Dominic woke up to a cat licking his face.
“I’ve always taken to dogs instead of cats,” said Vidre. She was laying in bed next to him, watching him. She still had her armor on, but it was clear that she was only just waking up, same as him. Vidre frowned slightly. She reached over to brush a curl of hair from his face, then petted the cat. Her face was softer following a night’s sleep. By the light coming in through the window, it was just barely past dawn.
Dominic pushed the large tortoiseshell cat from on top of him and sat up. He’d made sure that the door was closed the night before. He looked towards the door, worried that he would find it open, or that he would spot Faye standing at the foot of the bed with her daggers drawn.
“Relax,” murmured Vidre. “It’s a guard cat. I went to check on Welexi and Gaelwyn last night; when I came back into the room, this little fellow followed me in. He curled up near your feet, so I thought there wasn’t any harm.” She yawned. “No attacks in the night, as you might have surmised.”
Dominic flopped back down on the bed, then turned to look at Vidre. “I remember the stories about you as a child. You had puppies.”
“Yes,” replied Vidre. She seemed in no particular hurry to wake up. “A new one every month. My husband hated dogs, but he loved seeing me with a small, innocent puppy in my arms. I would go to sleep with a dog that had gotten too big, then wake with a new puppy, often fresh from his mother’s womb. Eventually I had to ask him to stop giving them to me. There was a feeling that came with losing a dog I’d bonded with …” She trailed off. The sleepiness seemed to leave her face. Vidre rose from the bed and began to put pieces of her armor back on. “If Hartwain offers you a cat, it’s important that you accept it. If nothing else, the ship needs a new mouser.”
“You don’t talk about your former husband much,” said Dominic. She’d broached the topic only once; Dominic had been too cautious to ask questions. He watched her pinning her hair back into place with spars of glass that twisted like living things in her fingers.
“It was more than a decade ago that he died,” said Vidre. “Once you’ve lived a little bit longer, you’ll realize how quickly the past fades away. Living as a new queen with all the attention in the world wasn’t what I would call a hardship.” She paused slightly. “He didn’t touch me.”
“Ah,” said Dominic.
“I was afraid of my marital duties,” said Vidre. “I was nine years old when we were wed. It was a scandal that happened right at a time when there was a lull at court. The first night I lay there in fear, but my husband made no move for me. The stories always make me out to be much younger than I was, but I was old enough to have some awareness of the world. I thought perhaps he would exercise his duty when I grew older, but as I moved from girlhood to womanhood the only change in his demeanor was that he took less of an interest in me.” Vidre looked around the room. “I’m certain that my makeup is a mess, but we don’t seem to have a mirror anywhere for me to confirm it.”
“You look beautiful,” said Dominic.
Vidre squinted at him, as though he had made a joke. “Well, of course I’m beautiful. I’m well-known for it. I’m not terribly modest. The question is whether my makeup is a mess, and if so, how much.” She stretched out. “At any rate, I don’t expect you to believe the true history of my childhood — few do — but most of the stories from my youth have more to do with my husband than they do with me. Elaborate parties, twelve-course meals, fancy gifts and expensive toys, all were provided by my husband to me. He had ideas of how a girl should think and act, which led him to lavish all this unasked for attention on me.”
“I believe you,” said Dominic. “The stories never seemed to have the ring of truth to them. My mother said you fed glass to a puppy once.”
“I would laugh at the absurdity of it,” said Vidre. “But I’ve heard that one before. Any humor I might take from it is now long gone.”
“I’m sorry,” said Dominic. “I mean … I’m sorry that so many of the stories about you are so unpleasant.”
“Most of them I earned,” said Vidre. “Some of them I invented myself, useful lies designed to help me accumulate power. Once I realized how much I’d been maligned for my childhood, it was the obvious thing to do.” She cocked her head to the side. “I hear a coach approaching, which means that we have company.” Vidre paused before continuing. “Thank you for listening to me. It’s as Gaelwyn said, there’s an idea of a person that lives inside your head. Even if it means you think poorly of me, I’d like for your idea of me to match my reality.”
They came down to the sitting room, where Hartwain was waiting for them. An enormous black cat was curled up on the chaise next to her; it was nearly the size of a pony, if not a full-grown horse. Dominic had to keep himself from jumping when he saw it, which caused Hartwain to smirk at him. Gaelwyn and Welexi entered the room soon after Dominic had taken his seat.
“I trust that the arrangements were adequate?” asked Hartwain.
“Very much so,” said Welexi. “We will do our best not to lean on your generosity for long.”
“We’ve had a visitor,” said Hartwain. “It is of course the height of rudeness to entertain a caller while there are already guests present, but if you would give me leave to introduce him?”
The way she said it gave no room for argument. “Of course we would be delighted to make the acquaintance of anyone who has been given the privilege of calling upon you.”
“May I present to you Jacques Fabben, the Minister of Legends,” Hartwain intoned.
The man who entered the sitting room wore a long sash decorated with medals, along with a turban that sat high on his head. It was a style that Dominic was unfamiliar with. The man’s face was nearly covered in a thick beard, which obscured the thin line of his mouth. He had dark, haunted eyes.
“My pardon for the intrusion,” said Jacques.
Hartwain gave the introductions, though Jacques would have been well-familiar with them all even if he hadn’t been in charge of the illustrati of the Iron Kingdom. Jacques gave a low bow towards Vidre, as befit her status as queen-in-exile, which she seemed to accept with an undue amount of amusement. Dominic had to wonder whether she thought of her deranged husband when she was given the royal title.
“May I ask what happened to your predecessor?” asked Welexi after the formalities were done with and the minister was seated. “Laurence was a dear friend of mine. I hadn’t heard word of his retirement.”
“He passed, I’m afraid,” said Jacques. “Died in the night from causes that are as-yet unknown.”
“A shame,” murmured Welexi. “And I hear that the Iron King is in ill health as well?”
Jacques coughed into his fist. “Parance swirls with rumors even in the best of times, and these are not the best of times.”
“He’s sequestered himself away for more than a year,” said Gaelwyn. “That seems more than rumor to me.”
“I’m afraid my business keeps me mostly within Parance itself,” said Jacques. “But I have not come here to discuss the Iron King, nor, I apologize, to take breakfast with the Lady Hartwain. I have come seeking the aid of the most powerful illustrati the world has to offer.”
“What kind of aid?” asked Dominic. That was more blunt than Welexi would have put it. The minister looked at Dominic as though surprised to see him in the room.
“There has been a rash of disappearances,” said Jacques. “Illustrati, all of them.”
“Fire illustrati among their number?” asked Welexi. He had moved towards the edge of his seat. His armor was glowing more brightly.
“Yes,” nodded Jacques. “You’ve heard then.” He sighed. “A number of mills have been temporarily shut down until we can elevate more illustrati to take their place. The Iron Kingdom has a number of dependencies, but even with the redundancies we have in place, the losses have been hitting us quite hard. Without someone to heat the boilers, the mills can’t run. That in turn slows down every merchant and artisan that depends on the output of those mills.”
“We’ll need a catalog of who’s missing,” said Vidre. “Have corpses been found?”
“None,” said Jacques.
“What about Quill?” asked Welexi.
“He will be included in the catalog,” said the minister.
An uneasy silence settled over the room. Hartwain stroked her enormous black cat with one hand, then gave a demure yawn. She was feigning nonchalance, Dominic was almost certain of that. Whatever was happening in Parance, the enemy was acting exceedingly brazen. It would have been perfectly natural for Hartwain to believe that her life was in danger. Perhaps that was even the case. Dominic had his doubts though; if the fire illustrati had their fame and domains taken from them, then Faye and whoever she worked for were finding specific targets with some purpose in mind. The many cats in Hartwain’s manor were eerie in the way they moved around and stared at him, but aside from the black cat, they didn’t seem terribly threatening or useful.
Dominic’s eyes moved around, taking in each of the illustrati in turn. They’d brought an enormous amount of fame to Parance, along with a variety of useful domains. He had the uneasy feeling that they were going to be bait, willingly or not.
The Ministry of Legends was one of a number of tall buildings near the river. They had opted to walk rather than attempt to fit five people into a small coach, though Jacques had gone on ahead of them. The four illustrati were armed and armored as though a war were coming, save for Gaelwyn, who had on only his everyday clothing and green apron.
“You didn’t ask about the artifacts,” said Dominic as they walked.
“If there are artifacts,” said Vidre.
“No need to concern the minister with such things,” said Welexi. “If he was willing to share such information in front of Hartwain, he likely would have done so of his own volition. If the Iron Kingdom is behind whatever is happening, better for them to have to put in some effort to find out what it is we know.” He sucked at his teeth. “Perhaps speaking with Hartwain on the matter was unwise, but she’s been a steadfast friend in the past.”
“Steadfastly devoted to herself,” muttered Gaelwyn.
“I doubt that she would have called you a monster if she had been appraised of what had happened in Meriwall,” said Welexi. “She didn’t know it was a sore spot that had been laid open. When she said it, she was only trying to make light. If she had actually thought you a monster, she wouldn’t have given us rooms for the night.”
The crowds were out in force. As had been the case the day before, many people stared, but no one approached them. The air smelled slightly acrid, even with a light breeze blowing through the city. There was an ever-present sound around them, a cacophonous mixture of horses, industry, and people. The river that ran through the heart of the city was barely a whisper in comparison. Gennaro had certainly been noisy, but it was a noise of the sea and the gulls that perched on every dockside building. Parance had its noise shaped by the tall buildings, lending a faint echo to every sound.
Dominic tried his best not to be continually amazed by the city, but he was afraid he was doing a poor job of it. The stories talked about the Iron Kingdom as having muddy roads that its citizens trudged through. Every street that Dominic had stepped through was paved with thick, orderly flagstones. Where Gennaro had runnels that lined its busier streets, carrying water and filth in equal measure, in Parance there were small grates set into the sides of the streets. It wasn’t clear where they led to. That was the sort of thing that kept Dominic’s mind alight when he looked around him. They were walking towards one of the immense buildings, those that reached thirty stories up into the air. Did people walk up that many stairs every day? The buildings were made from iron, clearly enough, which would have helped with keeping them from collapsing, but it still must have taken the work of hundreds of people.
“We need to establish a few rules for going into the ministry,” said Vidre. “Don’t accept food or water. Don’t touch anyone. Don’t handle anything you’re not intimately familiar with.”
“You’re speaking indelicately,” said Welexi. “We cannot go casting aspersions on those who we call allies.” His eyes flickered to the people around him. Dominic thought about the talk of spies they’d had the day before. The Minister of Legends had left in his coach to meet them there, but obviously the Iron Kingdom would have had someone trail them. They represented a significant amount of military might.
“The Iron Kingdom has lost a number of its illustrati,” said Vidre. “They can take offense all they want, so long as we stay safe. It wouldn’t even need to be action at the upper levels of the Iron Kingdom, it could be a rogue member intending to secure a position once the succession happens.”
“There’s no construction,” said Gaelwyn. He was looking around the city as they walked, with more of an analytical eye than Dominic had. “The tallest of these buildings are new; a hundred yards was as high as they went the last time we were here, spires and decorations aside. Quill lived in the tallest of them. Now they’ve managed more than that, quite a few times. All within the years since we were last here. Yet there’s no construction. We should expect to see a few buildings in a half-finished state even now, trying to surpass their brethren or continuing the city’s quest to pack as much flesh in as few square miles as possible.”
“You find this suspicious,” said Vidre. “Or at least germane to the conversation?”
“It’s troubling,” said Gaelwyn. “It means that something has changed within the Iron Kingdom.” He pointed up towards one of the buildings next to the river. “If you see there, that one was completed only recently. The outer skin is unembellished for the final ten floors in a way that the others are not.”
“Why rush it?” asked Dominic.
“Image,” said Vidre. “They’re projecting a scene.” She was looking around the city as well, scanning the tops of the buildings. “Same as any illustrati. But the purpose here is not the accumulation of power, only its retention.”
“To what end though?” asked Dominic.
“They don’t have enough iron,” said Welexi. “They’re not building more of these monstrosities because they can’t. It bodes poorly for the Iron King’s health, if that line of reasoning is sound.”
“The succession might already be happening,” said Gaelwyn. “Worse, it might already be over, without any fanfare.”
This was met with a still silence that let sounds of the city be heard. Dominic wondered whether the spies that were surely following them would report this back to their masters. If the Iron King had died some time ago, his death had not been announced to the world. While he was a large and imposing figure in the politics of the world, he rarely left Castle Launtine even before his supposed illness, only taking trips every few weeks to look in on his kingdom. He otherwise invited people to his castle if they had business with him, which kept him somewhat divorced from the city of Parance. Dominic tried to think of all the people who would have to be in on such a deception for it to work — there were courtiers, messengers, ministers, and all manner of men and women who would deal with the Iron King on a daily basis. Some of them could be deflected by the excuse of sickness, but there were limits on how long that could last.
The bottom floor of the Ministry of Legends was an open, cavernous room, filled with a variety of people gathered together in clusters. A number of them wore red waistcoats with black sashes across them, which Dominic took to be a uniform of some sort.
“This is where the business of illustrati is conducted in the Iron Kingdom,” Vidre said to Dominic in a low voice. “It works less well than they would like you to believe. You can organize the telling of stories, or outlaw tales about certain people, but in large part you’re trying to regulate how people think. It’s a basic fact of history that people often think in inconvenient ways.”
Gennaro had its own laws to similar effect, but there it was widely agreed that no one should take those laws seriously. Gennaro was also rife with corruption among the guard, not to mention the senatori, so perhaps this was a matter of more general problems with the city. As Welexi spoke with two men in red behind a large desk, Dominic’s eyes wandered the open area. What was the purpose of all these uniformed men? Presumably they each had some role to play, yet Dominic couldn’t imagine that this was the most efficient way of creating and maintaining illustrati.
Dominic followed behind as they were guided to a small room off the side of the open reception area. One of the uniformed men spoke briefly into a horn mounted on the wall, then gestured into the small room. When the four illustrati were in, a metal door was drawn shut, locking them within. Dominic gave a start when the floor beneath him started to move.
“It’s called an ascending room,” said Vidre. She was watching him with a smile. “We’re being pulled up by a winch.”
“Clever,” said Dominic. He felt unsteady. The tenor of the air was changing as they rose, but the walls of the ascending room made it impossible to tell how fast they were moving. “Is it safe?”
“You’re an illustrati,” said Welexi. “I survived a fall from above the clouds.”
“With broken bones,” said Gaelwyn. “Bones which are not yet fully mended.”
“So is it safe?” asked Dominic. He had started thickening his armor of shadow and forced himself to stop. No one else seemed concerned with the possibility of the ascending room making a rapid descent.
“Safe enough,” said Vidre. “It’s used every day by hundreds if not thousands of people.”
The climb continued for far longer than Dominic felt it should. He couldn’t tell whether the sensation of swaying was his imagination, or whether the air had actually gotten thinner. The building that housed the Ministry of Legends didn’t reach the height of even a small mountain, but Dominic felt light-headed all the same.
When the ascending room finally came to a sudden, jerking stop, the door to it opened to reveal another of the ubiquitous uniformed men, standing there waiting for them. He led them down a long hallway, then another much shorter one, to the office of Jacques Fabben, who was waiting for them behind a desk. Dominic was thankful that the room had no windows; he was spared the feeling of looking out over empty air, or being fully aware of their extreme height. He settled into his seat and tried his best to pretend that they were on the ground floor.
“A small office for one with such a senior position within his Ministry,” said Vidre.
“I apologize for the lack of amenities, your Majesty,” said Jacques. “There are renovations being done on the floor above, so for the time being, this is where I must do my business.”
“You have records for us to look through?” asked Welexi.
“Yes, of course,” said Jacques slowly. He fumbled at one of his desk drawers for a moment before pulling out a sheaf of papers.
“I note that this temporary office has no windows,” said Vidre. “Curious that they weren’t able to find you a better place, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone,” said Jacques. He leaned forward, over his desk. “Now, the illustrati we’ve lost track of worked primarily in the mills, though there a number of more independent illustrati —”
Vidre stood up from her seat. She drew her armor up over her as she moved, adding on glass until it was more thick and protective. She moved to the room’s single door, inspected the knob for a moment, then tried to open it. When it didn’t open, Dominic stood up as well, pulling up more armor and making a sword appear in his hand.
“I was given to understand we could leave at any time?” Welexi said to Jacques. His tone was even; it almost seemed like he was enjoying himself. “I do find it curious that this small, temporary office would have a lock from the inside.”
Vidre drew back a fist, coated it so throughly in glass that it resembled a sledgehammer, then slammed it into the door. This was met with a resounding clank of metal. Pieces of the door fell away, revealing a thick slab of iron where the wood had been covering it; Vidre’s attack hadn’t even dented it.
“I’m sorry,” said Jacques. There was sorrow in his voice. “He asked it of me, and I could not resist him.”
“Who?” asked Welexi.
“We need to get out of here,” said Dominic. “We need to break through the walls, or —”
Vidre whirred around the room, with her daggers trailing behind her. She left marks on the walls, deep enough to cut through layers of paper, plaster, and paneling. When Vidre had cut to the metal on each wall, she began on the floor and ceiling as well, raining plaster down on them.
“Who?” asked Welexi again. “Who is your master?”
“The Iron King,” said Jacques, in nearly a whisper.
“We need to get out of here,” said Vidre. “Now.”
“How?” asked Dominic. He had his sword of shadow at the ready, for all the good that would do. “How thick are these walls?”
“Too thick,” said Vidre. She spat on the ground and spun her daggers in her hands. “I can punch through steel plating, but solid iron a few feet thick …” she shook her head. “Everyone, hold your breath.”
Dominic barely had time to take a deep gulp of air while Vidre formed a sphere of glass in her hand. The sphere crumbled to a fine dust, which Vidre began to liberally spread into the air. She screwed her eyes closed, allowing the full use of her domain sense.
“They’re sucking the air out of the room,” said Vidre. She dashed over to a small bit of paneling and ripped it from the wall, then quickly formed a stopper of glass. “That should buy us some time.”
“Not poison?” asked Dominic.
“They want our power,” said Welexi. He still hadn’t budged from his seat. His eyes were firmly on Jacques. “We’ve come to the heart of the matter. The Minister of Legends has turned against us, which means that we now count the Iron Kingdom as an enemy.”
“That does us no good unless we escape from here,” said Vidre. She moved towards Jacques with daggers drawn. “Tell me the plan.”
“I do not know,” said Jacques. “I was told only to bring you to this room and keep you here.” He looked between the four of them. “He did not say it was a trap.”
“Yet you knew,” said Welexi.
“A person breathes two gallons of air every minute,” said Gaelwyn. “I am in agreement with Vidre that our situation is dire, especially given that an unknown quantity of breathable air has already been removed.”
Vidre advanced on Jacques again. “Tell me how we escape.”
“There is no escape,” said Jacques. “There would not be, for the Iron King to have done something so brazen.”
Vidre’s dagger flashed forward and slit the minister’s throat.
“Vidre!” shouted Welexi.
“He was breathing our air,” Vidre replied. “I’ve given us an extension on life.” She turned to survey the room, oblivious to the blood on her dagger or the slight choking sounds as the minister pawed at the wound in his neck. “We need to find a weak point and break through there. If I made a large enough lens for you to focus light through?”
“We would cook before we began to melt the iron,” said Welexi. He stood from his seat and spared only a glance at the minister’s body. Dominic recalled what Vidre had said some days before; there were certain things that Welexi needed to have done but — whether for his image or his internal beliefs about himself — could not do himself, or even ask.
They moved around the room trying to find a way to break out, but the metal was thick enough that it seemed impossible. Each punch or hammer blow brought another loud clang that echoed around the room, destroying more of the dressing that had marked it as an office on first glance. They could make dents in the metal, but there was nothing to grip onto to tear into it, even with implements forged of light and shadow. Vidre briefly removed the stopper she’d placed in the vent, but that did nothing but confirm that someone was sucking air from the room, fast enough that it created a noticeable breeze.
“If we run and jump,” said Vidre. “All at once, towards a single side of the room, we might be able to knock this cage loose from its moorings. The rest of the building will only be a skeleton of iron, not so solid.”
“And then what?” asked Welexi. “We cause this room to tumble hundreds of feet to the ground?” He shook his head. “It won’t work.”
“Then we die here,” said Vidre. She had the same manic intensity that Dominic had seen on her face when her life was on the line, she held her daggers tight in her hands, even though both of them were useless in the current situation.
Dominic tried to think of everything at their disposal, some weapon or tool that they’d been overlooking. The construction of the room emphasized the solid, with walls that were at least three thick feet of pure iron. They were all strong, but not quite so strong that they could punch through it. And when it was impossible to break through an obstacle, better to avoid it altogether.
“Your constructs of light can move through metal,” said Dominic. He looked at Welexi. “When you were fighting Zerstor, your spears passed straight through his armor. It’s a technique at your disposal.”
“It does no good,” said Welexi. “When they pass through, they do no damage.”
“No,” said Dominic. His breathing had already become labored. “But you can turn yourself into light. You became this luminous being and his sword passed straight through your midsection.” Dominic looked toward the iron door, which was at least as thick as the wall and so far as they could tell, slotted into the plate of iron that made up the floor. “You should be able to run straight through the wall.”
Welexi frowned. For a moment, Dominic thought that he would deny the ability altogether. Instead the illustrati of light replied with a soft voice. “You don’t know what you’re asking of me.”
“It takes effort, I know that,” said Dominic. Vidre was continuing to bang away at the walls, oblivious to the conversation.
“More than that,” said Welexi. “It takes a loss of self. A moment of no longer being human.”
Gaelwyn stepped forward. “And is that so high a price to pay, in order to save us?”
Welexi didn’t answer. Instead, he squared himself up and turned towards the flat metal of the door. There was no countdown or warning, only a simple sprint from one of the fastest people in the world. At the moment he made contact, he became so bright that Dominic was momentarily blinded, even though he’d known that it was coming. When he blinked away the stars in his eyes, Welexi was gone.
Welexi came out the other side, reconstituted by some alchemy he did not understand. He was riddled with fear, as he had been the three times he’d used the technique before. Was he the same man he’d been before? Were his thoughts his own, or were they now mixed with the imaginings of his domain? He had only a few seconds of heavy breathing and clutching at his heart before the man standing in front of him came out of the daze. The man held a sword up in a defensive position, but it was short work to slide a spear past it. The first opponent fell to the ground just as the others rounded the corner; these were illustrati and would not be so easily dispatched. Welexi welcomed the fight, the better to let his mind move away from squirming, uncomfortable thoughts. He turned his armor bright enough that it would be blinding and moved forward with spear spinning in his hand.
Both the illustrati were clad in their domains. It was a weakness of the illustrati that they gave such a tactical advantage to their enemies by revealing themselves so; in his early years, Welexi had gone as long as he could before revealing his domain as light, or even revealing that he was an illustrati at all. He had dressed in a simple soldier’s uniform, or something that befit a caravan guard. Only when the moment was right would he give up the advantage of anonymity. He had become a hero by leaving those ways behind, by shining forth like a beacon, yet there was still a pang of regret at times, knowing that the way of the hero was difficult.
The two illustrati he now faced had no clever ideas about hiding their natures. The one on the left wore blue and yellow, with jagged bolts of lightning embroidered into the cloth of his coat. If that were not enough, a circlet of electricity sat upon his head. Lightning was an erratic domain, difficult to control and hard to understand even to those who claimed it as their own. The illustrati of lightning would stay towards the back, trying to throw thick bolts from a distance. Up close, he would channel the lightning directly through his hands. He would be hampered the most by blindness. The one on the right had armor of ice nearly encasing him, which was growing thicker by the moment. A chill had already started to seep into the hallway, along with a few generated flurries that would let the illustrati see even when his eyes failed him.
Welexi darted forward, aiming for the left. He made a lunge to the right to mimic a feint, but released his spear to the left. It struck the illustrati in the arm, which produced a cry of pain. Welexi met with the illustrati of ice soon after, another spear freshly made in his hands. He was stronger and faster than either of these men could possibly be; these days, as his body had aged, this was how he’d won most of his fights. The illustrati of ice dodged away from the spear thrusts, driving him backwards. When Welexi saw a spot of snow land upon his spear, he dismissed it and summoned a new one; there were still bits of ice on him and a creeping cold in the air, but it was difficult if not impossible to judge the position of a weapon merely by seeing two points on the hand that held it. Welexi kept his armor as bright as possible, though it gave him no true impediments.
The illustrati of lightning was the first to die. Welexi stabbed him in the stomach with a spear after an errant bolt of lightning slammed against the iron door. As soon as the spear was dismissed, blood began to spurt out in great quantity. It would take some time for the man to die, but he would be in shock soon enough. A second spear through the chest ensured his death. Welexi narrowly dodged to the side as an ax of ice came swinging down, but this put the second illustrati far too close. Welexi slammed his fist forward to catch him on the chin, shattering armor of ice in the process. That put the illustrati off his footing enough that it was easy to sink a spear past his armor and into his heart.
Welexi was left breathing heavily in the hallway, more from the lack of oxygen inside the prison than any real exertion. He tried to clear his head and think about his goals; he needed to find a way to open the death trap back up. He slipped forward with a spear in either hand, trying his best not to remember how he’d escaped.
“There’s no guarantee that he’ll find a way to release us,” said Vidre. She had given up on attacking the iron walls. Now she was slumped down in one of the chairs, trying to keep her breathing slow and even.
“We don’t even know if he made it through,” said Gaelwyn. “He might have been trapped inside the wall itself.”
“We have no choice but to wait for rescue,” said Dominic. “We should try to conserve our air.”
Dominic tried to limit his breaths. It was difficult, because each breath seemed to do less than the one before it. There was a vague sense of panic at the back of his mind. He kept half an eye on Vidre, remembering the way she’d slit the minister’s throat even before they’d started to feel the effects of suffocation. He didn’t think that she would try to kill them to prolong her own life, but the casual violence had shocked him. Early in the morning they’d talked about her reputation and the truth of the stories that were told about her. She hadn’t remarked on all the men she’d killed in her time, but it was clear that this was part of what she’d meant when she said that most of her reputation was earned.
Dominic was light-headed, with wandering thoughts that seemed to run themselves in circles. It wasn’t quite a dream and not quite a hallucination, though none of it made much sense. In the stories, people always had portentous dreams that revealed something about their hopes and fears, but Dominic only saw mice chasing after cheese and a fat man belching smoke from the top of his head. He turned to remark on this to Welexi, but realized that he’d gone somewhere. Vidre had gotten up from her chair and was banging against the door again, even though she was using up their precious remaining air.
There was a hissing sound from the door which caused Dominic to scramble towards it. Vidre had her face stuck near a small, widening hole, trying to suck in more air as it came through. Dominic saw a hand reaching through the hole with calloused fingers, which made no sense until he saw that there was a man behind that hand. He had a knife of light pressed against his neck, held by a hand with missing fingers which had been replaced by constructs of light. They illuminated a face that was pale and splattered with blood. Behind him, Welexi was preternaturally calm.
“Continue,” said Welexi’s voice.
“I feel dizzy,” said the man, an illustrati of iron by the way the metal peeled back at his touch.
“Gaelwyn will heal you,” said Welexi.
Dominic turned back to look at the chairs. Gaelwyn hadn’t moved at the sound of air. His eyes were still closed. Dominic moved forward to pick him and throw him over his shoulder. He moved past Welexi as soon as the opening was wide enough to permit him to, and laid Gaelwyn out in the hallway, where the air wasn’t fouled. His heart was still beating, but it was faint.
“Is it clear out there?” asked Vidre.
“I have no idea,” said Welexi. “I’ve killed too many to have great confidence in our ability to make an easy exit.” He looked past Vidre to where the minister was sitting with his head lolled to one side. “They will not take this lightly.”
Dominic slapped Gaelwyn on the face, just hard enough that he hoped to provoke a response. Gaelwyn opened one bleary eye, then closed it again. It was a good sign for his well-being.
“They won’t take it lightly?” asked Vidre. “What they’ve done is an act of war, nothing less.” Her breathing had settled down and the color had returned to her face. Both glass daggers were long and pointed, now almost short swords. She had them gripped so tightly that her knuckles were white. “If war is what they want, war is what they will have.”