“We’re going to have to execute Gael, of course,” said the Flower Queen. She had a faint smile on her face, and looked around the room with sleepy eyes. She walked over to Gaelwyn and placed her hand against his cheek. “Oh, we’ll have a marvelous trial first, just the sort of thing to let people know that this is a place with law and order. We can use the cathedral for it, I think that the arched ceilings will look quite nice. I can dress up all in white, the virginal queen once more, and no one will be able to say that I was anything but a champion for my people.” She nodded to Gaelwyn. “Oh Gael, you were such a dear companion, I owe my figure to you, you know that, but the good of the realm compels it.”
“My queen is being indelicate,” said Steelminder, “But she speaks the truth. We must be seen doing something.”
“No,” said Welexi, as though that might be the entirety of his argument. “The city burns, and someone needs to stop it. That can include us, or it can be solely whatever illustrati retain enough of their senses to bring that supposed law and order to the city. Either way, Gaelwyn is not going to be harmed by the likes of you.”
“Show some respect,” began the queen’s husband. His mustache was twisted into a frown, but the Flower Queen was looking at her fingers and smiling.
“It wouldn’t work,” said Vidre. “String Gael up and parade his corpse around town, and the commoners will see it for the callous, pandering ploy that it is. Worse than that, they’ll see it coming. There’s no doubt been a campaign of agitation in advance of what happened after the duel, which means that the Council of Laborers is at least a step ahead of us. They’ll have a plan in place and ready to respond to whatever we do, and that includes the obvious step — no offense Gael — of pinning it all on a patsy.”
“The city burns,” said Welexi. “The illustrati are needed to contain the fires and save those in need. If we can show at least that much grace in unfavorable circumstances, then we still deserve the power that’s been granted to us. Call your illustrati to arms in defense of the palace; we’ll take everyone who wants to join us into the city itself.”
The Flower Queen waved her hand. “It will all die out,” she said. “The fire that burns bright burns fast.”
“My queen is right,” said Steelminder. “If there are problems, and you insist that we don’t take the sensible course of action, better to make a strong defense against the rabble.”
“There will be more than enough illustrati to protect you here, your majesty,” said Welexi. He wasn’t able to keep his voice entirely free of scorn. “Fire poses a real risk given these winds, and the queen can’t rule over ashes. Vidre, Lightscour, and I will go deal with fires at least, if not with the people themselves.” He turned slightly. “Gael will have to stay within Grayhull for now.”
“I can help,” said Gaelwyn. “If it’s not fighting, only putting out the fires, and I’m sure there will be people who need healing —”
“Better not to for now,” said Welexi. “It would draw too much unwelcome attention. If I could, I would get you to the Zenith and position it a mile out to sea, but it’s too far to ship, and if things have gone south I suspect that they’ve already set off while waiting for people to settle down. It wouldn’t be the first time the ship has been in danger.” He turned back to Steelminder. “Gather the illustrati. Everyone with a scrap of power should be here guarding the palace or out in the city trying to calm the riots.”
There were only five illustrati that joined them. The biggest surprise was Ember, the Flower Queen’s friend and alchemist-in-residence. She had fire instead of hair, which had flames that licked a foot high; her domain was ideal for their purposes. She was unarmored, but had traded her dress in for a more practical skirt and leggings. Aside from her, there was Houndstooth with his yellow eyes (who was flanked by his two large dogs), Arbarber, Dovefall, and Devodrain. Vidre quietly expressed the notion that the latter two had no business in going out into the city, but if they were only after their own fame, Welexi didn’t seem to have a problem with it.
They were split into groups of two or three; Welexi spread his wings of light and took to the air by himself, and Dominic was paired with Vidre. They took to the streets, moving towards the nearest pillar of smoke. As soon as they were free from earshot, they both began to speak at once.
“He betrayed —”
“You should have —”
“You go first,” said Dominic.
“You should have killed him,” said Vidre. “I was wrong about that. I didn’t count on him martyring himself. If you’d have been the one to kill him, and kill him for real, they wouldn’t have had so much ammunition to use against us.”
“You never should have made a deal with him in the first place,” said Dominic. “This was his plan all along. This was why he wanted to fight Welexi. I never stabbed him through the heart, he only faked the wound and was good enough to sell the performance. He’d probably been practicing that trick for a year. Without me showing mercy, his plan would have failed.”
“A good planner has many plans,” said Vidre. “This was a path that he wanted to take, but there were others available to him. At least this way you’re still alive.”
The streets in this section of the city were devoid of people, but the sound of an angry mob could be heard a block over. Dominic wanted to talk more, but the time for talk seemed to be over. When Vidre leapt up to one of the roofs and crouched down, Dominic followed suit, and together they looked down on a hundred people standing in front of a burning shop. The smell of it filled Dominic’s nose; there was a slightly metallic taste of ink.
“This is a font of their lies!” shouted a large man who stood with the burning shop behind him. “Day after day, penny dreadfuls to fill our heads with idle thoughts! We’re cattle to them, draft animals to turn the mill, a fertile garden to plant their legend in! The Council wants a change!”
There were cheers from the crowd as the man continued on and the fire raged.
“I would say it’s better to let this one burn itself out,” said Vidre in a low voice. “Only the houses beside it have thatched roofs, which means that the fire is going to burn out of control if nothing is done.” She shook her head. “And there are probably a dozen demonstrations like this going on all around Meriwall.”
“We didn’t come here to watch,” said Dominic. He itched to jump down and confront the man, though he had no idea what he would say. He had seen enough of the Flower Queen to feel that the Council — whoever they truly were — had a point. She wasn’t fit to rule, and her husband didn’t seem at all concerned with reining her in. He had few illusions about the sort of people who masterminded Kendrick’s fake death being better rulers, but it didn’t seem like they could be worse. His side had been chosen for him though, even if he hadn’t stepped forward to duel Kendrick in front of half the city. Whether he liked it or not, these were his people now. “Was the play-acting part of the deal?” he found himself asking.
“No,” said Vidre. She didn’t seem surprised by the question, and her eyes didn’t leave the man who was still shouting to the crowd. “I can’t exactly say that he betrayed us, but he didn’t actually need to. He was perfectly fine with holding up his end of the deal. I should have seen it coming all the same, but I was too worried about you dying.”
Dominic frowned. He didn’t believe that altruism ran deep in Vidre’s veins.
“Let’s break this up then, before the fire gets out of control,” said Vidre. She leapt down to the street without waiting for a response, with her daggers flashing in the air.
“Did you think of the printer when you took the torch to his shop?” she asked in a loud voice. Heads swiveled to look at her. “Did you picture him in your mind’s eye? Tomorrow morning, when the fires have died down, he’ll come walking into the charred husk of a place that he’s worked his trade for years. He’ll look down at the molten lead that was once his livelihood, and know that he was worse off. It never matters to the mob though, does it?”
“Stories,” spat the large man. “The illustrati always come with their stories. How would you know who owns this place? You sailed in on your fancy ship three days ago.” He flexed his muscles and cracked his neck, like he stood a shade of a chance against Vidre. “We’ve been under your thumb for too long. The lies turn to ash tonight.”
Vidre stepped forward, and the large man barreled his way forward to greet her. The crowd hadn’t quite backed away, but the man had made the mistake of making the fight between him and Vidre instead of Vidre and the mob; it was hard to kill an illustrati, but with enough people coming in from different directions at once, glass armor wasn’t completely impenetrable. Dominic had been warned never to get so mired in battle that he couldn’t escape the clutches of a dozen men trying to tear into him.
“Form a bucket brigade while I deal with this man,” Vidre called to the crowd. “The printer would help to put out a fire at your houses, and if this isn’t contained, it’s going to spread through the city. It doesn’t matter what happened with the Blood Bard tonight. Tomorrow there will be —”
The man’s face had twisted into a snarl, and he’d began rushing towards Vidre. Her armor was already covering everything except for her face and hands, and she brought it around to cover those as well as he charged her. Dominic stood back, ready to smile as she demolished him, and ready to defend her in case there was any serious threat.
When the man was a foot away from Vidre, he burst into flames.
He was none the worse for it; he continued on with flames trailing behind him, like a torch being swung through the air. They covered his face and hands, and his shirt and pants had begun to burn off him almost at once. Vidre kicked backwards and leapt away from him, almost as though she’d known it was coming, and landed next to Dominic just as his brain was beginning to come around the conclusion that this man was an illustrati of fire.
“What do we do?” asked Dominic, but Vidre’s face was covered in a thick layer of glass, and she was already moving forward with a long, jagged sword. Dominic summoned a shadow blade for himself and moved to flank, but he had far less in the way of armor, and the man’s flaming hand would burn at first touch.
The man lunged towards Vidre again. The flames that consumed him rose higher, but she moved to meet him instead of turning away, and tumbled past. The man staggered, and Dominic realized all at once that Vidre was missing her sword, and the man had it lodged in his stomach, piercing all the way through to stick out from his back. Dominic moved forward and made a downward chop with his shadow blade, and caught the man in the shoulder, which was enough to make him collapse to the ground. When the flames that covered his skin began to flicker out, Vidre stepped forward and brought her foot down to crush the man’s skull.
The crowd had almost entirely left, and Dominic was thankful for it.
“The others are in danger,” Vidre said as soon as her faceplate parted to let her breathe. She didn’t even stop to pick up her sword, and instead began forming a new one as she ran. She crouched down slightly for a leap and was up on the rooftops without so much as hesitating to see whether Dominic would follow. He took off after her as soon as he’d regained his wits, leaving the burning print shop and the dead illustrati behind him. He was half a block behind Vidre, who was racing towards another of the fires as quickly as she could.
Devodrain had the domain of mist, and he wouldn’t have traded it for any other. There was a tendency, especially in the Flower Queen’s court, to bemoan one’s domain and say in a silky voice that of course someone else had the better domain, for whatever reason. It had taken him too long to understand that this wasn’t really sincere, and that people were only saying that they wanted the domain of flowers as a way of insinuating themselves with the queen. He had been told a number of times that mist was a fine domain, sometimes by a pretty girl, and he hadn’t realized that it was expected that he would demur and explain why he thought that Steelminder had the best domain of anyone because of the armor that he could craft. Never mind that Devodrain had no interest in crafting armor, and couldn’t really understand anyone who thought that simply making things was impressive. Steelminder could make an elaborate breastplate with enough power to stop a musket, but that armor could simply be bought from Steelminder if you had enough money.
Obviously Devodrain wouldn’t argue that mist was the most powerful of the domains; the men of the Flower Queen’s court often discussed the combat practicalities of the domains, along with their primary users, and while there were arguments to be made for a few of them, mist was never remotely in the running. Nor was mist the best from a utilitarian standpoint; sound was enormously helpful in speaking to crowds, most of the metallic domains could be used for artisan crafting, and even flower could help to pollinate fields and make rich colors for dyes. Mist couldn’t do any of that. Devodrain loved mist all the same. He liked the way it looked, and the way it felt, and the fact that it was one of the more unique domains. There were nine metallic domains, and they were all boring, because all of them were almost entirely the same.
He’d been paired up with Ember, who had considerably more standing than him, both in the real sense of personal power and the more nebulous system of understanding that dominated the court. It had been a complete surprise when she’d volunteered to come with. Their domains were somewhat out of alignment with each other; mist was sometimes called a bastard domain, given that it had overlap with air and water, and water was supposed to be the counter to flame. They moved quickly through the city together, with Devodrain leaving a trail of mist in the air and Ember leaving a trail of flame to match it.
“Does it go out when you sleep?” asked Devodrain as he watched the flames licked at the surface of her head.
“Excuse me?” asked Ember.
“How do you keep the pillow from starting on fire?” asked Devodrain. He’d been meaning to ask this from since the time he’d first seen her. Devodrain had only been at court for three months now, and only an illustrati for a year in total. He had more questions than he knew what to do with, and had only gotten scattered answers. He had grown up on the other end of Torland, the lesser son of a noble house, and his education had (he felt) been distinctly lacking.
Ember smiled at him, and in answer to his question, the flames on her head died out. She wasn’t quite bald; Devodrain could see a bit of stubble there. “That’s the first time anyone has asked me that,” she said.
“I thought it was something like domain form,” said Devodrain. “Houndstooth has the eyes of a dog —”
“I didn’t think you were being foolish,” said Ember. Her head lit up again, with orange flames curling up towards the sky and illuminating their walk. “Come, I hear someone proselytizing.”
They rounded a corner and the conversation went quiet in a great wave, as people noticed their presence and alerted their neighbor. A building was on fire, and it didn’t take much to see that it was a church of Laith, one of the smaller ones that served as lesser versions of the great Cathedral. The walls were made of stone, and so it was only the interior that was lit up, as the pews and tapestries turned themselves to smoke and ash.
“I can take over from here,” said Ember with a pleasant smile.
The large man standing before the burning church, the one that everyone had been listening to, folded his arms across his chest. “A peddler of narcotics to our queen,” he said. “Go no further. This church is a symbol of the corruption at the heart of the kingdom, a seed laid by King Laith long ago.” The man pointed to the face carved into the mountain. “Hubris and a disregard for his subjects. Nothing has changed in hundred years time.”
“You call the church symbolic. That’s a little on the nose, don’t you think?” asked Ember. “You shouldn’t just call something a symbol, it should be obvious to everyone watching that it’s a symbol simply by virtue of what’s being done. If you have to explain to people why you’re trying to burn down a church, maybe you’re just making an excuse for bad behavior. And either way, it doesn’t really matter, because I’m going to go put those fires out, and tomorrow the church will be cleaned of the ash.” She strode forward, and Devodrain was compelled to follow after her.
The large man moved into Ember’s path. His muscles were larger than Devodrain had ever seen on the common folk, and he had a height that spoke of heavy meals or good breeding, possibly both. Still, muscles meant little to the illustrati, and if he so much as laid a finger on Ember, she would be able to burn him to a crisp. Whether that would be wise thing to do in the context of the ongoing civil issues was another matter entirely. Yet as Ember moved to pass him, the man grabbed her around her arm and lifted it up, holding her back.
Ember smiled at him. “Is this what you think being a citizen means?” she asked. “Burning down churches and threatening women? I don’t have any clue whether you think that this is a fight that you can win, because obviously you can’t. I’m more interested in what you think you’re going to accomplish. Martyrdom?”
“The church burns,” said the man.
Ember moved forward, but the man held onto her, and she frowned at his hand on her arm. “I’ve never liked the smell of burnt hair and melting flesh, but you’ve left me with little choice.”
Her forearm burst into flames from the joint of her elbow to the tips of her fingers, but the man’s face didn’t change at all, and he didn’t pull back from her. Ember’s eyes went wide, and Devodrain called out, “Illustrati!”, just as the man twisted Ember’s arm around and threw her to the ground.
Devodrain wore a rapier at his hip, and had a fair amount of training in single combat. In part this was because dueling was a popular pastime in Torland — though it was almost never to the death, and instead ended when one of the participants took a minor wound. Devodrain began to pull his rapier out with an awkward motion that slapped the sheath against his thigh, and he made the mistake of looking down at it. He’d undone the latch earlier, but it had caught for some reason. When he looked up, the large man was standing in front of him, and bringing hands of fire towards Devodrain’s face.
The smell of smoke filled Dominic’s nostrils. He felt sick; he’d just killed a man for the second time. The whole thing had happened quickly, and didn’t make much sense. Being an illustrati was supposed to mean that you knew who your enemies were, but Dominic had been given a full list of every illustrati of significant power known to be in Meriwall, and that man hadn’t been anywhere on it. It was possible for someone to rise in standing quickly, and it was possible that the list was out of date, but Vidre hadn’t seemed to know that they were looking at an illustrati in disguise until just seconds before he’d revealed himself. That meant that the man wasn’t local to Meriwall, but combined with the fact that he was in league with the plot against the Flower Queen, that could only mean that he was an agent of the Iron King.
Dominic was a block behind Vidre when she dropped back down to the street, and the fight was already over by the time he got there. Ember’s clothes had been burned off her, but she was otherwise unscathed; Devodrain’s head was charred on either side, and his hands had been badly burned before he’d died. Laying on the ground, with a dagger stuck in his neck, was another large man whose fires were dying down. He wasn’t quite identical to the first man they’d fought, but he was very similar in appearance.
“Get back to the palace,” said Vidre to Ember.
“I — we had thought — it wasn’t supposed to be a fight — if I hadn’t matched his domain, hadn’t been immune to the fires, but even then his hands on me —” Ember was shaking slightly, and not making any sign that she was going somewhere.
“Dominic, take her,” said Vidre. She had a dagger in either hand. “I’ll come to collect her once the threat has passed. Don’t let her eat any flowers, because we’re going to need her to quell these fires. Tell Steelminder that we’re in a state of war.”
“Are we?” asked Dominic.
“Dom, we don’t have time for this,” said Vidre. “You have no idea how to properly fight these people, just go. Pick her up and carry her if you have to.”
“Alright,” said Dominic.
Vidre launched herself up onto the rooftops again, and her armor glinted in the firelight for a moment before she disappeared out of sight. Dominic stood mute for a few moments, looking at the place where Vidre had been, and then turned his attention towards Ember.
“Come on,” he said. He tried not to look at where the fires had burnt away her clothing and exposed her, then decided that was foolish and only tried to pretend that this situation was normal. “We need to go, we’re in danger here.”
“I was stronger than him,” said Ember. “I could feel his hands around my wrists. I could feel him trying to consume me with flames. But I was stronger than him, and it was only a lick of heat against my skin. He could have killed me if he’d had a knife, but he only had his hands, and I could have thrown him to the ground if I had thought of it. Most people don’t touch you if you’re on fire.” She had a far off look in her eyes. The fire on her head had gone out, and she was now merely bald.
“I’ll carry you,” said Dominic. “Just promise not to burn me, okay?” He said it as a joke, a way to lighten the mood, but Ember had a look of horror and sadness. “It’ll be alright,” said Dominic.
Ember moved forward and wrapped her arms around Dominic’s neck, pulling him into a hug. He knelt down and scooped her up, with his arms touching the bare flesh of her thighs. He steadied himself and began running back towards Grayhull, this time taking the roads so that he wouldn’t have to make any jumps with his unwieldy cargo. Ember seemed to weigh nothing at all; Dominic still wasn’t quite used to how easy his standing had made certain physical tasks.
“You’ll be fine,” he said from time to time. The day before, he might have imagined resenting Vidre for racing off and leaving this duty to him, but now Dominic was happy to be saving a damsel in distress. The shape of the story would change later on; in the version that he could imagine himself telling over a five-course meal, Dominic had insisted that Ember needed help, and bravely saved her life when Vidre would have abandoned the poor woman. By the time they arrived at Grayhull, Dominic could almost believe the revisions he’d been penning in his head. Returning to the palace was gallantry, not cowardice, no matter that Vidre was still out there fighting.
Once they had gotten past the guards and to the planning room they’d been using, Ember practically collapsed into the Flower Queen’s arms. Steelminder twitched his mustache and stared at Dominic.
“It’s war,” said Dominic. “Vidre feels that the Iron King has made his move. The fires in the city were started by the agitators, but a few of the men stirring up trouble are illustrati as well. There was something off about them.”
“Murderers,” choked out Ember.
“War with the Iron Kingdom?” asked Steelminder. “We can’t have it. There are treaties in place, and besides that, everyone knows that the Iron King hasn’t been seen in at least a year. Why would he attack us from his death bed?”
“As much as you might not like it, it’s happening,” said Dominic. “Torland has allies that can be brought into the war, enough that the Iron King will be forced to fight a war on too many fronts at once.” He tried to think of what Vidre would do. “We need to send out letters as soon as possible, so that help arrives in time. It’s not an outright war yet, not until we have some proof, but we can present the evidence.”
Steelminder frowned. “You are not in charge here,” he said. “My queen is.” He glanced to the Flower Queen, who had Ember’s head in her lap. The queen’s head was lolled back and her mouth was hanging partway open. If not for the fact that her hand was petting Ember’s bald head, Dominic might have thought the queen was either sleeping or dead.
“Is there a way to sober her up quickly?” asked Dominic. “Something we could give her to bring her into her right mind? I’m sure that you’ve had need for that a few times.” He was getting desperate for some action he could take to make everything better.
“You are being indelicate,” said Steelminder.
“There’s a war out there!” Dominic shouted, all pretense of civility and etiquette forgotten. “Homes and businesses are burning, and people are risking their lives for the queen, and she doesn’t care at all!”
“She cares too much,” said Steelminder with an icy gaze. “She indulges herself because it’s the only way to cope with the enormity of running this country day in and day out.” He sniffed. “Another outburst and I’ll have you removed.”
Dominic wanted to hit the man, but the doors opened up once more. Welexi and Vidre stepped through.
“A half dozen illustrati of flame,” said Welexi. “Each with their own enhancements, taller and more muscular than they should have been by rights, with thickened skin and, if I’m not mistaken, bones more dense than they should have been.”
“Your apprentice says war,” said Steelminder.
“Worse than war,” said Welexi. “Bigger than war. A half dozen illustrati, all with the same domain? The Iron King has done his best to manipulate fame, to take the lessons of Laith and apply them on a larger scale in order to gain valuable troops. He’s been more than willing to have children tested. Yet the sheer expense involved in raising so many illustrati and sending them here for subterfuge … it’s not right.”
“I listened to one of them talk,” said Vidre. “If he was a spy, he was a good one. There was no trace of a foreign accent; these were Meriwall men through and through. That makes it even stranger. I might be able to believe that the Iron King was willing to expend the resources to create so many illustrati from whole cloth, but I don’t believe that he would choose men from within this country, especially given how many he would have to test in order to get six of the same domain.”
“But the danger is over,” said Steelminder. “You beat them back —”
“We killed four of the six,” said Vidre. “They killed four of ours in turn. The other two were long gone by the time we reached those fires, but they’re still out in the city, and for all we know there might be more. People are looting businesses, throwing rocks through windows and dragging merchandise out. The unrest has turned to simple crime that the guards couldn’t possibly handle, if they weren’t engaged in it themselves. It will take time for order to be restored, and it’s not going to happen tonight. There’s a storm on the horizon, which will help with the fires, and we need to go back out there, but the danger has not passed by any stretch of the imagination. War is coming, if it’s not already here.”
“There is an explanation for the men of flame,” said Welexi. “One I’ve been mulling over.” He paused to look around the room. “Someone is using the Harbinger’s knowledge.”
Kendrick Eversong was having a wonderful day.
The duel had gone pretty much as well as could have been hoped for, and the Council had sprung into action immediately afterward. The fires would draw in the illustrati, and the element of surprise would mean that many of them would die. The men who had volunteered to light those fires were at great risk, but they had known that when they had signed on for the benefactor’s process. Kendrick’s own part wasn’t without dangers of its own, but he’d played his role to perfection, and nothing more could be asked of him. He wasn’t entirely pleased with having to make a new life in the Iron Kingdom, but Torland would become part of the Iron Kingdom soon enough, and then he would be able to return, if perhaps not in the guise of Kendrick Eversong. No matter. That wasn’t his real name anyhow.
The benefactor’s pretty assistant came into the small room that Kendrick had been holed up in and bowed slightly. She was a silent woman, and an illustrati in her own right. Earlier, she’d healed Kendrick of the wounds that he’d sustained during the duel, fast enough that Kendrick found it somewhat alarming. It had taken a while for him to cotton on to the fact that she must have been a beneficiary of the benefactor’s process as well; the benefactor had never gone into detail, but at a minimum it seemed that the benefactor had the ability to change a person’s domain. How the silent woman had been selected for the domain of flesh was as yet a mystery, one to add to the growing collection he’d had ever since the benefactor had shown up.
“Are we ready to go?” asked Kendrick. “My bags are packed.” This was a little joke, because he was taking nothing with him, but the silent woman didn’t smile, and only gestured for him to follow. He obliged, and stepped lightly behind her. He’d shaved his goatee and was wearing common clothes, which would make him difficult to recognize, but the path they were following was taking them deeper in the building instead of outside. Kendrick had never been to the place before, and looked around at the wooden walls with interest as they walked. It had been, or possibly still was, a sprawling shop of the kind the Council seemed to have in abundance.
“How have things been going in the city?” asked Kendrick. Predictably, this didn’t get a response. “Everyone mourning my death? My only regret in all this is that I won’t get to attend my own funeral. I think that if we had the right collection of domains we could have done it. You would have been in charge of changing the shape of my face, and with different hair and possibly some darker skin, I could have been unrecognizable, at least until I opened my mouth. But even then, acting isn’t exactly foreign to me. Did you see the performance?” Again there was no response. “Well, I did wonderfully. No one had any clue except for Vidre. I saw her face right near the end, and I was sure that she was going to put a stop to it all, but I suppose her woman’s intuition didn’t get her the whole way. It’ll be a shame to lose her. The others, not so much.”
He chattered amiably as they walked, simply because he enjoyed it. He did regret that he wouldn’t be the one to end Gaelwyn, but those dice had never looked like they were going to come up in his favor. Gaelwyn wouldn’t survive the coming weeks, Kendrick had been assured of that. The Iron Kingdom would scoop out the rotten core of Torland, and the glorified mercenaries would be taken out with it. The kingdom of Torland would be made anew, and if it would owe something to the Iron Kingdom, that seemed like a small price to pay.
The benefactor sat behind a desk, looking down at hastily written letters that must have come in from around the city. Sitting on one corner of the desk was a blocky gray device with a hole in the top that simply screamed Harbinger artifact. It had that same annoying insistence that the benefactor’s ring had; you couldn’t look at it without knowing that the Harbingers had made it. If the Harbingers had been able to encode that into an object, Kendrick figured that they would have been better off informing you what the thing actually was. Trying to make sense of the Harbingers had always been a fool’s game, and Kendrick’s opinion on that hadn’t changed after he’d seen proof of their existence.
“Why am I still here?” asked Kendrick. “I should be leaving.” Every moment that he remained in Meriwall there was a risk that he would be discovered, however small. It was damned hard to turn a narrative around once it got rolling, but more pertinent to Kendrick, there was a high personal risk involved.
“Put your hand in the device,” the benefactor said. His hood had been pulled back, and he was revealed as an old man with white hair, though they’d had enough meetings that this wasn’t any surprise. The benefactor tapped the Harbinger artifact for emphasis.
“Why?” asked Kendrick.
“I received this only late today,” said the benefactor. “It will change your domain from blood to sound.”
“I didn’t ask for that,” said Kendrick. He was about to say that he couldn’t very well be the Blood Bard without a domain of blood, but then he remembered that the Blood Bard was dead. “If I have a free choice of domains —”
“You don’t,” said the benefactor. “Priming the device is expensive. Changing your domain is necessary for the creation of your new life, and sound is a preferable domain for a bard.”
“I can agree with that,” said Kendrick. “But we didn’t discuss this before —”
“I didn’t know whether the device would be available,” said the benefactor. “Originally it was to happen in the Iron Kingdom. Now, please. After this you sail away. A changed domain will prove beyond all doubt that you are not the Blood Bard.”
Kendrick stepped and looked down at the device. The hole at the top of it wasn’t circular; it was shaped like a hexagon. Kendrick’s curiosity was piqued, but something about this didn’t feel right. Still, if they’d wanted to kill him, the silent woman could have done that when she was healing him earlier, and there wouldn’t have been much that he could do about that. He had to trust that he was still worthwhile to them as an illustrati; his legend would grow with his martyrdom, and the Iron Kingdom could make good use of him.
“It won’t hurt,” said the benefactor.
“Very well,” said Kendrick. He gave them his best smile, the one that he used at the end of particularly bawdy songs, and stuck his hand into the artifact’s maw. He had expected it to clamp down on him, or change its shape, but instead it simply emitted a loud, solid tone.
“You may remove your hand,” said the benefactor.
“For people who understood fame better than we do, the Harbingers didn’t have any particular flair for the dramatic,” said Kendrick. He rubbed at his wrist, but felt only a slight tingle. He felt off, somehow, and realized slowly that it was because he could no longer feel his blood. “I would have used flashing lights and a song of some sort.” Yet if he could no longer feel his blood, then surely he should have been able to sense sound in some way. The domain of sound was supposed to give you a gilded ear. He should have been able to modulate his voice without thinking about it. Yet there was no domain intuition that Kendrick could feel. “What did you do?”
“Primed the device,” said the benefactor.
Kendrick felt a hand on his neck and turned around to see the silent woman gripping him. His first instinct was to go for her blood, to push it up into her head and burst every vessel in the brain, but he felt nothing. The last thing he saw was a slight quirk of a smile on the silent woman’s face.