Kendrick Eversong had been sipping on a mid-morning ale when a young boy came into the tavern, hollering about Welexi Sunhawk flying overhead.
The last piece of correspondence from Gennaro had arrived three days ago, which meant that it was nearly two weeks out of date. At that time, word had been that Welexi was intending to sail to Parance, which likely meant another two weeks until he came to Meriwall, if he kept to his patterns. Something had changed, but it was a mystery as to what. When Kendrick had worked as Welexi’s bard, he was always dealing with stories coming in weeks or even months after they’d happened, responding to events that had happened ages ago. By the time word of a broken siege in Lerabor reached Meriwall, the siege had already been over for weeks. It had been a pain then, and it was a pain now, but Kendrick got up and went to work.
The man that carried him was named Clarence. He was short but wide, and extremely muscular, and had been chosen from among the Council of Laborers for precisely those reasons. The idea was for Kendrick to be held high above the heads of the gathered crowd, moving along as though he was floating. It was important for Clarence to be short so that he wouldn’t be too visible to the crowds and draw attention to himself. Clarence and Kendrick had practiced together in a warehouse where racks of lamb were curing, until they could move together in a way that didn’t betray the amount of balance and strength it took.
“Something’s wrong with Welexi’s hand,” said a wiry man from within the Council. He was slightly out of breath, with news that was only minutes out-of-date instead of weeks. “And there’s another illustrati with him, looks like shadow.”
“Gaelwyn and Vidre are on the ship?” asked Kendrick.
The wiry man nodded. It was really the long-awaited moment then. Kendrick had to resist the urge to show his anxiety. If only the Zenith weren’t so fast, he wouldn’t have so many gaps in his knowledge. The landscape had changed, and the gambit was now far less certain. There was a strong argument to be made for holding off and waiting for more information to come in, but theatrics demanded that the challenge happen now, when everyone would be assembled and the crowds would be thick. There was no guarantee that he would be able to get all three of them together in public again; Vidre in particular liked to slip off the ship at the first opportunity. In Kendrick’s experience, news traveled in waves, and if you timed things wrong you would end up with those waves crashing into each other instead of adding their force to one another. No, it had to be now, whatever the risks.
When the Zenith docked, Kendrick was lifted up, and sang the song he’d been practicing for ages. From his new vantage point he could see Welexi’s hand; “something’s wrong” had been understating it by a wide margin, given that most of the fingers were missing. Vidre was looking as radiant as ever, even with her mask of anger. Yet Kendrick’s eyes kept going to the newcomer, the unknown element dressed in unfashionable clothing and a breastplate made of shadow, with shaggy curls of hair and a mildly confused look on his face.
When the man – no, the boy – stepped forward to accept the duel, Kendrick almost faltered. Yet he had honed his skills in improvisation over the course of a decade and a half, and he decided to run with it and figure everything out later. He wanted desperately to stay, to ask what in the hell was going on, or simply to listen to the speech that Welexi was about to give, but the narrative had to be centered on the duel, and that meant making an exit instead of heckling.
A slight movement of the foot got Clarence moving through the crowds, and Kendrick strummed his lute as though he had not a single care in the world.
The Blood Bard retreated, held aloft. He hummed his tune and idly played his lute, while Dominic watched him go.
Dominic nearly jumped when he felt a firm hand on his shoulder. He looked to the side, and saw Welexi standing next to him, with a benevolent smile on his face.
“This young man is Lightscour,” Welexi said to the crowd. “Ten days ago he was living a hardscrabble life on the streets of Gennaro. Nine days ago he killed the Titan of Rust and Ruin.” Ripples went through the crowd, hushed murmurs and gasps of disbelief. Welexi held up his ruined hand, the one with fingers of light, and the masses again went silent. “Tonight at Amare’s Theater, just after sundown, I’ll tell the tale of how I took this wound. And three days after that, Lightscour will prove the strength of his convictions on that same stage.”
He smiled wide, and the crowd burst into cacophony as people talked loudly to each other and shouted questions at Welexi. He merely gave a bow to them, and turned to the others. “The Flower Queen will expect us at Grayhull in not too much longer.”
When Dominic saw Vidre’s face, he took a slight, involuntary step backwards. He had thought he had seen all her shades of anger before, from the cold threatening calms to the primal fires of passionate rage, but this was something else entirely. He could see her anger in her eyes, and the slight tightness in the muscles of her face, but it was restrained; there was a mask in place. She was going to yell at him later, he’d known that as soon as the idea of stepping forward had occurred to him, but now he was worried that she was going to do him some actual physical harm.
“To Grayhull,” said Vidre with a nod. “This was an inauspicious start to our time in Meriwall.” She focused on her armor, and the spikes and shards it had been protruding began to retract in. There was a slight twitch to her cheek as her eyes passed over Dominic and Welexi. “Let’s hope that the Flower Queen’s Court is in better shape than we left it.”
They proceeded through the crowds with the sailors accompanying them. The crowds were oppressive, and more noisy than they’d been in Gennaro. The people of the Sovento States were well-known for being self-assured, confident, and oftentimes even boastful; that was part of their cultural charm, and Dominic had grown up hearing jokes and stories where the men from Gennaro, Triana, and Ponticelli were always trying to top each other. The Soventian peoples were often compared to an excitable dog by foreigners, which Dominic had never taken to be terribly insulting.
In contrast, the Toric people were simply loud. It was perhaps unfair for him to judge a whole nation by their reception in the capital city, but the voices weren’t as expressive as they were in Gennaro, despite the volume. All the questions, even the pleasant ones, had a slight undercurrent, as though it would be an affront for no answer to be given. Many of the questions weren’t pleasant at all.
“Did you work with Zerstor?” screamed one of the men who got too close to Welexi. The man was shoved back by the sailors, and Welexi kept walking, addressing his answer to the crowd.
“Zerstor is dead, and I’ve lost the use of my hand,” said Welexi. “Kendrick Eversong is a petty, bitter man looking only to muddy clear waters in pursuit of his own fame. After the tale you’ll hear tonight, there will be little doubt of that.”
The crowd didn’t just want answers to their questions. They tried to tell breathless stories past the guards, with desperate faces that barely paid attention to the road. Men shouted marriage proposals to Vidre. Dominic had seen the hangers-on who followed Vidre around in Gennaro, but that had been after nine days, when she was no longer a novelty in the city. It wasn’t just adoration, or curiosity, it was a rawness of emotion that extended all along the spectrum; hatred and despair were readily apparent, and not just directed in the ways that Dominic would have expected. A few people were calling Welexi a coward, or a traitor. Perhaps Torland was worse than other places, but Dominic could scarcely imagine putting himself through this same reception every time they made port. Yet that seemed like what it was going to be, if he made it through the duel.
All along the way to Grayhull, the only time they paused was when a mother thrust her son before Gaelwyn. The boy was weak, and sickly looking. It was a matter of two minutes for Gaelwyn to fix the boy’s heart. The procession began moving again shortly afterward, but not before Dominic heard people shouting unkind things at the woman.
Grayhull Palace was an enormous building that stretched its three wings wide across the city, each the same size and shape as the others. It was given its name from the flat gray of it, which matched the visage of Laith’s Face looming in the distance behind it. It was ornamented with gargoyles and shaped stone, and the vast walls were marked with immense bas reliefs which depicted scenes from the history of Toric rule. The palace was surrounded by carefully manicured grounds and expansive gardens, which gave a buffer of defensible space and privacy for the royal family. The Queen of Flowers was well-known for inviting commoners in to visit once a week in order to see the majesty that her domain had produced. The crowds were left behind at the front gates, and a half dozen guards became their new escort. It was a display of ceremony and nothing more; if the illustrati had been attacked, the guards would be nearly useless, and if the illustrati had been attacking, the guards would quickly die. The last nine days had impressed upon Dominic the gap between the illustrati and normal men.
They were led into a tastefully appointed receiving room to wait for the Flower Queen’s attention. When the doors closed, Welexi sagged and staggered to lay down on a chaise lounge with floral embroidery. He was sweating and slightly pale. All of the pent-up conversation came flowing out.
“You should have let them carry you,” said Gaelwyn. He rested his hand on Welexi’s. “Six weeks at a minimum, I was clear on that, showing a little humanity wouldn’t have been the worst thing.”
“You doubled down,” Vidre said to Welexi. The pretenses had dropped, and there was no compassion. “We need to have a plan in place for when Dominic dies, a way to mitigate the disaster and ensure that Gaelwyn isn’t killed. We shouldn’t even let it get to that. We’d take a hit if we back out, but there’s nothing compelling the duel besides honor and pride, and I could take Dominic’s place —”
“It was a masterstroke,” said Welexi. He groaned slightly as he shifted. “The Blood Bard set it up. He insulted us. He brought the Peddler’s War to the forefront with his song. The siege of Arronbach? Just the name of it is enough for the veterans or their widows to feel a stirring. Most likely the Blood Bard has been whispering into ears since the moment we left. The song was a direct challenge to me, with Gaelwyn as a proxy, bringing up old memories and forcing my hand. I could have beaten him soundly in a duel, but no doubt he was prepared for that, either to make himself a martyr, or because he would know that clemency was expected of me.” He turned to Dominic and smiled. “The Blood Bard had a plan, but the masterstroke was Lightscour’s.”
“I only took the opportunity when I saw it,” said Dominic.
“If he touches you, flesh to flesh, he’ll be able to move your blood,” said Vidre. “The first thing he’ll do is to draw it down from your head. You’ll go light-headed then unconscious in a matter of seconds, and from there he’ll desecrate your body before killing you. So you’ll wear armor to prevent that. He’ll force blood through the cracks and gaps in it. He’ll push blood down your throat until you choke, just like Cerulean Bane tried to do to me. I can make my armor airtight, but you can barely make a breastplate for yourself. Even if you could find or produce armor with few enough gaps in it that Kendrick couldn’t push blood through, how would you hope to defeat him?” She clenched her teeth together. “He doesn’t bleed unless he wants to. You could give him a thousand cuts and he wouldn’t spill a drop of blood. Stab him through the heart and he’ll use his domain to keep his blood moving. He’d die when he went to sleep, but that would still give him more than enough time to beat you. He can restore the vital essence to his blood without needing to breathe, and that means that he’s not going to tire out, not until his muscles start physically failing him, and you’ll have dropped long before that happens. In a fight to the death, he doesn’t need his lungs, or his heart, or his vital organs. You’ll have to break his bones and slice through connective tissue to stop him, and he knows this, so he can just dance back and forth all day while spewing insults and wearing you down.”
Dominic felt his stomach turn. He hadn’t realized how dire the situation was, in part because he’d known little about the domain of blood. He was trying to find a loophole somewhere, a way that he could ensure that he would win. A single decisive strike to the head would do it, but the Blood Bard would know that too, and defend against it —
Welexi gave a weak laugh from where he was lying. “I appreciate the theatrics, but these are problems that can be overcome,” he said. “I have every confidence in Lightscour’s ability to triumph over the Blood Bard. He’s disrupted whatever plans were in motion, and turned the narrative in our direction.”
“Until he loses,” said Vidre. “What do we do when Dominic’s blood is dripping through the floorboards of the stage?”
“The path is set,” said Welexi. He waved his hand in an idle motion. “The first half of the story has been told, and unless you have a better idea for how we might conclude it, we must continue on with what we have haphazardly planned. The story has a natural flow to it. You must remember that the Blood Bard is not so strong as Sanguin was; Dominic is not in so much danger as you would have it.”
It seemed as though Vidre was about to offer a retort, no doubt about how quickly Dominic would die, but the doors to the room opened, and an attendant with a ruffled collar stepped in.
“The Flower Queen, Her Majesty Gwyndellon Gloriana of the House Walton, will see you now.”
The throne room was enormous, and took up three full stories in the center of Greyhull. The walls were the same smooth gray of the building’s exterior, curved where they met the floor to give an impression of trees, and the ceiling was an elaborate creation of iron and glass that let through the morning sunlight. The floor was covered in flowers, and flower petals, in a wider variety than Dominic had ever seen in his life; the air smelled almost sickly sweet with their fragrance. It was a riot of color, and laying on the throne, with her bare feet up in the air, was the Queen of Flowers. She kicked her legs and smiled wide when they walked in, showing pearly white teeth.
While they were announced by the attendant (with “His Illustriousness”, save for Vidre, who was technically a Queen and followed that styling) Dominic looked at the Flower Queen’s court. The Flower Queen was a slim woman with slightly elfin features, and a youthful, girlish look that couldn’t possibly have been natural; she was nearing fifty years old. She wore a dress made from orange and purple flowers which left her shoulders bare, and her hair was down and flowing freely. To her right was her husband, Steelminder, who was more clearly showing his age with a gray mustache that matched the walls and slightly red cheeks that spoke of too much ale.
Ringed around them were more than a dozen illustrati, most of them clad in their domains: a woman with hair of fire, a man with yellow eyes flanked by two hounds, elaborate metal armors and bright colors on everyone he saw, each trying to be distinct. Dominic had been made to memorize the details of two hundred people, and was thankful that he wasn’t being tested on his study just yet. He was sure that the woman whose head was on fire was Ember, and he could make a fair guess at the rest, but he would be in trouble if he was thrown into freely mingling with them.
“Sunhawk!” trilled the Flower Queen the moment the attendant was done with his droning introductions. The Flower Queen leapt up from her gilded throne and strode towards them with her hands on her hips. “It has been far, far too long.” She reached towards Welexi and wrapped him in a hug, then pulled back and looked at his maimed hand. Her eyes went wide for a moment as she tried to focus on it, then she blinked once slowly. “But whatever happened to your hand? And your sword hand at that!” She shrieked slightly, as though she had just seen a mouse.
“A fight with Zerstor, Your Majesty,” said Welexi. He held the hand up and flexed the fingers of light with a fair bit of concentration. “I’m on the mend, you need not worry about that.”
The Flower Queen’s head turned towards Vidre, and her body followed sluggishly afterward. “And my fellow Queen, of the poor, misbegotten country of Geswein. You look as lovely as my flowers, as you always have.”
“Your Majesty,” said Vidre with a small curtsy. “We had heard there were troubles, and came to lend our aid.”
“Oh, plenty of time for that later,” said the Queen, “I would hate to talk business so soon after you’ve set foot on Toric soil, it would be terrible form, especially before I’ve talked to Gaelwyn.” She smiled towards the physician and stepped close to him. “Gaelwyn, I’ve received the most interesting book on botany from the algalif of Maskoy, ‘Meditations on the Heart of the Palm’, but I’ve been having a little trouble with some of the terminology, and I’d like a little of your time. In private, shall we say?” She gave an exaggerated wink that had to be obvious to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. “You are so knowledgeable in matters of natural philosophy, if you catch my meaning.”
She turned towards Dominic, and he realized her pupils were too wide. “And that brings us to this new young creature,” she said slowly. Her words were not quite slurred, but it was a close thing. “Lightscour. From the Sovento States, I can always tell a man from there, and you are a fine specimen, aren’t you? Another student of natural philosophy, if I dare to say it.”
She turned to Welexi. “A stranger in our midst, in these troubled times.” She blinked slowly at Welexi. “Did you know, I bought you a hawk?” She pouted slightly. “There was a merchant in from the far east, and the hawk he had looked just like you. Very brown, if you’ll forgive me saying so. I thought it would be a wonderful present, but we fed it too many grapes, and it perished after only a week.”
The throne room went silent, save for a polite cough, but there was nothing more to that story.
“If you’re feeling unwell, ma’am,” said Vidre, “Perhaps we might speak with your advisers and allow you to rest.”
The Flower Queen sagged. “Oh yes, of course, the matter of the Council of Laborers, such a dreadful thing. A small dispute over trade and they think that they have some leverage over me, as though I’m a boulder they wish to stick their pole under and shove out of the way.” She tittered slightly and bit her lip. “Perhaps they do not know how often boulders crush people?”
The Flower Queen wasn’t drunk, Dominic was fairly sure of that. It wasn’t malum either, because that put people straight out and left them incapable of rational thought. Yet he was certain that he wasn’t far off the mark; the Flower Queen had ingested something that was making her act like this, and given the reactions he’d been glimpsing in those moments that he took his eyes off the Queen, this was embarrassing for everyone involved. For all that he had etiquette drilled into him, he was unprepared for this situation.
“There will be a show tonight, ma’am,” said Welexi. “Just after sunset at Amare’s Theater. If you’ve had a chance to have something to eat by then, we would appreciate if you would come, but in the meantime we have much to prepare for, and a number of people that we will need to meet with, including your advisers.”
“Yes,” said the Flower Queen with a distant voice. “Yes, yes, I see.” She drifted back to her throne, where Ember took her by the elbow. The Flower Queen began to cry.
The Flower Queen’s husband caught up with them just outside the throne room.
“She’s gotten worse,” said Steelminder. His gray mustache did little to conceal his frown. Dominic couldn’t remember the man’s age, but the illustrati almost certainly looked older than he was, in contrast to the queen. “Ember has been helping her to make a concentrated form of the flower, a tar instead of a syrup, and my wife’s desire grows by the day. This business with the Laborers has only pushed her harder, and there’s talk that the Iron Kingdom might seek to reignite the war.”
“We should have been told, your Royal Highness,” said Welexi. “We’re to understand that this is a continuous condition?”
“No,” said Steelminder. “No, but the moments of true sobriety — the moments when she chooses to be lucid — are getting further apart. There are diplomats and advisers, and the other illustrati, and I do my best to help run the kingdom, but to usurp my queen entirely is something I could never do. Once this business with the Laborers is cleared up we can try to bring her down gently, to wean her, but with the stresses being as they are, I think you can understand the difficulty we’re in.”
“We will do what we can,” said Welexi.
“There is the unfortunate matter of payment,” said Vidre. “Your Royal Highness, I mean no disrespect, but we are at your service for several things, and fully internal matters are not one of them unless we can strike a new deal.”
Steelminder looked between the two of them, and his frown deepened. “This matter is quite a bit deeper than that,” he said. His eyes met with Vidre’s. “I should think that you of all people would understand that a kingdom is never too far from being torn down by its subjects.”
“The king of Geswein spent too little time on administration,” said Vidre as she folded her arms. “He was more concerned with doting on his wife, and that was to the detriment of his subjects. Geswein is my home, of course it is, but I do feel some sympathy for those who felt that they could do better. If the fate of a country is at the whims of someone who would rather eat flowers, then perhaps your subjects deserve —”
“It’s barely noon, and we’ve had a long day already,” said Welexi. His hand rested on Vidre’s arm, and she shrugged it off. “If it wouldn’t be too much of a burden on your hospitality, might we be able to find some meats and cheese while we speak with your advisers about this trouble with the Laborers?”
Steelminder narrowed his eyes, and his mustache moved back and forth. “Yes, of course.”
They were set up in a large room with windows that overlooked the gardens and statuary outside, and plate of food was brought to them shortly afterward with a wide variety of food on it. Gaelwyn excused himself shortly after eating to go set up in Meriwall’s hospitals. Before he left, he pulled Dominic aside.
“Thank you,” he said. Gaelwyn was fidgeting with his apron. “Even if it was just a ploy, just cynicism to increase your own fame, the words were meaningful to me. No one but Welexi has ever stood up for me before.”
“I — it wasn’t, you’re my friend,” said Dominic. Yet there was a small part of him that recognized that his actions had little to do with Gaelwyn, and the Blood Bard’s song had been echoing through Dominic’s head enough to wonder how much of Gaelwyn’s past was yet to be revealed.
The advisers came in, and a long meeting began.
The central conflict was between the Council of Laborers and a small group of merchants, and this was about where Dominic lost the thread. It wasn’t that he wasn’t trying to pay attention, it was that a glorified trade dispute seemed to have little to do with him, and all that aside, Welexi and Vidre seemed ready with all of the questions.
The table they sat at was finely made, with matching chairs. It showed the imprint of an illustrati; there were no joints in it, and nowhere that they could have been hidden, which was a way of making the craftsmanship more obvious. The patterns of the lacquered wood were like nothing that you would find in nature, with warps and whorls that caught the eye and held an artistry of their own. As Dominic understood it, craftsmanship was looked down on by the illustrati save for when it could produce something with an aesthetically pleasing appearance. A fair number of the statues in Gennaro had been shaped by someone with the domain of stone, and the Zenith was a product of illustrati hands, which was part of the reason that it was so quick across the seas. As a general rule, illustrati made armor for individuals, not armies, and it wasn’t solely because most of them didn’t have the ability. Vidre could have gone to work repairing windows or crafting glassware, but for the most part she devoted her time to the business of being an illustrati.
“— because we can’t simply kill them,” Vidre was saying. Dominic quickly tried to figure out where the conversation had been, but he hadn’t been paying the slightest attention to what was said.
“I’m sorry,” said Dominic. “What?”
Vidre scowled at him. “I was saying that this is a problem, because we can’t simply kill them,” she said.
“I believe Lightscour has been gathering wool,” said Welexi. He smiled slightly. “Vidre was saying that we can’t kill the illustrati in question, because that would weaken the nation far too much in terms of offensive and defensive capabilities, and if we’re to assume that the Iron King is looking for a continuation of the Peddler’s War, this would strip away much of Torland’s deterrent.”
“That assumes that the Iron King isn’t behind the incipient rebellion in the first place,” said one of the advisers, a pinched-faced man with thinning hair.
“Even if he is, this is likely a way to damage Torland in preparation,” said Vidre. “It’s not his way to weaken someone and then ally with them.”
“The Iron King is nearing ninety years old,” said Welexi. “He was slowing down, even at the end of the Peddler’s War. The news has been sporadic from within the Iron Kingdom of late; he hasn’t made a public appearance in nearly a year.”
“How does the Blood Bard fit in with all this?” asked Dominic. He desperately hoped that this wasn’t something that had been covered while he was staring blankly at the finely made table.
“Unknown,” said Vidre. She raised an eyebrow and looked at Dominic. “The Peddler’s War is a point of discontent. Gaelwyn’s war crimes will be brought up, which reflects poorly on the Flower Queen given that she pardoned him. They’ll paint it like she cared nothing for the men and women that died in his labs, which is a part of the larger narrative of a woman disconnected from the people she nominally rules. Amare’s Theater holds eighty thousand people. Kendrick will be speaking to them, ready to drive the point home. Our options are all terrible. Intervention from the Flower Queen exacerbates matters; it would be like offering a pardon all over again, maybe worse. Pulling out of the duel now, having already accepted it, would make us cowards and let them say that the illustrati don’t have to answer to the common people.”
“But you said that the rebellion was illustrati,” said Dominic.
“No, if you’d been listening, I said that there are illustrati at the forefront,” said Vidre. “Almost by definition a leader needs fame, save for the masked statesmen of Kenning. It’s a common enough ploy; you pretend to care about the common people, gain their trust and respect, and use it to propel yourself to the top. That was what happened in Geswein. The merchants said that they were making a democracy, which became a representative democracy, and all the representatives happened to be within the same small group of merchants. The same thing will happen here, unless we can stop it, except the punchline will be invasion by the Iron King. That’s without considering all the traitors within these walls.”
“Lightscour will win the duel,” said Welexi. “He was only recently a commoner, the son of a baker, risen up from poverty. How can they criticize someone who is at heart one of them? He’s from a different country, and a different culture, but he’s out of place within the nobility, and an outsider to these affairs in the way that you or I are not.”
Vidre sighed, and looked at the advisers, who were shuffling their papers around and trying not to be seen listening in. They hadn’t contributed in quite some time. “We need this win then. Dammit all.” She looked to Dominic. “Three days to find a way for that to happen.”
Dominic felt slightly sick as the conversation wound its way to other topics. The duel was seeming less and less like a good idea the more the prospect of it had been discussed. When he’d stepped forward, he’d thought that it would be a simple thing, almost like the sparring matches he’d had with Vidre, or the rooftop races. He knew how to fight now, that wasn’t at issue, but there was an enormity to this that was making him uneasy. Eighty thousand people would be watching if the theater was full, and it would decide — at least in part — the fate of this country, and possibly the entire shape of the world. He’d thought that the duel would be a sideshow of their time in Torland, but now it seemed like it would be the main event. Kendrick Eversong had no doubt given it a span of three days in order to drum up excitement and get the largest possible audience. Dominic was beginning to feel that it would also give him too much time to think.
Amare’s Theater was an enormous open-air structure with tiered seating that seemed to climb to the sky. It was a perfect half-circle with a large stage. People began filing in well before sunset in order to see the show that Welexi was about to perform. It was one of the largest buildings in all of Meriwall, visible from most the city, and Dominic was nearly dizzy just looking at it, let alone being inside it. The murmur of the crowds was diluted by the empty space, but the sheer volume of people was almost oppressive.
“We’re disrupting the performance of a play,” said Vidre. They sat behind the stage, and she was pacing back and forth. “Securing this place on such short notice was costly, as was hiring the choir.”
“We have money,” said Welexi. He was laying down, unmoving. Dominic didn’t have all the details, but he knew that Welexi would need all of his strength. The bones hadn’t had enough time to mend themselves. “This performance sets the narratives we need in place. It’s unconnected with the current state of politics in Torland, and helps to cement Lightscour as disruptive.”
“I was only mentioning it,” said Vidre. “Gaelwyn should have been here by now.”
“Is he in any danger out there?” asked Dominic. “If they truly hate him, will they try something?”
“He’ll be fine so long as he defends himself,” said Vidre.
“Will he?” asked Dominic. “He seems to think that perhaps … I don’t mean to say that I believe he’s so terrible, but the way he’s been trying to atone makes me think that he might imagine that taking a beating is his penance.”
“No matter,” said Vidre. “That’s him now.”
Gaelwyn was dragging his feet, and had a defeated look. He smiled weakly when he saw them, but the smile quickly fell.
“Eight people,” he said. “That was all that came to visit me, for all the hours I was there.”
Dominic had expected hundreds. He had thought that there would be a line around the hospital of people wanting to be cured of what ills he could erase with a touch, even given the stigma against the bodily domains. Gaelwyn had offered the same aid in Gennaro, and while Dominic hadn’t gone to see it himself, he knew that the work was mostly met with approval, in part because Gaelwyn was a physician above and beyond what his domain granted him. To have your flesh changed and warped was taboo, but having a doctor heal you was not, so it was easy to pretend that one was the other when it suited you.
He was going to ask Gaelwyn about it when the choir began to sing. Welexi stood up and walked onto the stage. The sun had fallen, and the lanterns that lit the theater had been snuffed. Save for the stars above and the voices of the choir, the theater was dark and quiet.
An enormous white man made of light appeared on the stage beside Welexi. He stood fifteen feet tall, and though Dominic was looking at it from behind, he could tell that the form was Welexi’s own. The man had a spear in hand, and twirled it around effortlessly, practicing his forms and thrusts with it. Dominic was entranced by it.
“You never went to the shows in Gennaro?” asked Vidre. She was standing beside Dominic, watching his face. Her voice was low, though with the size of the theater it was doubtful that anyone would have been able to hear her.
“No,” said Dominic. He shrugged. “You charged money for it.” Now he wished that he had gone.
“Limited seating in Gennaro,” said Vidre. “We have to filter people out somehow. We’re nearly filling Amare’s now; it’s likely that we could have gotten away with a small charge to defray the costs.” She wasn’t watching the show at all, even when a second man of light showed up, this one larger, bulkier, and covered in a cloak. When the man pulled back his hood, Dominic recognized it as Zerstor, though the features weren’t fully in place.
“They’re insubstantial?” asked Dominic. He had a hard time imagining that they weren’t.
“Insubstantial and difficult to control,” said Vidre. “What you’re seeing is the result of decades of practice, and this current production was part of why I wish we’d had more time at sea. The choreography isn’t perfect.” She was right; if you looked closely, you could see that it was a mock battle, like the sort two inexperienced actors would make. “Kendrick used to work for us.”
“What?” asked Dominic. He’d been too focused on watching the show, and had been caught off guard by the change in subject. He glanced to Gaelwyn, who was sitting apart from them and too far away to hear.
“He was a natural philosopher of a different kind,” said Vidre. “His area of study was music. He came to Welexi a dozen years ago, before I was around. You’ve seen the way that we dress, the way we make a statement with our appearance and impress ourselves upon the world. I’ve talked about why. It’s not uncommon for us to have sigils and brands to identify us, flags we can fly and symbols to mark our most devoted followers. Welexi’s is a white spear laid diagonally across a rounded shield. Kendrick’s idea was to have something similar for music.”
“I don’t understand what that means,” said Dominic. He watched the enormous white figures fighting each other. Now that Vidre had mentioned it, he couldn’t help but see the flaws in how the fighters moved.
“He thought that every illustrati should be associated with a sound, or at least the most famous of us,” said Vidre. “We all have songs, too many to count, and stories beyond that, but what Kendrick sought was a unified audible identity. He carefully selected five notes, and began weaving them into Welexi’s songs. Those five notes would be at the beginning, and worked in throughout. When Welexi was announced at a formal event, the trumpets would play those five notes.” Vidre hummed them, and Dominic realized that he’d heard it many times before without even being aware of it. It was part of the song the choir was singing. “When he went into battle, the common men would hear those five notes and be inspired by them, knowing that he was out there, fighting on their side. It was a clever enough idea, and Welexi hired him on as his bard in Meriwall. He wanted to come onto the ship, and asked about the possibility several times, but Welexi always refused him. Every time that the ship came into port, Kendrick would ask to leave on it. I was there a few of those times; it was tragic, in a way.”
“So what happened?” asked Dominic.
“Gaelwyn happened,” said Vidre. “There was already some tension given how the war ended, but after Welexi fell in with Gaelwyn, that was the end of it. Kendrick was a coward about it. He kept drawing money from our account while he spread his own legend. When we found out, Welexi was furious. That accounts for much of the bad blood between us and him.”
“Why are you telling me this?” asked Dominic.
“Kendrick’s going to tell you his own version,” said Vidre. “You’re going to be on this very same stage with him, and he’s going to tell lies, and they’ll be mixed with the truth so well that you might not be able to know which is which.”
On the stage, the battle had moved on; the form that represented Welexi was limping now, and fighting off enormous sword strokes with his spear, barely blocking each time. A second spear appeared, and now they began fighting again. It wasn’t exactly how Dominic remembered it, but it was close.
“I’m not sure I know the truth,” asked Dominic. He was trying to see a way that the fight with Zerstor could have been faked. Every time that he thought of a way that it must have been a real thing, he imagined some way that it could have been part of the performance. The only part that didn’t seem to make sense if it was fake was — there, Welexi’s hand being cut off, represented in the show as spray of light.
“Better for you not to know where the unmarked graves are,” said Vidre. “All I mean to say is that Kendrick has his reasons for hating us. I don’t want you to learn later on that he’s not the bastard you thought and falter when you need your strength. He has his reasons. Some of them are surely cynical, but … his father really did die in Gaelwyn’s hospital. It was what’s called a living autopsy.”
When everything looked dire, and the choir was singing their most mournful tune, a third figure appeared, holding the spear of light. It was Dominic, dressed in street clothes, or as close as you could get to the effect in shades of white. It wasn’t like how it had really been though; the figures of light faced each other down, and there was even a brief battle between the two before the killing blow came.
When one form of light pulled the other to his feet, the crowd cheered, in a way that should have raised Dominic’s spirits.
Dominic had trouble sleeping. He’d been given a large bed in one of the seemingly endless bedrooms of Grayhull. His thoughts were scattered, and kept touching on different subjects, never staying on one for very long. Tomorrow they would begin training him for the duel, which meant that the day had been an almost total waste on that front. Vidre’s words were floating uncomfortably in his head; he had tried to be friendly with Gaelwyn afterward, and didn’t think he had been able to pull it off.
Welexi crept into the room, bringing a glow of light with him. “Lightscour,” he hissed. “Are you awake?”
“Yes,” replied Dominic.
The room flooded with light, and Welexi came to the side of the bed, smiling. In his hands was a small wooden box. He handed it over with a grin. “Open it.”
Dominic sat up and frowned. He opened the box slowly and looked at the grey shape inside. It was a Harbinger artifact. Dominic stared at it, and wondered how he knew that. He picked it up slowly and turned it around in his hands. It was a thick, matte, gray rectangle with no discerning features, yet he knew that it was a Harbinger artifact all the same. He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again. Again, it was immediately obvious that this was a Harbinger artifact. The thought kept coming into his mind. It wasn’t a conclusion that he had drawn based on its appearance, it was only something that he knew, in the same way that he could look down at his hand and know it without any particular chain of inference.
“Quite the effect, isn’t it?” asked Welexi. “Knowing, without knowing how you know. That seems to be all it does, so far as I can tell, but it’s the first real piece.”
Dominic frowned and handed the box back.
“Wealdwood was telling the truth, about the weight on his mind,” said Dominic.
“Oh, not necessarily,” said Welexi. “It could be that he had heard second-hand from someone else and knew enough to match the description. But I do believe that it was true, and that someone else might be traveling down the path I’ve been on for years.” He closed the wooden box. “The Harbingers are real, and I have proof of what they knew.”
“And … what is it that they knew?” asked Dominic.
“The answers to the Five Questions,” said Welexi. “‘What is fame?’ We have working definitions, certainly, enough that we can attempt to manipulate it and find some success. Yet if you ask the scholars, there are a hundred variations on how they would formulate it, and they simply cannot agree. Yet the Harbingers knew. Of the other questions, these central inquiries of our age, the answers are even less clear. Yet the Harbingers knew. They had to, in order to build something like this.” He patted the wooden box. “Haven’t you ever wondered why the Zenith has no special powers? I often have. It’s a well-known ship, talked about in much the same way I am, and people cheer when they see it come or go. Yet it has no domain, none of the special resilience of an illustrati, and its speed is due solely to the construction.”
“I suppose I never thought about that,” said Dominic. “A sword is just a sword, no matter how many people know about it?”
“But why?” asked Welexi. “We have no idea, for all that it’s been thought on. Why are none of my sailors illustrati? We’ve tried to keep them anonymous, there were too many that tried to elevate themselves, but why are they not imbued as a collective? The Harbingers had the answer to that, and more. They could freely transfer fame from one person to another. They could create new domains from nothing. I’ve been chasing this story for years, Lightscour. Years. And this small grey object is the first thing I’ve come across that shows the truth.” His smile was fierce. “The Flower Queen might think that all of this is about her kingdom, and Vidre might think we’re trying to stop war between all the countries of the Calypso, but this,” said Welexi, tapping the wooden box, “This is the real prize.”
Dominic wasn’t quite ready to nod along. “If they were so great and powerful, what happened to them?” he asked.
“They discovered the opposite of fame,” said Welexi. “Not obscurity, that’s only fame’s absence, but the true opposite. The Harbingers destroyed themselves with it.” He leaned back. “Vidre will tell you that I’ve pulled together a story from too many different threads, but you’re on my side, aren’t you Dominic?”
Until that point he hadn’t realized that there was a side to take. He swallowed once, and said, “Yes, of course.”