Vidre had felt a gnawing pit in her stomach when Dominic made his entrance. The plan was balanced on a knife’s edge. If Welexi didn’t take the bait, the other options were grim. If Welexi took the bait and moved in with full killing intent, in complete disregard of narrative instincts honed by a lifetime as illustrati, then Dominic would almost certainly die. She was counting on knowing Welexi well enough to predict him, but the truth was that she was ignorant of the inner workings of his mind. Most likely not even Gaelwyn knew who Welexi truly was.
When Welexi began striding forward to meet Dominic, Vidre moved to Gaelwyn with her daggers drawn. There was a brief moment of fear in his eyes, but she turned her back to him and put herself between him and the fight.
“How is he alive?” hissed Gaelwyn as Dominic and Welexi traded their barbs.
“I couldn’t go through with it,” replied Vidre. She swore beneath her breath. Most people were watching the fight, but there were still eyes on Gaelwyn. “Didn’t think he’d be dumb enough to come back.”
They watched together. The dialog was passable, but whatever the outcome the bards would have some work turning it into an enduring legend. Welexi moved with confidence. He was using only light, his signature domain, the one he’d spent a lifetime with. It had been unlikely that he would use anything else, but that was one of the risk points. They spoke with each other, taking their time.
“Welexi’s playing with him,” said Gaelwyn. He sucked his teeth. “He should kill him and be done with it.”
Vidre moved to Gaelwyn’s side. “Project strength,” she said. “Welexi is defending you, pretend that it’s because you ordered it. Chin high. The battle won’t be a contest.” Vidre lowered her daggers and stood next to Gaelwyn as though she was simply part of his entourage, not defending him at all. “If Dominic charges us, be ready to take him down.”
“Not you?” asked Gaelwyn. His wide eyes were watching Welexi move.
“You’re king,” said Vidre. “You need to cement your place.”
Her glass dagger was held tightly in her hand. She’d thought about how to kill Gaelwyn many times before. A single strike to the head was the only real way to do it. If it came down to an actual fight, he would press his hand against her armor and strike at the flesh beneath it with his domain. They’d tested his striking limit while out at sea and come up with three inches as the maximum he was capable of. Vidre had tested wearing four-inches of glass armor the next night. It was bulky but serviceable. It was also entirely unusable in the current situation. Gaelwyn would see what she was doing and strike before she was done. Vidre had no real option but to stand tense and ready, waiting for either some crucial misstep in the primary plan, for Gaelwyn to connect the dots, or for everything to go off without a hitch.
Vidre’s heart was pounding hard when she saw Dominic take the spear of light to the chest and fall over with a seemingly mortal wound. They had practiced it meticulously, until Dominic could sell it. She’d put even odds on Welexi making a thrust for the heart, since it would provide a natural bookend to the spear that Dominic had put through Zerstor’s heart, but it was possible Welexi would try something else. She and Dominic had practiced faking hits to the arms and legs, but if Welexi deviated too far from the script they’d prepared, the whole thing was likely to unravel. Welexi was faithful to the narrative though.
Gaelwyn was triumphant. He had been taking joy in Welexi’s triumphs, though they were usually achievements of a less violent nature. He seemed to suspect nothing. Vidre waited, biding her time. Welexi needed to take the bait. He picked the Harbinger artifact up from the ground and slipped it onto Dominic’s hand for just long enough that it made the sound, one perfectly shaped by Dominic. Welexi lofted the artifact into the air. A sharp pang of anxiety ran through her.
Her nightmare was that Welexi would say, “And here we have a fitting gift for the new king,” whether because he thought that matched the narrative better, or because he’d cottoned on to the plan. Things would also become difficult if he waited now, setting the artifact aside for later. They had good contingencies for that though; Vidre would simply stay by Welexi’s side until he used the artifact, while Dominic would commit to playing dead for long enough that his body could be stashed somewhere out of view. Yet by some miracle their plan threaded one last needle. Welexi made to take the power for himself.
Dominic was on his feet from the first tone of the artifact, moving quickly. Vidre stepped back as he moved, so that she was just out of Gaelwyn’s view. There were many places that one person could stab another through the skull, but not all of them were immediately fatal. Vidre had seen men walking around with six inches of steel sticking straight into their brain, sometimes slurring their speech or acting like drunkards but still alive. Such a thing couldn’t be allowed to happen with Gaelwyn, not with his power. Vidre made her move just as he began a tormented howl. She worried he would sense the movement and duck out of the way, or that his clothing would explode outward to reveal a mass of red tentacles. While Gaelwyn had killed thousands in his hospital, torturing prisoners to death in the name of progress, he had no formal or informal training in combat. Vidre’s dagger drove straight into his skull, just below the ear, with smooth efficiency. When he hit the ground, she was ready for a second strike, one that would ensure his death. If there hadn’t been people watching, she would have stabbed him in the head a half dozen times just to make sure there would be no complication.
The first screams started shortly afterward, along with the movement of the masses of people. The illustrati in the audience were arming themselves. Some of them must have started from the moment that Dominic made himself known, because Vidre saw full suits of metal that even the more powerful illustrati couldn’t make in a matter of seconds.
“There was a revolution!” shouted Dominic. His voice cut through all other sound, bringing everything to a silence. The artifact in his hand was still counting off its tones, giving a list of everyone whose link Welexi had taken. Dominic was letting that sound through, but no other. Some people had stopped to look at him, a few of them armed. “When the Iron King died, the Allunio slipped into his place, not just to rule in his stead, but to change the very working of the world. When Welexi learned of this, he launched a revolution of his own, one that would ostensibly restore the Iron Kingdom to the old way. Yet it was plain to anyone who looked that Gaelwyn was not the Iron King’s son. It was plain to see that Welexi only craved power for himself.”
The artifact kept making its sound into the enforced silence of the courtyard. That was a nice bit of showmanship. Dominic could have silenced it, but it underscored the point, that each of those was the sound of someone’s domain being taken from them. It was an exaggeration, of course, since most of the links Welexi had held belonged to commoners from the village below, but to those who could understand what was being signified, it would be powerful.
“We will have a third revolution,” said Dominic with his amplified voice, just as the crowd began to stir again. “The Allunio were driven by ideals that could never withstand the pressures of the real world. Welexi was driven by lust, both for power and attention, thinking only of himself. The Iron Kingdom must now take a third path. It must rebuild.”
There were murmurs in the crowd now, murmurs that Dominic was letting through. When people realized they could talk again, the murmurs grew to full arguments. Some had left already, fleeing the moment Dominic had won, but more of them had stayed. A sizable fraction were creeping slowly around Dominic now, not with any seeming intent to fight and kill him, but merely as a precaution. Dominic slipped his hand into the artifact so deftly that few people would have caught it, but it made no noise; there was no sense in Dominic revealing himself to be a hypocrite so early. Vidre felt a small pang at seeing Welexi’s power slip from her grasp, but they had already agreed that it would go to Dominic, if only because otherwise they’d have to defend the artifact from everyone who wanted to steal it.
“We’re going to write a constitution,” Vidre shouted to the crowd. Dominic was watching her, focusing on her words and helping her be heard, but not quite snuffing out the conversations around them. “We want to ensure that the kingdom can continue. If you want to have a say in what we decide, we will converse on the matter in the throne room. You are otherwise free to leave.” Vidre laid eyes on every person of importance she could see. Welexi would simply have turned and walked back into the castle without looking behind him to see who would follow, but Vidre had been witness to more than enough dramatics for one day.
“What’s important is that the Iron Kingdom remains intact,” said the Minister of Agriculture. She was not much past twenty years old, a successor to the successor of the man that originally occupied the position. Her hair had been done up with bits of wheat decorating her braid. She was young, ambitious, and exactly the sort of person who would seize on the opportunity.
“The Whore of Abalon has no rightful claim to the throne,” said a tall man in purple clothing with white trim. He was a duke, whose duchy lay to the north, bordering the Highlands. The Iron King’s rule had not been kind to the nobility; those who remained in control of their lands were tough and lean. But the duke wasn’t attacking, which was something.
“I am the Queen of Geswein,” said Vidre. “I have no interest in joining the two countries in personal union. I have no interest in ruling. Yet after a hard-fought war, along with the need to put down an old friend who had gone mad, I find that I cannot leave this kingdom to its own devices. Dominic and I will oversee the writing of the constitution. We will lend whatever aid is needed in negotiating what is best for the country. But we will not stay, nor will we try to take any power for ourselves.”
“She’s right that the Iron Kingdom needs unity,” said the Minister of Legends. If he thought poorly of Vidre for slitting his predecessor’s throat, or for the damage they’d done to the Ministry of Legends some two months prior, he didn’t show it. “The Highlands threaten revolt, Torland must certainly see our weakness, and the gears of trade have stopped turning.” He nodded to another man, the Minister of Trade, who nodded gravely. “Lightscour is right as well. We must hammer out a new path.”
The duke who had spoken up shifted slightly. “We will have to reach some accommodations,” he said. “Those of us with land and resources will wish compensation, or a say in the direction this kingdom will take.”
That decided it, more or less. There was no one to lead an opposition, no one with a vested interest in sowing chaos. They would split into factions when it came time to write a governing document, and they would squabble about treaties and tariffs, veto powers and quorums, but unless the process of negotiation fell through, they would have a country at the end of it.
“I thought they would be more upset about Welexi dying,” said Dominic. He sat with Vidre on the roof of Castle Launtine, where the legend said he’d tried to betray Welexi. He had sat there experimenting with his new powers, looking out at the horizon with eyes that seemed to see everything now. Welexi had taken a large amount of power for himself; now it was Dominic’s. There was so much of it that he almost didn’t know what to do with it. Vidre had come up after a few hours of overseeing negotiation to sit next to him.
“The commoners will hate you,” said Vidre. “Even if we managed to get out ahead of it with the right story, one that showed Welexi as an absolute villain, many of them would refuse to believe it. You would still be the villain in their eyes, and he would still be the hero. Some of them will hate you for the rest of your life.” She let out a sigh. “But those people down there, they’re possessed of some basic savvy. I’m not sure you realize how brutally we fought the Allunio … how brutally I fought them. The Iron Kingdom has been deprived of too many illustrati now, but anyone with an ounce of sense sees that there’s room for new flowers to blossom.”
“The artifacts are going to be a problem,” said Dominic. “Maybe it would have been possible for people to move in after a purge, in the old days, but now? It’s going to end with one person holding all the power.”
“Maybe,” said Vidre. “I think I’ve done enough for one day though. We can wait a bit before we start worrying about a tyrant taking all the power for himself. Speaking of which, how is Welexi’s collection treating you?”
“It’s odd,” said Dominic. “There are so many senses available it seems like my head shouldn’t be able to contain them all. But the wind on my cheeks, the light of the stars, the feel of the flagstones beneath me, sounds and shadows, metals and insects in the air … I feel like I could run a million miles. Maybe later tonight I’ll cut loose and test the limits of what I can do.”
“Be careful,” said Vidre. “You’re still no good with a sword.”
“I know,” said Dominic.
The air was still and silent around them, but if Dominic pushed the domain of sound, he could hear people talking far below them, both conversations wafting up from the bedrooms and what sounded like revelry from one of the storerooms that had contained the Iron King’s supply of wine.
“I need to go see the Zenith,” said Vidre. “Last I checked it was held in port, but that was a month ago. I wouldn’t blame the crew if they’d taken the ship for their own, but if they haven’t, I need to see about getting them paid again, however we’re going to manage that.” She paused. Dominic could hear her swallow. The sun was setting, but he could see her face in crystal clarity, with every emotion that was etched there. “I mean, however I’m going to manage that.”
They hadn’t talked that much about what was going to come after this gambit. Vidre had kept saying there was a good chance that both of them would be dead. They needed to spend their time planning and practicing, trying to figure out what they would do if Welexi didn’t behave as they’d expected him too, trying to work on the proper wording of what Dominic would say. What would happen after had been sketched, not painted, with none of the details that a true plan needed. They were in uncharted waters now.
“I’m going back to Gennaro,” said Dominic. “At least for long enough to see my friends and family. The links are going to make me a target for anyone who has an artifact. I don’t know that I want to put my sister in harm’s way by being around her for long. I can’t really pick up where I left off either, even if I wanted to.”
She could have offered him passage aboard the Zenith. He could have asked her. The silence stretched on though.
“I have a favor to ask,” said Vidre. “Before you go.”
“Yeah?” asked Dominic.
“There’s a man I need brought back to life,” said Vidre.
They stared at the body of Lothaire, watching him breathe. He was in a small cell, laid out on the mattress in a position that was clearly posed. His hands were folded together over his chest and his feet were together and pointed straight at the ceiling.
“Gaelwyn put him out,” said Vidre. “Afterward, he claimed that something had gone wrong. He said he wasn’t able to bring Lothaire back out of it. The deception involved a lot of terminology that I didn’t listen too closely to. It was obvious that he was lying and that Welexi was complicit in it, even if he didn’t outright order it. You have the domain of flesh, I need him revived so that I can get the answers to a few pressing questions.”
Dominic touched the body. He could feel the domains of flesh and blood, the former as relaxed fibers and sheets of fat, the latter as a constantly-moving fluid moving from the heart to the extremities and back. The body wasn’t healthy, that much was clear just from looking a the man, but there was something wrong with the muscles as well, something that Dominic’s domain intuition didn’t quite tell him how to fix.
“What did Gaelwyn do?” asked Dominic.
“Something to do with blood,” said Vidre. “If blood pressure drops, people pass out, but it’s not the drop in blood pressure that actually causes it, it’s something somewhere in the neck. He told me once, but I listened less than I should have. There’s a … a nerve, something that tells the body blood pressure is low.”
Dominic closed his eyes and tried to feel the domains again. The neck had too many muscles in it. He tried to use the domain of flesh to feel his own neck, so that he could compare it with Lothaire’s, but that didn’t help much either. “How did Gaelwyn even figure this out in the first place?” asked Dominic.
“Vivisecting hundreds of people,” said Vidre. “Not something you could learn on short notice. I’m sure that there’s a book somewhere that describes exactly what to do to which muscle group in order to alter a very specific nerve in some particular way.”
“What do you need from him?” asked Dominic. He looked down at Lothaire, who was breathing shallowly. The man was old, seemingly untouched by the healing that illustrati could provide. It was hard to imagine him as the leader of the Allunio.
“He knows things,” said Vidre. She touched a piece of her armor, where a bulb of glass parted for her. She pulled out a ring that immediately announced itself in the mind. It was a Harbinger artifact, one taken from Welexi’s body when they’d carried him into the castle. “The artifacts are a problem. Lothaire is the one who uncovered them, or at least knows their provenance. If there are more … what the artifact does is very specific, but if the Harbingers could do one thing, we need to allow for the possibility that they can do others. If Lothaire knows, we need to know too.”
“He said something about your father,” said Dominic.
“I don’t care about my father,” said Vidre. “I might have been able to forgive everything else, but he sold me, like … like I was something he owned and no longer wanted. I don’t care what happened to him. I don’t care what triumph or tragedy Welexi was covering up.”
Dominic focused on Lothaire’s body and the shape of its muscles. Something somewhere in the neck was being squeezed. Dominic first tried relaxing all the muscles there, then when that had no apparent effect, he started shrinking the muscles. They seemed to melt beneath his touch. Lothaire stirred and opened his eyes.
“You’re not Gaelwyn,” he said slowly. He tried to move for a moment, then paused. “I can’t move my neck.”
“Sorry,” said Dominic. “I’ll try to fix it, but there are too many complicated things there that I don’t understand. I can’t promise I wouldn’t pinch another nerve. But for now, we need answers.”
“What does the ring do?” asked Vidre. She held it up to his view.
“I need food,” said Lothaire. “The Red Angel told me that the body begins to cannibalize itself after long enough without food. He found no problem in simply adding more flesh to my bones rather than going through the work of feeding me.”
“Later,” said Vidre. “Answer my question.”
“It’s a question I’ve been asked before,” said Lothaire. “I take it something has happened to Welexi then? Am I seeing the moment before a betrayal or the moment after?”
“After,” said Vidre. “Tell me what the ring does.”
“When I told him that I didn’t know, Welexi didn’t believe me,” said Lothaire. “I doubt you will either.”
Dominic worked at repairing Lothaire’s body. It wasn’t inconceivable that Vidre would want him alive at the end of their conversation.
“Where was it found?” asked Vidre.
“A cave,” said Lothaire. “More of a subterranean structure, in truth.” He licked his lips. “If not food, then water?”
“I can do that,” said Dominic. Water was one of his stronger domains; he conjured a single drop onto his palm, then expanded it until it filled his palm. With his other hand, he touched a piece of metal on his armor and formed it into a cup. He slipped the water into the cup and handed it to Lothaire.
“How many do you have?” asked Lothaire as he took the cup. His hands were trembling.
“I don’t know,” said Dominic.
“Where was this cave?” asked Vidre. “What else was in it?”
“Harbinger things,” answered Lothaire after taking a long drink of water. “Everything we touched was branded by them, its identity delivered to the mind directly. Nothing else though. The cylinders were the only ones with any obvious effect. We tested everything else, but there was never any change, whether it be good or bad.”
“I’d have to see it all myself,” said Vidre.
“We need to negotiate,” said Lothaire. “What can I give you that would ensure my life? The location of the cave, certainly. I already told Welexi as much as I knew about the locations, identities, and movements of my compatriots. That matter seems to have resolved itself.”
“You sent assassins after us,” said Vidre. “After me.”
“I knew that Welexi would come, sooner rather than later,” said Lothaire. “I feared him. Perhaps you wouldn’t have done the same in my shoes. Perhaps you would have acted with a decade of training and accomplished your goals. We were thinkers and dreamers, not the sort of people who were trained in death. I do write some beautiful agreements though. I doubt you’d accept the offer, but if Welexi is dead, you might need someone to ensure the continuity of this kingdom.”
“It’s taken care of,” said Vidre. “Even if it weren’t, you’re right that I would reject your help.”
“Very well,” said Lothaire. “Is there anything else you’d like to know before you kill me?” He seemed calm, despite the words.
“Can I ask a question, for my own curiosity?” asked Dominic.
“You were in Gennaro, the day that Zerstor attacked,” said Dominic. “Wealdwood described you coming to him. I don’t understand why you were there.”
“It was always about more than the Iron Kingdom,” said Lothaire. “We wanted to change the world. The Zenith was in Gennaro to spread legends and manage finances. We were there to see how much it would take to turn the Sovento States. Those plans are stillborn now, it seems. Perhaps if I’m allowed to go free, I’ll write a book on what went wrong.”
“I can save you the trouble,” said Vidre. “Weakness was part of your ideology. If you’d stacked domains into a single person, you could have torn through any opposition with ease. You doomed yourself to failure from the start. You should have picked some better way of thinking, something equally seductive that would hamper you less.”
“Do you think it was for show?” asked Lothaire. “Do you think I chose the difficult path because I was trying to arrange a pleasant scene? I am not an illustrati. As one of the king’s advisers, I had only enough fame to know my domain, nothing more. I never dealt in narratives, never spent effort on pursuing appearances. We chose not to make one man into a titan because we thought that path would lead to ruin.”
“And now it all lays in ruin anyway,” said Vidre. “If you don’t win, then your ideals don’t have much meaning to anyone.”
Lothaire had no response to that.
“I have one more question,” said Dominic. “What happened to Vidre’s father?” Vidre shot him a dark look, but Dominic only shrugged. She could pretend as much as she wanted, but he didn’t see what she had to gain from presenting disinterest.
“Your father became an illustrati,” Lothaire said to Vidre. “He took his own power from the stories about you. There were only scraps to go on, but in Geswein they invented tales about him.”
“I don’t care,” said Vidre. Her face was perfectly blank, so much that it had to have been a mask she was presenting.
“He parlayed that into greater fame, under an assumed name,” said Lothaire. “He called himself Ursi. He wore a bear’s pelt. He was a villain, but a minor one, useful enough that no one was in any great hurry to put him down. He spoke of you to no one except his closest friends and then only when drunk. He got better, as the years passed. You might call it a redemption arc, but I believe it was true redemption. He was never terribly pleasant, but he became a hero in his own right, if a minor one. Four years ago, he made it known that he was trying to track down the Zenith. That was the last that anyone heard of him.”
“And that’s it?” asked Vidre. “That’s the entirety of what you know?”
“The rest is conjecture,” said Lothaire. “If Welexi is dead, you would have to ask Gaelwyn, but if he’s dead as well, which I imagine is the case, then I don’t know who would know the truth. It’s possible that your father happened upon them before he happened upon you, or that he went to them so that they could soften the introduction. All I have are guesses. Welexi was your father figure, it’s no real surprise that he would want that position uncontested.”
“He wasn’t a father figure,” said Vidre.
Lothaire shrugged. “Then I don’t know. I was trying to drive in whatever wedges I could find and Gaelwyn thought I was about to strike a nerve. Would you truly not care if your father was killed while trying to reconcile with you?”
“No,” said Vidre. She stood up and adjusted her glass armor. “I think I’ve heard enough from you though. Dominic, you can do what you please with the man.” She stalked out of the room without another word.
Dominic tapped Vidre on the shoulder from behind.
“I’m fine,” she said. She could cry about it later, if she really had to. Her father had taken himself out of her life early on. He hadn’t deserved to see her again. There was no reason to think that a reunion would have gone well anyway. There was no proof he was really dead, or that Welexi had done it, just the hearsay of a deceiver. It shouldn’t have hit her so hard.
“I know you’re fine,” said Dominic. He shifted. “Listen, I was thinking that perhaps we could stay together, at least for a time. I need passage back to Gennaro and you have a ship in port. I know you like to keep moving, perhaps you could chart us a course that would take you by there.”
“We don’t typically revisit a city so soon,” said Vidre. She had her hands on the glass daggers at her side. She changed their shape, so that they would be better for slipping between the gap in a suit of armor, then again so they would give her reach, then broad and thick so they would resist chipping or breaking. Glass was normally comforting to the touch. “Usually it’s two years, maybe more.”
“All the same,” said Dominic. “I’m in no rush to return home. It might be good if my friends and family had some time to absorb the news first.”
“You don’t have to stay with me,” said Vidre. She let out a sigh. “I’m fine. I said that I was fine. I’ve been through worse.”
Dominic shrugged. “I’d like to go home, but I’m not too picky about when. It just seemed more efficient this way.” He was looking at her with kind, gentle, understanding eyes.
Vidre was ready to accuse him of putting up a facade, but if that’s what he was doing, what would have to be said of her? Had she actually said that she’d been through worse? She’d been traveling with Welexi for nearly her entire adult life. She’d killed the closest thing to family that she had left. Her future hadn’t been this uncertain in a very long time. What good would it do to pretend that she didn’t want a companion? Dominic was perhaps the only person in the world who might understand her.
“Alright,” said Vidre. “We’ll be here another day, then we’ll go to Bordes and see whether the ship is still there. There are more pressing stops than Gennaro though, I have to warn you. It might be some time before we say our goodbyes.”
“That’s fine,” said Dominic. “I was thinking that some time at sea might be good for learning more etiquette.”
“Better that we work on combat,” said Vidre. “There are troubled times ahead of us. We have a substantial fraction of the artifacts locked away, but there are more, including the one you gave to the Bone Warden. If the wrong person tries to do the wrong things …” She trailed off. The problem seemed insurmountable. The world was simply going to change; there was nothing that they could do about it, except perhaps by trying to stop the worst of it.
“We’ll have to be ready,” said Dominic.
“Yes,” replied Vidre. “We will.”