able to defend himself at the least, not just against a background character, but a major player.”
Dominic was becoming doubtful that this would happen. His strength, speed, and resilience would give him an advantage, but there was far too much to learn. Vidre had let him tag her once or twice now, but there was little doubt in his mind that she could kill him with ease if she had the motive for it. He felt strong, and his command over his domain had grown from the day before, but his confidence had been shaken by these combat lessons.
“Let’s take a break,” said Vidre. She folded her glass sword in half with ease, and clamped the glass down onto her wrist to make a bracer. Dominic dismissed his shadow sword, and felt like a faint weight had been lifted from his mind.
“Mimicry is in the nature of shadow,” said Welexi. “Every shadow is a duplicate, in its own way. Armor will come easily to you, I think.”
“Better sooner than later,” said Vidre. She sat cross-legged on the deck of the ship. “If it’s possible to get something in place before we reach Meriwall, that would be ideal.”
Dominic held his hand out, and tried to force the shadow into a bracer like the one Vidre had given herself. Nothing happened until he held his hand slightly above his forearm to cast a shadow there, and after that it was easy to make the shadow a solid thing. He clamped the hard shadow into place around his arm, and held it up for inspection. He could feel the same faint tug of attention there, and wondered what the upper limit of his power would be. He’d heard a story of Welexi outfitting a hundred men with spears during some large battle.
“The question is whether it will make good armor,” said Vidre. She touched the bracer and frowned. “We’ll have to test how easy it is to penetrate or shatter. Welexi’s is nearly as strong as steel, though steel isn’t too strong in the hands of an illustrati.” Dominic briefly thought of her fist crumpling Cerulean Bane’s faceplate, and her bare hands tearing into his armor. She should have torn her hands up doing that, but they were perfectly fine, slender and delicate save for the calluses her daggers gave her.
“How likely are we to have to fight in Meriwall?” asked Dominic. “I’ll be ready for it, whatever the challenge,” he added.
“Civil unrest is a nasty thing,” said Vidre. “And somewhat outside our purview, come to that. Our arrangement with the Flower Queen is that in the event of a defensive war we’ll be called in on their side, along with a few of the other major players. I believe she hopes to quell dissent merely by having us present for a month or so. We’re an implied threat to her would-be enemies.”
“The Queen is a gentle soul,” said Welexi. “We would protect her anyway.”
“She’s important to the balance of power,” Vidre replied. “There will be a succession crisis when she dies, which will give the Iron King an opening, and that’s not good for anyone.”
“They went to war before,” said Dominic with a shrug.
This was greeted with silence.
“We all played our part in the Peddler’s War,” Welexi eventually replied. “It will be a point of contention when we reach Torland. It would do best not to mention it. The Sovento States were neutral, and you would have been eight years old when it ended, so I don’t expect you to know, but it was a brutal thing. Thousands of corpses littered the killing fields. Men starved within their forts. There’s some threat of it happening again; nine years is too long to go without one of the major powers making a play against the other. This is not a matter to be met with a shrug.”
“I’m sorry,” said Dominic. “I only meant … I don’t know. That it wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
“This is why your lessons are a priority,” said Vidre. She stood up from the deck and touched her glass bracer. “Combat is all well and good, but it’s words that will sink us. There are a number of gaps in your knowledge that need to be filled in as quickly as possible.” She turned to Welexi. “Four hours of combat training a day, nothing more?”
“Agreed,” said Welexi. “I see the wisdom of your approach now.”
“Good,” said Vidre. The smile she gave Dominic was sharp. “Now, Lightscour, let me give you an abridged history of the Peddler’s War …”
Halfway through their trip, Dominic began to have second thoughts about becoming an illustrati.
He was growing more powerful with every day that passed. He could see perfectly in the dark now, and read the books he’d been assigned without need for a candle. He could make a number of pieces of armor for himself, including a rather sturdy breastplate which could almost match the strength of metal, but with none of the actual weight. He could leap at least fifteen feet into the air now, though he’d put a stop to that particular line of experimentation after almost landing in the sea. He was on the verge of being able to move around with his eyes closed, going by the feel of the shadows alone.
That was all well and good—those were the parts that he liked.
Unfortunately, there was an enormous quantity of learning to be done. There were two hundred people on Vidre’s list, and each of them had at least two names, a domain, and some small bit of personal history. He had been given a rundown on the major nations that ringed the Calypso, their dispositions towards each other, their forms of government, principle trade goods, major cities, and recent wars (where “recent” seemed to stretch back at least fifty years). Worst of all was etiquette, which had numerous rules that followed little in the way of internal logic, and which seemed especially pointless. All of that was what Vidre called “the essentials”. A small fraction of it he had already known, but most of it he had not. He would have slammed his head against the cabin wall in frustration, but was worried that he would leave a dent.
The combat training was almost worse. Every time he began to feel that he was doing well, some new aspect would be introduced that seemed to set him back to square one. On the sixth day, Vidre had said, “Alright, I’m going to speed up a little bit,” and he had nearly thrown his sword down and quit for the day. He’d thought he was doing well, but she was operating far below her limits. Every time he seemed to be matching her capabilities, she simply began using some hidden reserve that he hadn’t even known was there.
“Oh come on,” said Vidre over dinner. They were eating together in her cabin, a stew of lamb and peas, and she had her bare feet propped up against the cabin wall. “Don’t look so glum.”
“It’s just frustrating,” said Dominic. “I feel like I’m not getting any better.”
“You are getting better,” said Vidre. “You just didn’t realize how much further there was to go.”
“But it was easier for everyone else,” said Dominic. “They didn’t need so much time and effort.”
“Like me?” asked Vidre. She speared a piece of lamb and plopped it in her mouth, then continued talking around the food. It was terrible etiquette, but in private Vidre didn’t put up many pretenses. “I know the stories that they tell, of the girl who was laying in a goose-down bed. She was woken up with ruffled hair and went out to see what the commotion was about. She made some daggers for herself and walked right into the melee, taking to killing like it was what she had been meant to do. Does that sound even the least bit true to you?”
“I suppose not,” said Dominic. “But I don’t know what the real story is then. You trained for years beforehand with some secret master?”
“No, the truth is that I was terrified, and I wouldn’t have fought back against the attackers if I had thought I had a choice. I nearly died, and I broke down afterward. The story started out as a lie for my benefit. It was a kindly officer who found me crying next to the two men I had killed. He told me that I had turned the tide of the battle, that I had inspired the troops and turned a sure rout into a triumphant defense. I believed it for a full two years. After that first battle, I received my training. The stories never mention the training, or if they do, it’s glossed over, or corrupted into something like a search for a mystical technique, or a romance. Mostly, it’s not even that. ‘Time passed’, and all the sweat, tears, and frustration of getting better are nothing but that single sentence. It’s amazing how much of your life a bard can sum up in a handful of words.” She caught his eye. “And yes, I understand that you want to skip over all of the boring bits and become a perfect gentleman of society without first learning the rules that society operates under. You want to skip right to being a fearsome warrior without having to learn your footwork or how to put up a proper guard. But you’re already skipping far ahead of everyone else, and that should be enough, shouldn’t it?”
“I suppose,” said Dominic. Vidre was right though. He wanted to skip over the hard work. Yet knowing that this was what he wanted didn’t make him want it any less, it only made him feel worse.
“I want to fight you at your best,” said Dominic. It was the last full day at sea; the sailors were saying that they’d be through the Angel’s Mouth shortly after sunset, and in Torland by evening.
“Why?” asked Vidre. She arched an eyebrow, but kept circling him carefully all the same. Her defense was not quite ironclad, but the flaws she’d put into it were subtle, and difficult to see.
“Lightscour means to test himself,” said Welexi with a laugh. “He wants to see whether he is worthy of a place among us.”
“More or less,” said Dominic. He had never really felt that he wasn’t worthy of a place on the ship. He only wanted to know how much further he truly had to go. There was a strong element of masochism in his request.
“Fine,” said Vidre with a shrug. “We’ll pretend it’s an exhibition match. I’ll only hold back enough to prevent your death.” Her stance changed slightly, and the small imperfections which Dominic had been on the edge of seeing disappeared entirely. Her daggers were blunt, but he knew from experience that they still hurt. His own sword was as blunt as he could make it, and couldn’t cut through glass; whatever method Welexi used to slice straight through armor had not yet been taught to him, if it was even a trick that shadow could do. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Dominic stepped slowly. The more they’d practiced, the more he found the ship constraining; there were too many obstructions, and too many people nearby. Vidre had said that real fights often took place in cramped quarters, and that this was good training, but pacing the same section of deck for hours on end had only increased his yearning to run. Still, there were peculiarities to this landscape, and he could use them. You couldn’t step too close to the mast, or risk being backed up against it. He had been proud of himself for seeing it some days earlier before he realized that Vidre meant for him to see it. He could force her to put herself in a position where she had to change direction though, and that might be enough.
She easily parried his first attack with one of her daggers, and stabbed him in the gut with the other, hard enough that he was sure it would bruise, even with the armor he was wearing.
“You’re dead,” said Vidre. “Sorry.”
They backed away from each other, and began circling again. He waited until she had to change direction, and brought his shadow blade down hard. She dodged to the side, as though his attack were the most predictable thing in the world, and slammed him against the temple with the butt of one of her daggers. “Dead again.”
Dominic’s head swam briefly, and they were back to circling. He was beginning to regret asking for this, but it was better to know his limits. She was right though; it would have been easy enough for her to drive the blade straight into his brain. The daggers could be made sharp enough to slice a falling hair lengthwise; sharpness was part of the nature of the domain of glass.
He came at her hard the third time. He swept his sword in from the side, an uncontrolled hacking motion that was calculated to seem like it was borne of frustration. When she saw his fist it was too late, and his punch landed right on her mouth. She swore and stepped back, then rubbed at her jaw. When she pulled her hand back, Dominic could see that her lip was bleeding.
“I’m sorry,” he began.
“No,” replied Vidre. She smiled, and touched her lip. “You did better than I had expected.”
His heart swelled at the compliment, and at the fact that he’d been able to land a single hit against one of the most powerful illustrati in the world. His excitement was ungentlemanly, and he tried to hide it, but he wasn’t quite able to hide his smile. Vidre was going to make him pay for that.
“We’ll call it quits for today,” she said. “I don’t want to risk going before the court too badly marked by you, and there’s still a wealth of review for you to do. I think you’re almost ready for polite society.”
Dominic didn’t even complain.
Torland was just past the Angel’s Mouth that separated the Calypso Sea from the Pensic Ocean, a large island that sat within view of the civilized continents. It was known for its mountains, though the few flat areas with wide meadows were where the vast majority of its people lived. In recent years, as the colonies to the west had begun to flourish, the capital of Meriwall had become a bustling port for every ship that sought to pass from within the Calypso Sea. It was the last place a ship could stop at if they wished to cross the Pensic with full supplies, or needed to fix a last-minute problem with their hull, mast, or sails. The mountains at the heart of the island towered over the fields and towns that clung to the outer edges of Torland. The largest of them was a dead volcano, and while Dominic had heard that there was a sleeping demon at its heart, he had long thought that this was merely another legend. Looking at Tor Craighorn looming above the island, almost impossibly tall, it was easy to see why people felt the need to tell tales about it.
The first thing anyone leaving the Calypso saw of Torland was the Face. It was an immense figure carved into the mountain at a massive scale. His expression was enigmatic. His lip was slightly curled. One eyebrow was slightly raised. He seemed to be looking at you no matter where you viewed him from. Some people found the Face to be looking out on the continents with disgust; others thought it was bemusement. He could seem paternal or oppressive, and sometimes both at the same time. The scale was so large it practically beggared belief. The entire city of Gennaro could have been turned on its side and laid across the carving, and it wouldn’t have reached from cheek to cheek.
The Face was King Laith’s; he had sought to make himself immortal. Fame made you stronger, faster, and better able to recover from wounds, or simply not take them in the first place. When Laith had begun to age, he had thought that the solution was simply to acquire more fame. He wasn’t the first of the illustrati, but he was the first of the modern era. He paid far-flung missionaries to spread his image and name across the known world, and funded expeditions to seek out peoples who had never had contact with civilization. He ordered his subjects to worship him for two hours every day, kneeling before his image and singing songs of adoration. And on the mountain that gave Torland its name, he carved the image of his face, so large that it was a miracle that the project had ever been completed.
King Laith had died all the same.
“Laith said he’d return one day,” said Welexi. His eyes were fixed on the stone face, still miles away from them. “On his deathbed, he knew that all the fame in the world couldn’t save him, so he cast his hope in another direction. He had heard stories of reincarnation, and souls unhooked from their bodies. He gathered up people who would tell him what he wanted to hear.” Welexi shook his head. “Laith is another of the wasteful dead that siphon from the pool of fame.”
“Is fame limited like that?” asked Dominic.
“You’ve been lazy about your reading,” said Vidre.
“There was a lot to read,” said Dominic. Mostly he’d stuck to the biographies, and then only the ones that entertained him.
“Well, the answer is yes,” Vidre replied. “Fame is limited.”
“The are several schools of thought,” said Gaelwyn. “I know quite a few men who would argue over these things. Vidre is right, but she cuts the debate down to only its conclusion, and there are those who would disagree with her stating it so bluntly. It’s actually one of the Five Questions, what happens to the so-called fame directed at the fictitious or deceased.”
“If Laith has ensured his legend, he has diminished ours,” said Welexi. “We are robbed of power, power to do good, because Laith was afraid of death. That is that.”
After that, the waves lapped against the ship in silence.
Welexi took flight when they were a mile out, against Gaelwyn’s advice. The red-headed doctor had frowned at the sight of those enormous wings sprouting from Welexi’s back, but Dominic had felt a rare sense of wonder at seeing a man fly through the air. The ship was tacking against the wind, and Welexi flew on ahead of it. He could be seen swooping down over Meriwall, passing over the people in order to announce their arrival.
“How does it work?” asked Dominic.
“The wings?” asked Gael. Dominic nodded. “Welexi spent years, maybe decades, trying to get them to work. He made a study of birds and spoke with natural philosophers. There are diagrams of how the air moves that I’m sure he could show you. He worked with many illustrati of different domains in order to perfect the design.”
“I’m not sure that answered my question,” said Dominic. Welexi was a point of light, clearly visible only when he made a turn in the air and began to flap his wings again.
“He uses his power to shape the wings,” said Gael. “The structure takes a great deal of attention, and he needs a mirror to watch as he forms it. There are something like muscles in it, parts of the construct that he can pull at in a way that’s become natural to him now, after years of patience. The wing pushes against the air and provides him with lift. Beyond that, you would have to ask him, but in most respects he flies just like a bird does.”
“And I could do that someday?” asked Dominic. He imagined wings with black feathers, like a raven, flying over foreign cities at night and looking down on the lights below him.
Vidre laughed. “Well, that’s the source of your curiosity at least. And no, it doesn’t seem likely that you’ll be able to fly. I’ve known more than one illustrati with the domain of air that’s tried to get flight working, not to mention those with other less likely domains, and Welexi is the only one who’s managed it.”
“Shadow isn’t supposed to be common,” said Dominic. “So maybe no one was ever famous enough to have the power for it.”
Welexi landed back on the deck and folded his wings behind him until they were only a small pack of light resting on his back. He frowned at his maimed right hand and reformed the light around it. The effect was mostly for aesthetic purposes; they’d taken dinner together a few times, and Welexi had always held his fork in his other hand.
“Torland is looking well,” said Welexi. “Dom, prepare yourself for the unpleasant smells of the world’s busiest port. Vidre, be ready for trouble.”
“What sort of trouble?” asked Vidre.
“Kendrick Eversong, the Blood Bard,” said Welexi. He spat the name. “I spotted him on the streets, and believe he was coming to the docks to greet our arrival. He’s never been violent in the past, at least not towards other illustrati, but my injury might change that.”
Vidre shrugged. “Four on one wouldn’t be odds he’d be willing to take. It’s the spectacle that concerns me.”
Dominic couldn’t help but feel some elation at the fact that she’d included him.
Meriwall wasn’t built on the sea; it was a mile up a thick, sluggish river that was visible from a distance as a forest of ship masts and a line of low buildings. The crowds had gathered to greet them long before they reached the city proper. It began as small clusters of workers who had taken a break to see the Zenith come in, but by the time they reached their dock just outside the high walls that gave Meriwall its name, the crowds were so thick it was hard to see where the mass of people ended. Dominic had avoided the crowds that surrounded the illustrati in Gennaro. He wondered if the reception in Gennaro had been like this one was. His sense of the illustrati as enormous figures of myth had returned to him with a vengeance.
Dominic wore the same purple clothing, overlaid with a simple breastplate of shadow. The clothing had been cleaned and tailored by one of the sailors. They fit him better now, but Vidre still frowned at the tights and cape, and told him they’d need to get him fitted for something more iconic when he made his debut at court. She had on the same suit of glass armor as she’d had when they’d left Gennaro. It hugged her form and presented hard, shiny surfaces. She’d also fashioned a circlet of glass around her head, which held her hair in place. Welexi had on the same damaged suit of armor from before, though the quick alterations that Vidre had made to it had been refined, and now it looked more perfect in its state of ruin. It would be replaced once they had a spare moment in Meriwall.
Gaelwyn stood back from the others, and didn’t present himself to the crowds in the same way that Welexi or Vidre did. From time to time the wind would carry a shouted word to the ship, “Red Angel”, and from the way that Gaelwyn’s jaw tightened, it was clear that he wasn’t taking this as a compliment. The connection was slow in coming, but when Dominic put the thoughts together they twisted in his gut. Gaelwyn Mottram had been given prisoners of war, and this was the country that the bulk of them must have come from.
The lion’s share of the crowd wasn’t shouting dissent. Most people were there to see Welexi in all his shining glory, or Vidre in her faceted armor. They cheered loudly as the ship made dock, and the sailors moved forward to guard against anyone trying to get aboard. Dominic saw more than one woman trying to push her way through with tears streaming down her face. That sort of reaction was precisely why Dominic had always avoided the illustrati. He’d seen the gathered crowds a few times, but there was something unseemly about them, just as there was something unseemly about the crowds that watched him race across the rooftops.
“Ohhhhhhhh,” sang a loud voice from within the crowds. People turned towards it, and a pair of hands lifted up a man with a lute above the surrounding press of people. He was dressed in a crimson red, with black tights and a large red hat that sat slightly askew. He had pale white skin and a black goatee, with a slightly pinched face and a wide smile. His voice rang out with a note that was throaty and loud, enough to pierce the murmur of the crowd. It was a toughened voice, one lubricated with ale. His identity was easy to guess. When the Blood Bard was properly elevated, he began to strum his lute, and sing a song that the crowds went silent for.
Is easy to mock,
He’s cowardly as a chick-en
He runs from the fight,
Off into the night,
For fear of gettin’ a lickin’!
During the siege of Arronbach,
The powdersmoke was thick,
Welexi went to the doctor,
And played at being sick!
Ask me any questions,
About this man I know,
To tell it true Welexi is,
As low as a man can go!
He’s fought the villain Zerstor,
A time or three or four,
He arranged the fights ahead of time,
And Zerstor faked his roar!
I do not call him rapist,
Nor exaggerate his misdeeds,
But he’s a crooked cowardly craven,
Always aiming to mislead!
He travels around with Vidre,
A woman clad in glass,
She’s a spoiled brat, a murderer,
And a whore of the highest class!
The men of the realm must love her,
They call her a saucy lass,
In exchange she likes to bend over,
And let them take her in the ass!
As the song had gone on, Vidre’s armor had changed. Sharp black shards had grown from it, and the spikes elongated. Her face was a mask of barely restrained anger. Welexi had not changed his expression at all, only folded his arms across his chest while he waited for the bard to finish. Neither made any attempt to interrupt him. Gaelwyn shrank back with downcast eyes. Dominic deliberated on his response. He didn’t know what his own part was. The authentic response would simply have been confusion, but while half the crowd was watching the bard sing his song, cheering or booing at some particular line, the other half was watching the crew of the Zenith. Dominic settled for crossing his arms in front of him like Welexi had done. He twisted his mouth and furrowed his brow, and hoped that he looked more upset than befuddled. As the song reached its end, and the affront settled in, it became far less of an act.
“A pleasant enough song, if you enjoy flights of fancy,” said Welexi. His voice was calm and even, and projected for a wide audience. The noise of the crowd was low. People were hanging on every word, and Welexi was speaking past Kendrick to them. “Doggerel verse isn’t enough to change a person’s mind, especially when your lyrics are soaked through with jealousy and irrational hatred. A better man would speak of his own deeds rather than belittle someone else, but perhaps that would be easier if you had accomplished anything of note.”
“Ah, well, if it’s actions you want,” said Kendrick with a grin. His eyes shifted towards Gael. “I did happen to write another verse.” He strummed his lute again and began to sing before Welexi could interject.
His name is Gael Mottram,
The Harbinger of Death,
He’ll cut your vital organs out,
Until there’s nothing left.
Mottram’s killed a hundred,
He’s ripped their flesh apart,
He cut off legs,
He tore out hearts,
He gouged out eyes,
He’s used dark arts,
He’s eaten brains,
And bo-dy parts!
Now he travels the ocean,
Free as a man can be,
His crimes have been forgiven,
By her royal majesty!
But Mottram killed my father,
In ways both vile and cruel,
So Mottram, for your recompense,
I challenge you to a duel.
Kendrick Eversong gave a deep bow to the crowd, and there were scattered cheers among them. A hulking man pushed his way between the sailors. He carried a thick package wrapped in a crimson cloth that matched the bard’s outfit, and as the Zenith’s sailors began to push him back, he threw the package overhand towards the deck of the ship. Vidre blurred forward and caught it without any apparent effort on her part.
“The terms of the duel,” said Kendrick. “Negotiable. You know where to find me once you’ve thought it over.” He began to strum on his lute again, humming the tune loudly. “Of course I know that dear Gaelwyn is a pacifist, so I suppose it shall be the two of us, shan’t it Whitespear?”
It was a trap. That was clear enough. Gaelwyn had committed a host of crimes against the people of Torland, or at least they believed that he had, which was the important bit. It hadn’t been mentioned at all in the course of Dominic’s rapid education, but there was little doubt that this was a point of tension the bard was tugging at. The Blood Bard was a bit player in the scheme of things, formerly employed by the illustrati before he’d raised his profile. He wanted a duel to increase his standing, and had chosen Gaelwyn because it was a justifiable way to get at Welexi. The motive was unclear. Having the champion of good defend Gaelwyn’s supposed experiments would do damage, certainly, and there was little doubt that the Peddler’s War was underpinning this whole thing in one way or another. That was as far as Dominic’s thinking got before it seemed as though he would lose his window of opportunity.
“I’ll stand in Gael’s place,” said Dominic. He moved up, past Welexi and Vidre. “I was nine years old when the Peddler’s War ended, and had no stake in it. I don’t step forward to retread the past. I step forward because for as long as I’ve known him, Gaelwyn Mottram has been a kind and caring man.” The words came quickly, projected out to the crowd with a voice he’d practiced at sea.
Kendrick Eversong, the Blood Bard, nodded as though this were the most natural result of his challenge. “Very well then. I’ll kill you in three days time, at Amare’s Theater, and Gaelwyn’s life will be forfeited immediately after.” He rose his hands, holding his lute high. “All are welcome to enjoy the spectacle!”
If you want to hear the song from this chapter (sung by my friend David), click this link.