Corta was going to kill him.
She had a reputation to maintain, he knew that, but he’d gone and been stupid anyway. Dominic had seen a small handful of people visiting her restaurant with missing fingers, and it was no secret that Corta had been the one to take them. That was what she did, if you didn’t hold up your end of whatever bargain you’d struck with her. She wasn’t a cruel woman, but she wasn’t known for her mercy. She was a squat woman with thick thighs, broad shoulders, and large breasts, with a voice that was often louder than it needed to be. She had four sons, each larger and more muscled than the last, all essentially interchangeable so far as anyone who worked with Corta was concerned. Each of them was fearsome, but none of them commanded respect in the same way that Corta herself did.
She was one of the most important people among the lower classes in Gennaro, a woman who had clawed her way up from nothing until she was practically bumping elbows with the nobility. She had secured for herself a position at the very lowest tier of the illustrati, with enough fame to grant her the ability to shout a man to death—or at least, that was one of the stories that people told about her.
She was going to kill Dominic, he was sure of that.
The rooftop races were to blame.
“Have you gone to see Welexi?” asked Franco with a smile.
Dominic was trying to limber up before the race. He focused on stretching out his long legs. “No,” he replied. “Too many crowds.”
“You should look up every now and then, and maybe you’ll catch sight of him,” said Franco. “He can fly.”
“I thought that was just a story,” said Dominic. He ran his fingers through his shaggy black hair, wishing that he had thought to get it cut before the race. It hadn’t seemed like it would be a problem last night, but now he noticed that it was hanging down into his field of vision. Maybe it had always been like that, and he was only noticing now for the same reason that he felt a pressure in his gut and a cold sweat in the small of his back.
“Well of course it’s a story,” said Franco. “But they tell stories about things that are true all the time. Welexi has giant wings made of light, huge ones, each two or three yards across. He flaps them like a bird.”
“And you’ve seen this?” asked Dominic. He stood up tall and started rotating his shoulders.
“Of course,” said Franco. “I just caught the tail end of it, but he had the wings alright.”
“So you didn’t actually see him fly,” said Dominic.
“Come on Dom, you don’t need to be so skeptical,” said Franco. “But no, I didn’t see him fly. I hardly doubt that people would lie about a thing like that though, would they? They love Welexi, but they wouldn’t lie for him like that.”
Dominic shrugged. “I don’t know. All I’m saying is that I’ve heard all of the same stories about the illustrati that you have, and not all of them have the ring of truth. It may be that Welexi can fly. I don’t really doubt it too much. But you have to be careful about what you believe if you don’t want to get taken for a fool.” Franco could always be seen with some pamphlet or another, printed on the cheapest yellow paper that would still hold ink, each filled with another wild story about illustrati fighting pitched battles with their elements clashing against each other, or searching out exotic treasures in foreign lands.
“You’d call me a fool? This coming from the man that bets so much on himself?” asked Franco.
Dominic shrugged. He cocked an ear. He could hear the crowds growing noisy. “Come on, I think it’s time.”
The rooftops of Gennaro were almost uniformly covered with red clay tiles, except in places where the roofs were flattened for extra living space. The taller buildings had balconies and covered corridors that were open to the city air, and at the moment all of them were filled with people. Some of the roofs had people sitting or squatting on them. The lower classes drank wine from glass bottles with woven basket covers, and they spoke loudly to one another, sometimes shouting over the rooftops to their neighbors. Above them, where the wealthy watched from the balconies, the wine was drunk from goblets, and the conversation more demure. The air smelled of smoke and seawater, and there was a mild breeze that kept the sun from being too fierce. Dominic took one last moment to drink from his canteen, then stepped out into the sunlight with the other racers. The audience—his audience—cheered.
“Vidre was there beside him,” said Franco, as though this moment weren’t enough to send their hearts hammering. “I’d let her sink one of her glass daggers into me for the slightest taste of her sweet lips.”
“Only one dagger?” asked Lorenz, one of the other racers. “I’d let her use both, just to have the scent of her hair fill my nose.”
“You think so little of her?” asked Rafaello. “Why, to have just the faintest sniff of her morning breath I would let her cleave my arms and legs from my body in one fell swoop.”
“One fell swoop?” asked Michel. “Your devotion to our most esteemed lady Vidre is lacking if you wouldn’t let her use a club to amputate you, which I would do just for the sight of her upper eyebrow.”
“But the upper eyebrow is her most fetching part!” protested Franco with a laugh.
This continued on for some time, with the racers trying to one up each other. Dominic didn’t join in. That sort of braggadocio had never been his way, and he had a great deal on his mind besides. They were all being paid a sum of fifty capi for participating in the races, with the winner getting an extra hundred on top of that. It was a tidy sum given that it was only about an hour’s worth of actual work, and there were other considerations as well, like a measure of fame and the affections of pretty girls. It wasn’t difficult for Corta to gather up six young men willing to risk their lives for the entertainment of others.
Dominic had won the last six races. The money was a pittance in comparison to how much Corta was making, and how much the men and women who watched from the balconies were gambling with each other, but the first win had comfortably padded out his meager living arrangements, and ensured that he could drink good wine and eat meat with every meal. When it came time for the second race, he had bet almost all of the money left over on himself, on the theory that he wouldn’t be too much worse off if he had to go back to living in poverty a week early. He’d done the same on the third race, and the fourth, each time watching the pile of coins multiply. He spent little of it. He had so much money that he had to open an account at one of the banks, a large place with an interior courtyard and vaulted ceilings.
For the fifth race he had gotten a note showing proof of credit from the bank, written on fine paper by a man with a greasy mustache and a floral scent. Dominic had been ready to have to explain to Corta how this was easier than carrying thirty pounds worth of coin into her restaurant, but she was completely unperturbed and took the note without question or comment. He’d won that race at three to one odds, and Corta had ensured that the bank’s ledgers reflected that at the end of the day. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as being handed a pile of gleaming coins, but it was thrilling all the same when he put it in any real terms. He had enough money to pay for a place of his own, if he wanted to, instead of sharing a room with two other men. He could buy passage across the Calypso, if he wanted to, or even across the Pensic if he chose to consign himself to the bowels of some colony ship. He left the money untouched though, and saved it all for the sixth race.
This time Dominic watched carefully as the banker wrote out the proof of credit. There was a thin wax seal on the upper corner of the note, and the banker had an elaborate signature that would have been difficult to forge. The note came with a hold on the account, so that he couldn’t simply give proof of credit to Corta and then take all of the money from his account if he lost. The actual styling of the numbers had been given less attention though, and it hadn’t taken Dominic too much time to turn a one into a two, once he’d bought a quill and ink and spent an afternoon practicing. He’d been ready with an explanation of how he had doubled his money with a different bet, one made with another person across town, but Corta had simply taken his note as though she saw dozens of them every week, giving it no more scrutiny than the goblet of wine she idly drank from. He had run the race as hard as he possibly could, and taken his sixth win with a comfortable lead. The odds were two to one now, but Dominic had been able to effectively triple his money with the forged note. The elation he’d felt afterward when the money was in his account overshadowed the thrill of winning by a considerable margin.
The odds were down to three to two, which was the worst that Dominic had seen. That meant that people were too confident that he was going to win. The payout would hardly be worth anything. Dominic had stared at the ceiling when he was trying to get to sleep, listening to the sounds of the city outside while he wavered on whether he was going to bet again. He had enough money to open up a shop somewhere in the city, or buy his way into an apprenticeship of some kind. He was only seventeen, not yet too old for that sort of thing. He could start over and become the sort of man that his father had always wanted him to be, and he’d have some comfortable padding besides that. At three to two, that was the sensible thing. But on the other hand, the simple addition of a fresh mark on a proof of credit would be enough to change the odds significantly. Dominic had four thousand capi, which he could turn into twelve thousand.
He’d gone ahead and done it. There had been plenty of time for regret and second thoughts afterward, once the bet was on the books and the note of credit was locked away in Corta’s strongbox. What’s done was done, and there was no going back on it now in any case. If the note of credit had passed muster once, there was no reason that the deception would be uncovered now—not unless he lost, and Corta tried to collect the money from him.
As he stood on the rooftops and listened to the other racers, he was sure his heart was beating faster than theirs.
Corta came out onto the rooftops with them just as the crowds were expressing their discontent. She carried herself like there couldn’t possibly be a more important person in the entire world. Her hands rose high above her head, which brought a weak cheer from the crowd, and then she called out to them.
“We have six fine racers gathered here today!” she shouted. Her domain was sound, and she was famous enough to have a measure of true power, though it wasn’t clear what her upper limits were. Her voice boomed loud enough for everyone watching to hear. “Six fine racers,” she repeated. “Yet only one can win.” She went down the line of racers, clasping each on the back and giving them a short introduction for the audience. The races themselves didn’t take all that long, so Corta liked to grandstand and strut around in front of her captive audience while she had them. She saved Dominic for last. When her meaty hand landed on his shoulder, she dug her painted nails into his flesh.
“Dominic de Luca!” Corta yelled to the crowd. This close, her voice was loud enough to rattle Dominic’s bones and leave one of his ears ringing. “Son of a baker, a stoic runner, and the winner of the last six races with practiced ease!” That wasn’t entirely true. The fifth race he’d only won because the city guards had interfered, and they’d been down to four runners in the sixth. He was faster than the others, but circumstances had been on his side. “I know that many of you have bet on him, thinking he’s a sure thing. And others have bet against him, thinking that his luck cannot possibly hold for long. Watch this one closely!” Her grip tightened, and she leaned into him. “You had better run for your life,” she whispered.
Dominic got down into position with the other runners as Corta continued her speech. He did his best to tune it out, since he’d heard it so many times before.
“Three laps around, six flags to touch, the first one back crowned winner,” shouted Corta. “No interference of any kind.” This last was said with a wink to the crowd. Interference was one of the primary attractions of a rooftop race. A few of the nobles had taken to bringing rotten vegetables up to the balconies with them, and it was generally agreed that this was both unsporting and hilarious. Given that serious money was riding on the races, there was a heavy incentive for interested parties to change the outcome, and this too had simply become part of the spectacle. Corta’s four enormous sons were stationed at various parts of the course to prevent the worst abuses, but the races had become more and more hazardous as time went on, much to the delight of the audience. Last time two of them had carried truncheons, and now all four did, though this was more by way of warning than because they would actually use them.
This part of Gennaro had been built centuries ago, during a time when the city council had enacted a ban on carts in all but a few sections of the city. As a consequence of that, the roads between buildings had been built with only pedestrians in mind, and so the gap between neighbors was small. More importantly for the race’s purpose, it meant that the gaps between rooftops were narrow enough to leap over, though still hazardous. Dominic’s eye flickered across the red tiles as he charted his course, mostly to reassure himself. He already knew it by heart.
“Three! Two!” Corta was shouting out the countdown, joined by the crowd. Dominic grew nervous in the final second, and felt bile in the back of his throat, but that was exactly as it had been for the six races before, and when Corta shouted “One!” he was off ahead of the others.
Dominic leapt over the first gap, which wasn’t more than three feet, and pounded on ahead. Corta had called them flags, but they were nothing more than strips of red fabric tied to convenient locations. The first was hanging from a chimney, and as soon as Dominic pressed his hand to it, he shifted his momentum, on to the next one. The crowd cheered, and despite the exertion, he smiled. He had scouted out the area under moonlight the night before, making sure that the tiled roofs were stable and that there were no obvious obstacles that he’d need to avoid in the broad daylight. The crowds cheered him on, even as the first overripe tomato splattered down just two feet from him. He was fortunate that the nobles had been drinking for at least an hour now and their aim had become truly terrible.
As Dominic pushed forward, he could hear the others, who were not much more than a stride length behind him. The roofs were treacherous enough that he didn’t dare to look back, not even when he was on a relatively straight section. There were too many chimneys and crenellations to jump over, or occasional arches to duck under, and too many people to watch. The lower class had staked out positions close to the race, and there was always the possibility that one of them would throw a wine bottle or decide to jump in, though nothing like that had happened so far. And because the races were not quite legal, there was always a chance that the guard would turn up.
“Wait, you forgot your hat!” shouted Franco from half a step behind. This drew laughter from the crowd, and Dominic could imagine that Franco had a smile on his face, but it was the sort of useless pandering that he disliked in the races. If Franco could spare the breath for a joke, then he could use that breath on running faster.
Dominic was on the second lap when there was a scream from behind him, and a sickening crash that was followed by a longer, more mournful wail of pain. The reaction of the audience was a collective gasp of disbelief and cries of terror, though Dominic could swear that he heard one or two of the nobles laughing from their balconies. He pressed on all the same, letting his feet guide him where he needed to be. It wasn’t the first time that someone had taken a fall. Most of the roofs were three stories up, and the results of a misstep were never pretty.
One of the spectators had decided to get too close to the action, and was wrestling one of Corta’s sons on the rooftop, right in Dominic’s path. He took a detour that required an enormous jump of nearly ten feet, which drew gasps and cheers from the crowd and gave him a comfortable lead when he stumbled into a landing. It had been a hard risk to take, especially following on the heels of hearing one of his friends be injured, but he’d done it almost without hesitation. He touched the flag on a balcony railing, and turned towards the next flag after that.
Halfway through the third lap, Dominic was two flags ahead of the next closest racer. He thought that it was Franco, based on one brief glimpse he’d gotten when taking a sharp corner, but either way it didn’t seem like it mattered. The race was hard to focus on when victory was so assured, and when the relief of winning was building in him like a pot getting ready to boil over. An imminent win made Dominic almost delirious with joy, and that too was as it had been in the six races before. Sweat was dripping down his back, and he was radiating heat despite the breeze, but all was right with the world. That was when he saw Welexi hanging in the air.
The enormous wings were made of a soft white light, and as far away as he was, that was nearly all that Dominic could see. The man between the massive wings was small in comparison, just an opaque figure binding the two glowing white wings together. As Dominic watched, Welexi flapped his wings like a bird, keeping himself suspended high up in the sky, higher than the tallest buildings in the city. It was easy for Dominic to think that he was seeing an angel.
All it took was that one moment of losing focus.
Dominic felt the tile slipping away beneath his foot even as he tried to push off from it, and an easy jump suddenly saw him pitched forward, staring at the alleyway three stories below him. He reached out blindly, and managed to grab onto the roof on the other side to prevent himself from falling. His stomach hit the edge and the wind was knocked from him, but he didn’t slip down further. He tried to clamber back up as quickly as possible, but Franco and Rafaello had both leapt over him effortlessly in the time that it took Dominic to find his footing. He pushed himself harder than he ever had before, trying to close the distance before one of them reached the finish line, but it was too late.
Dominic came in third.
Corta was going to kill him.
Dominic rested his head against the pedestal of Gennaro’s statue. The pedestal was ten feet high, with the statue another fifty feet of intricately carved stone on top of that. Gennaro was one of the illustrati of legend, presented in the statue as a man with a thick beard and an arm stretched out in front of him, pointing to the east. His domain had been water, and at the base of his statue were waves carved in marble, splashing up near his robes. Dominic had always liked the statue, in part because of how much history it held; Gennaro had commissioned it himself. Dominic could always imagine that the statue would be there for a hundred more years.
Corta had been kind to him, in her own way. He’d heaved up his breakfast after the race, and she had come to pat him on the back as though there were some honest affection between them.
“I’ll take a man’s money, but I won’t take his pride,” she said with a smile. “I’m not one to gloat. Take the day off—no deliveries, no jobs. Come by the restaurant tomorrow morning and we’ll go to the bank together. It can’t be an easy loss, but I’ll make it as painless as possible.”
Dominic had walked through the city streets in a cold sweat after that. He was going to have to run away, there was nothing else for it. The note of credit came with a hold, and there wasn’t any way to break that. It was possible that he would be able to slip into the bank in the early hours and take out his money, but if it were transferred into its weight in coins, it would be nearly impossible to move. He could get the money in the form of a promissory note that he’d take to another bank, but he didn’t know whether he’d be able to get that note honored in another city. He didn’t even really have any idea where he was going to run away to, or how he would get there, nor how he would protect himself against Corta. She surely had some reach within the Sovento States that extended beyond just Gennaro. He could change his name and disappear, he was fairly confident in that, but then he’d been confident in his ability to win the rooftop race, and he was keenly aware of how that had turned out.
Either way, he would have to wait to get the money, so there was nothing better to do than rest against the statue. He could pretend that it was simply another day, and nothing was wrong. Tomorrow he would run.
Dominic’s chest and stomach hurt from where he had hit the edge of the building, and his forearms had been scraped up enough to bleed. His tunic was a mess, and would have to be washed. He stood up slowly, using the marble pedestal for leverage, and looked up to the statue of Gennaro, which stood firm and resolute as ever, pointing off east, to distant lands. You couldn’t trust the stories about the illustrati, but Dominic had learned all of the stories about Gennaro anyway. Gennaro had founded the city in the early days, and ensured that it was safe from anyone who tried to challenge it. He could walk on water, and would run straight across the sea to engage directly with pirates or rogue navies. He wielded water like a whip, cracking it hard enough to break bones, though it was also said that he was kind, and slow to hurt his enemies. He was everything the illustrati were meant to be, a symbol of goodness first and a strong arm for defense and negotiation second.
Dominic’s domain was shadow. He had nowhere near the level of power that Corta had, and she was only barely at the lowest level of illustrati. Still, the rooftop races had gotten his name circulating, especially after he’d had six wins in a row, and he had to figure that news of his loss would make the rounds even more than the wins had. People had started to take note of him, in however small a way. He couldn’t really feel the difference in terms of speed or strength, but he’d been able to feel his domain for the past month. The shadows seemed more alive to him now, and he could move his own shadow with a bit of focus, rotating it until it was perpendicular to the direction of the sun. He could see a little better in the dark, though it was hard to know whether he was just imagining it.
He was going to practice moving his shadow around before he realized that it had become too cloudy for that; his shadow was diffuse and indistinct. He tried moving it anyway, just for something to distract himself, but the change was barely noticeable. A person couldn’t get stronger from training their power, only from an increase in fame or notoriety, but it was supposed to be possible to gain a greater level of finesse. Mostly to take his mind off Corta, Dominic looked beneath his feet at where his shadow was and rotated it slowly around himself. If he was thinking about that, he would stop thinking about how Corta was going to kill him.
The clouds parted, and Dominic was bathed in sunlight, which made the shadows sharp and clear. When he looked up, he saw a man falling from the sky and heading straight towards the statue of Gennaro. Motes of light hung in the air behind the falling figure.
The man seemed to descend in slow motion when painted against the vast expanse of the sky. He struck Gennaro’s outstretched arm and snapped it off with a terrible crash. Dominic was standing close enough that a chunk of marble nearly hit him in the head. He flinched backwards, too slowly to react properly, and was saved from a caved-in skull by luck alone. When he lowered his arm from in front of his face, he saw a man with skin the color of a coffee stain laying near the statue. The man was perfectly bald, and his silver armor was torn, like it had been ripped into by some enormous beast. The marble tiles of the plaza had been shattered where he had landed.
Dominic moved towards the man. It had to be Welexi. He was bloodied and broken, and he wasn’t moving. Dominic moved closer, through the rubble that Welexi had created during his meteoric descent, and touched the fallen man lightly on the shoulder.
Welexi convulsed and coughed up a thick clot of blood, then looked around wildly. He tried to stand up, but cried out in pain as his leg gave way beneath him. One of his eyes was a deep red, and the other looked half-crazed. He wiped blood from his mouth.
“He’s coming,” said Welexi. His voice was unsteady, nearly cracking. Light shot forth from his injured leg, and encased it in a soft white glow. Welexi stood up with great effort but no obvious unsteadiness this time. He cast a glance towards Dominic. “He’s coming.”
Dominic backed up. More people were moving forward from around the plaza, and they were all talking. He heard Welexi’s name mentioned several times, mingled with notes of confusion and fear.
A loud booming sound came from the other end of the plaza, and Dominic looked over to see dust rising up from the caved-in roof of one of the markethouses. A man in dark red armor stood in the center of the destruction with his hands on his hips. His face was nearly lost within a mass of black hair and a thick black beard. He leapt down from the building, dropping three stories with no seeming concern, and slammed into the plaza floor with a loud clang of metal against marble.
Zerstor was as widely known as Welexi, and immediately identifiable by his armor. His domain was rust, and the armor he clad himself in was corroded in a way that would have made it useless on any other man. He couldn’t fly, but he could leap long distances. There were prohibitions against speaking his name out loud, but everyone did it anyway, in part because he had never shown his face in Gennaro before, and in part because the stories about him were too lurid and too outlandish not to share.
Dominic wracked his brain for more information. You couldn’t trust the stories about the illustrati, because half of them were false, but now Zerstor was standing just a hundred yards away, and walking closer. Zerstor held his hand out to the side, and a few of the crude plates that made up his armor flew through the air and snapped into position to make a long, rusty sword.
“Get back!” shouted Welexi. He was quickly forming light around himself, sealing over his armor where it no longer protected him. There was a brilliant flash, and afterward he held a spear of white light in his fist. “Get back!” Welexi shouted a second time, and this time Dominic realized that he was talking to the growing crowds, not to Zerstor. Dominic had heard about the fights between the two causing collateral damage and civilian casualties, but he made no move to leave. He wasn’t about to miss this.
“Five fights is too many,” said Zerstor, revealing a mouth of broken yellow teeth. “Do you recall when I left you bleeding in the desert? I should have ended you there. But it was just you and I alone then, a cozy little battle fought across the dunes, and I needed someone to spread the story for me. I knew you would do it too. You never could keep your mouth shut, even when it would have served you best.”
“I spoke the truth, nothing more,” said Welexi. They were still some distance apart, and Zerstor was making no effort to close the distance quickly. “To pretend that I hadn’t been beaten would have been dishonorable.”
“Perhaps,” said Zerstor. He swung his sword out to the side. “If you try to run, I’ll kill every last person in this plaza.”
“I’m afraid you broke my leg,” said Welexi. He let out a weak laugh. His forehead was beaded with sweat, and Dominic didn’t see how it was possible that he would win this fight. “So I suppose this is it then.”
“How does it feel to see your death closing in on you?” asked Zerstor. He smiled with his jagged teeth. “You always knew that it would be me that got you, didn’t you?”
“I’ve had a thousand enemies,” said Welexi. “That you haven’t heard of most of them is testament to their fates.”
“You say that for the benefit of these fine people,” said Zerstor as he cast a glance at the crowd. He slammed a gauntleted fist up against his armored chest with a loud clank and stared at Welexi. “I was always special to you. A monolithic evil that you could build your reputation on. I had my reasons to leave you alive in that desert, but you had your own reasons for never killing me. You could have murdered me in Lerabor, but you chose not to.”
“You set Sanguin on them!” shouted Welexi. “She washed the streets in blood! How could I have responded but to try to save the innocents?”
Zerstor had stopped his advance, and stood some distance from Welexi. He made no move to engage, but it was clear this was only a calm before the storm. The crowd around them had grown thick, and Dominic could see people watching from the windows around the plaza, and gathering up on the rooftops. Dominic’s view was considerably closer. He was in the inner circle, with nothing but empty air between him and the illustrati. A small part of him recognized that the wise thing to do would be to slip backwards through the crowd and put as much distance between himself and the fight as possible, but the promise of witnessing a piece of history firsthand was too powerful of a lure. And besides that, what did he really have to lose?
“I grow weary of your moralizing,” said Zerstor. “It never rang true for me.” He turned away and looked to the crowd. “I know you better than to think you were stalling for the guards to come, but it seems that’s been the result. Something to whet my appetite before I kill you, I suppose.”
The parapetti were pushing their way through the crowd, with their polearms clearly visible above the throngs. No one was eager to move aside for them. This wasn’t how the stories of the illustrati went; none of them had ever been brought down by a simple guard. It didn’t even happen if there were a dozen guards, fought all at once. The illustrati varied in their powers, but Zerstor had to be one of the most famous men on the face of the earth. Though he was handicapped by having the domain of rust, it was virtually impossible that he would be beaten by any ordinary man. For their part the parapetti seemed to understand this, and didn’t move with much haste. An older woman cried out that they were going to their deaths, and Zerstor grinned.
“Leave them,” said Welexi. He had finished all of his modifications of light, and his armor glowed from all the haphazard repairs that he’d made with his power. In his hand he held a solid spear of light, which was long and sharply pointed, but otherwise unadorned. “They’re only doing their duty.”
Zerstor nodded. “Yes, as people do.”
One of the parapetti broke through, and held his polearm before him like it would shield him. The others followed close behind.
“I’ll offer you a deal,” said Welexi. There was urgency in his voice. “You walk free, past all these guards, and I will not stop you. You leave this city and its people in peace, without shedding more blood. In exchange, I have bards around the world that can sing of our battles. I have riches that I can give you, to spare these lives today.”
Zerstor smiled. “You pretend at being protective to cover your own cowardice,” he said. “That’s a little too transparent for my liking. And besides, you know that there’s nothing you can offer me. I’m driven entirely by fame, am I not? ‘Not the false fame of bardic songs and embellished legends, but a trueness of character that cannot be faked.’ You said that, didn’t you, about yourself? Well, we’re much alike, in that regard.”
When Zerstor moved, the whole world seemed to be standing still. The first parapetto had enough time to lower his polearm a handspan, but Zerstor simply stepped around it. All Dominic saw was the guard crumpling to the ground with a rusted hole in the center of his breastplate. Zerstor had cleanly decapitated the second guard when Welexi arrived behind him, thrusting forward with his spear of light.
Zerstor dodged, and the crowd scattered as he moved towards them. He whipped around at the same time, to face Welexi. His pitted sword was held cautiously in front of him, and it didn’t waver in the slightest.
“If you’re really so brave and noble, so ready to protect these people,” said Zerstor, “then guarantee me that this fight is just between the two of us.”
“I can’t control what other people—”
Zerstor spun towards one of the parapetti, easily slipping within the reach of his polearm. When he finished his spinning motion he was holding the guard in front of him. The guard’s head was gripped tightly in his armored fist. His perfectly balanced sword was held in the other hand and pointed towards Welexi, as motionless as before.
“You were about to speak the words of a coward,” said Zerstor. He squeezed the parapetto’s head with a sudden violent motion, and everyone in the plaza heard a sickening crunch as the man went limp. Zerstor let him slump to the ground. “Order them to stand down. Send them away. Tell everyone that this final fight is not to be interrupted.”
Welexi didn’t have the slightest trace of hesitation. “This is my fight, and mine alone,” he called to the crowd. “If Vidre arrives, tell her that I have made a commitment. She might be the only one aside from me that could defeat this monster. Everyone else stand back. If you value your lives, you will leave. Any agents of Gennaro among you, I command you to stand down by the power vested in me by the senatori not three days ago.” He held his spear in front of him, and settled himself into a more aggressive fighting stance.
The two men began to circle each other carefully. The crowd gave them a wide berth, but didn’t dissipate entirely, even as the dead parapetti were taken away by their comrades. Dominic was one of the closest, with a mass of people to his back. He was ready to take off running at any moment, if Zerstor turned his attentions towards the crowd, but there seemed little chance of that at this point.
Zerstor and Welexi moved slowly, sizing each other up, and shifting their weight so that they were never the slightest bit off balance. They were taking their time. A low murmur began to build from the crowd as people talked in low voices to their neighbors. Dominic was glad that no one had tried to engage him in conversation. He was fairly sure that the only thing he could have said was that they were about to see Welexi die. Welexi’s left leg was the injured one, and it was encased in light like a thick plaster cast that allowed limited mobility. Whenever Welexi needed to step to the side with it, the motion was quicker and slightly tentative, as though he was worried it would give out.
Zerstor struck out first, swinging his sword at just the moment when Welexi was moving that injured leg. If Dominic had been able to make a bet in that brief fraction of a second, he would have bet that it was the killing blow, but Welexi flipped backwards with astonishing speed and landed easily on his feet. His left leg was stiff, but he’d been exaggerating the extent of how that limited him.
Some primal part of Dominic had expected them to go at each other then, to tear into each other like he’d seen cats do when they were fighting, or like dogs with a piece of meat. He wanted it, in some way, a fevered, brutal brawl that seemed to have been promised to him. But Zerstor and Welexi went back to their circling, and continued on with feints and footwork. They reminded Dominic less of the four-legged animals he’d seen skirmishing in the alleys, and more of two birds pecking at one another. To be frank, it was disappointing.
Dominic almost missed it the first time it happened, and even after he wasn’t sure what he’d seen was correct. Zerstor had thrust his sword forward, and Welexi had spun away, but something had happened at the point of contact between their weapons—or rather, failed to happen. The next time, Dominic was more sure of it. Welexi’s spear had passed straight through Zerstor’s sword. It threw their entire battle into context, with all the distance that they kept between them and their tentative jabs at each other. Neither was able to parry a blow, and if Welexi’s spear could go through armor like it went through the sword, a single proper thrust would almost certainly give Zerstor a mortal wound.
As the fight went on, and the minutes passed, it became clear that Welexi was losing his stamina. Dominic wasn’t willing to rule out that this was simply another ruse, but it didn’t seem like it. Welexi’s bald head was soaked in sweat, which ran together with his blood to soak the collar of the shirt he wore beneath his armor. He moved slightly too slow, and a jab of Zerstor’s glanced of his breastplate. A bloom of rust marked where the pitted sword had struck.
Welexi moved back, putting more distance between them, and summoned a second shaft of light into his other hand. His eyes were hard as he and Zerstor watched each other, and Dominic could feel his heart beating faster in sympathy. Welexi twirled his spears around, fast enough that they briefly appeared as disks of light, then charged forward.
His attacks were fast and furious, and a cheer came up from the crowd as Zerstor spent all his efforts on dodging away from them, the sword in his hand more of a liability than an asset. Twice Welexi got in a solid hit, but both times it was from the side rather than a stab forward, passing through the armor and striking Zerstor’s side like a staff instead of a spear. Dominic held his breath as Welexi kept up his onslaught, hoping that the killing blow would happen any moment. The world seemed to narrow itself down to those two men, the beacon of light and the giant of rust, both moving faster than they had any right to. Zerstor stepped back to avoid another thrust of the spear towards his chest, and swung his sword towards Welexi’s side at the same time.
There was a blinding flash of light. Dominic tried his best to blink it away, and he could hear the cries and groans from the people around him. Welexi’s form was burned into his vision, halfway split at the waist. Dominic had seen the sword moving, had seen it touch the armor again … and then Welexi had turned into a being of pure light, like an apparition, so quickly and so powerfully that it was only possible to make sense of it after the fact.
Welexi stood in front of Zerstor, gasping for breath. He was entirely intact, his form fully physical once more. His eyes were wide. Zerstor had his sword held up in a defensive position, and if Dominic was having trouble recovering his vision, he could only hope that Zerstor had it worse.
Welexi spun his spears around once, then leapt forward again to press the advantage. With his vision half gone, Dominic could barely see except to note the rapid movements of Welexi’s light. If Welexi was going to win, it would be now.
Welexi screamed in pain, and one of the spears went clattering to the ground. Three fingers were still gripped around it, but there was surprisingly little blood. The battle had turned in an instant, on a single strike that Dominic hadn’t even been able to follow. Welexi staggered back now, with his ruined hand clutched to his chest and his spear out in front of him in his left hand. If the fingers that still clutched the spear of light were nearly bloodless, the wound itself was more than making up for it.
“Please,” Welexi said, his voice so soft that it was difficult to hear. Zerstor stalked forward, with his sword leading in front of him. Dominic hadn’t realized how close he was to the action until Zerstor passed within two yards of him. A quick glance backwards showed that the crowd had ebbed and flowed, and after the blast of light had put up a greater distance. Dominic felt as though he was stuck in place. He was closer to the illustrati than anyone else, and he couldn’t do anything more than watch.
Zerstor batted Welexi’s hand to the side with his sword, and the second spear of light went tumbling down to the ground. With a burst of speed, the hulking man in rusted armor wrapped his hand around Welexi’s throat and lifted him up into the air.
“A fitting end,” said Zerstor. Welexi tried to form another construct of light, but Zerstor grabbed his uninjured arm and snapped the bone, loudly enough that everyone around could hear it. Welexi screamed in pain. “They won’t be able to speak of you without uttering my name,” said Zerstor. His voice was loud, and carried across the crowd.
Dominic’s eyes were drawn to the spear of light that lay on the ground not ten feet away. Welexi was dying, and a foolish plan formed in Dominic’s mind. It would be a gamble larger than the one he’d taken with Corta, but it was double or nothing at this point. Before he could consider it too deeply, he raced forward in a dead sprint and grabbed the spear of light from the ground, then tacked hard the other direction, just like he’d done on the rooftop, to propel himself at Zerstor.
There was only time for an instant of doubt when Zerstor turned around, his black beard thick with sweat and his eyes sharp and piercing, but Dominic wasn’t acting on a level that permitted doubt. The spear had been moving too fast anyway. It slid straight through the armor with no resistance, and struck Zerstor in the heart.
He’d been holding Welexi with one hand, and dropped him with a gasp.
His death wasn’t instant, but it was close.
Dominic dropped the spear.
A confused cheer came up from the watching crowd, which rippled around the plaza until it was taken up by those who couldn’t see. Dominic’s arms and back were slick with sweat, and he was breathing hard. Everyone was looking at him. His plan had only gone so far as picking up the light and attacking Zerstor, and he was at a loss for what to do now that the moment had passed. He felt none of the elation that came with winning a race.
Welexi coughed loudly and climbed to his feet. His mangled hand was bleeding freely. He looked down at it and furrowed his brow for a moment. Tendrils of light grew from the wound and wrapped around the hand. Welexi turned his eyes to Dominic, and walked towards him on unsteady feet, with his left leg dragging behind him like a club foot.
“Name,” Welexi said sotto voce. He had a rich voice like a fine liqueur, but this was the first time that he’d said anything that wasn’t pitched for a crowd. Now it was low and hushed, like a secret shared between the two of them.
“Dominic de Luca,” replied Dominic, trying to keep his own voice as low.
Welexi grasped Dominic’s wrist and lifted his arm up into the air.
“Never think that you are without power,” Welexi called to the crowd. They went silent at his voice, which carried far. “There is nothing in this world stronger than courage and the conviction to do what is right. This man risked his life to save mine. Zerstor, long a scourge on this world, now lies dead.” He turned to Dominic, but continued to project his voice out to the crowds. “I name you Dominic de Luca, Lightscour. May the story of your boldness and bravery be told for decades to come.”
Dominic’s heart was hammering in his chest. He could barely believe what was happening. He had been given a name by Welexi himself. People were cheering around him.
“Come,” said Welexi, again pitching his voice so only Dominic could hear. “I have wounds that need tending to, and we have business to discuss.”
There were a thousand people shouting after the both of them. Dominic followed in Welexi’s unsteady wake. The crowd pressed in on them. People touched him, tugged at his tunic, and pressed their flesh against Welexi, and they did the same to Dominic . It was a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. Behind them, Dominic heard the sound of Zerstor’s armor being pulled apart for souvenirs. It was becoming too much, too fast, and all Dominic could do was follow behind Welexi and try to remain calm. Questions were being shouted at him, too many to answer. The crowd was becoming more insistent, and more suffocating. Just when Dominic was about to start shoving back, Welexi grabbed his hand and helped him up into a closed palanquin carried by four servants.
“This was sent by someone trying to curry my favor, no doubt,” said Welexi once they were both inside. “On hearing that there was a fight, someone’s first thought was that they should mobilize a litter to carry me away, so that they could improve their own position in the world. Would my nemesis have been shown the same deference, had he proven the victor?” The palanquin started to move through the crowd at a glacial pace. Welexi leaned his head back and closed his eyes. The glowing light around his mangled hand had shaped itself into crude fingers. Up close, Dominic could see the lines on Welexi’s face, and the exhaustion that he carried himself with. He was dark-skinned, but with a pallor. There was a wound on almost every inch of exposed skin, scrapes and gashes from his fall. Dominic had no idea how old the illustrati was, but to have accumulated so many stories he had to be at least in his forties, maybe older.
“Where are we going?” asked Dominic.
Welexi was a long time in answering. “My ship,” he said finally. He opened his eyes, which were mismatched from his injuries, one of them blue and the other filled with blood. “I hope that’s alright. Feel free to step out now if you’d like.”
Dominic didn’t make a move. He was sitting a half a foot away from the greatest hero of modern times. Their knees were touching. Dominic had never been one to pay much mind to the illustrati’s stories, but the stories of Welexi were well known. He’d single-handedly fought the Golden Horde to a standstill. He’d brought down warlords and brought an end to evil kings. Though it seemed like a lifetime ago now, Dominic had seen Welexi flying through the air like a bird. There was a reason they called him Welexi Sunhawk. Dominic wasn’t invested in the lives of the illustrati like some of his friends, but here was a living legend, and a man of extreme power. He could make debts disappear with the snap of his fingers. Dominic had no idea what to say.
“The story will circle the city,” said Welexi with a long sigh. He touched his face and hissed with pain. When he pulled his hand away, white light had bloomed across his skin, covering the worst of the cuts and scratches. He settled into his seat, with his head tilted back and his eyes closed. “The story will circle the city,” he repeated, “By nightfall it will be on the lips of every man, woman, and child. Your name, mine, and Zerstor’s, may he find some measure of peace in death. I don’t imagine that you have much standing right now, hardly enough to know your domain if I read you right. But nevertheless, you will accrue an enormous amount of fame from this event.”
“Alright,” said Dominic. “That’s … thank you, for what you said at the plaza.”
“You will have invitations,” said Welexi, as though Dominic had said nothing. “The senatori, certainly, will invite you to have wine with them. If you deign to attend their parties, you will be asked to recount the story again and again, until you have perfected it. It was a moment of bravery and heroism, the kind that people like to see in themselves. Any bumps or rough edges in the story will be smoothed out, if not by you, then by others. What Zerstor said now has an ironic echo to it, don’t you think? They won’t be able to mention his name without mentioning yours. Fitting, for his last words.”
Welexi fell silent again, and the sounds of the crowds outside filtered through the heavy drapes inside the palanquin, which swayed and bobbed as it was carried through the city. Occasionally there were cheers, which cut against the somber mood that Welexi exuded.
“You wanted to be the one to kill him,” said Dominic. When the spear had gone through Zerstor’s heart, Dominic hadn’t felt good about it. He’d been full of nervous energy, like he was about to puke or collapse. He had been too struck by disbelief to really feel happy that the risk had paid off. Now his heart was beginning to sink in his chest, and his mind was returning to Corta and what she would do to him. If Welexi didn’t help him—
Welexi opened his good eye and looked at Dominic. “I think in narratives,” he said. “It’s an occupational hazard. Zerstor had built for himself an image of darkest evil, and blackened his soul enough to become a household name despite the bans and the taboos. I took the other path. It was natural for us to butt heads. Five battles. Murder writ large across the world, and I was always too much of a—he was right, you know. I could have let Sanguin drown a city in blood to chase him down. If I tally up the damages he’s caused, can it really have been worth it?” Welexi closed his eye and sighed. The palanquin swayed in a gentle rhythm despite the throngs of people still outside it.
“Let me tell you a story,” said Welexi. “A prince is trying to secure an alliance, and agrees to marrying one of the three princesses, sight unseen. He meets the first, and she’s incredibly ugly, so ugly that she must wear a veil at all times. He meets the second, and she’s just as ugly as the first, if not more so. The prince is starting to regret agreeing to marry one of them. He meets the third sister, and do you know what she looks like?”
Dominic waited for some time before he realized that Welexi expected him to answer. “If it weren’t a story, I’d think she’d be just as ugly as her sisters. But since it is a story … I expect her to be beautiful, I guess. Or different, at least.”
“You understand,” said Welexi. “Stories have a logic to them, a way that they’re shaped. I’ve traveled most of the world, and these shapes hold true. The story that Zerstor and I were shaping was to have its climax in the fifth fight, the fight where one of us was to die. I wanted that story. I lost loved ones for that story. But now … now that story has been stillborn. There’s a new story, with you at the center, a story about a mortal man stepping into godly affairs.” He lowered his head and looked down at his mangled hand, where the soft light glowed. Then he turned his eyes up towards Dominic. “There’s a new story here, and if you’ll let me, I’ll help you forge it.”