Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 4: An Interlude at Sea

Dominic’s body was stiff and sore when he awoke in the morning. He was momentarily confused about where he was, until he saw the thick beams of the ship and felt its movement in water. The events of the day before came flooding back; the race he’d lost, the fight he’d ended, being threatened by Corta and saved by Vidre, and the two assassins that had come aboard the ship. It felt like it had happened over the course of weeks, instead of in the span of a single day.

He gave a start when he turned his head and saw Gaelwyn standing in the small room.

“I knocked,” said Gaelwyn. He held a plate of pastries and fruit in one hand and neatly folded purple clothes in the other. His red hair had been slicked down and tucked behind his ears.

“Sorry,” said Dominic. “Waking up in unfamiliar places gets to me.”

“We do a lot of it,” said Gaelwyn. “We don’t always sleep on the ship when we’re in port, but even my cabin can seem like a strange place when the air smells different and the noises of the city have changed.” He handed the food over, and Dominic ate greedily. “Vidre got you some clothes for the send-off. We’re not making a big production of it this time, but she said what you’re currently wearing is unacceptable. I think some tailor must have been woken up in the middle of the night to get something altered for you.” He set the clothes on the bed. “Get dressed as soon as you’re finished, it won’t be long now. There are people who want an introduction.”

The clothes were something only a noble would wear. There were garishly purple knee-breeches, black tights, and sleeves that were five times wider than they needed to be. The outfit included a cape with golden thread and a floppy hat that seemed to sit slightly askew no matter how he tugged at it.

When he slid aside the door to his cabin, he saw Vidre in full battle regalia. It wasn’t the sleek and functional armor of the night before; it had a look of elegant style, with sweeping lines and filigree flourishes. The sunlight glinted off of it, enough that it would draw attention from across the docks. In certain places the glass was frosted instead of clear, creating an elaborate pattern that was suggestive of flowers. Vidre was wearing more makeup now; she had red lips and blush on her cheeks. Her hair sat in an elaborate circular braid on top of her head, pinned into place with small glass birds. Dominic felt his heart start to beat faster. He had seen her stab a man to death, arm bloodied up to the elbow, breathing heavily and ready to let loose a primal scream at the world. She was dark, and cruel, and dangerous beyond all reason, the kind of woman that you’d cut yourself to ribbons on if you tried to get close. There were dozen of stories about Vidre that ended that way, merchant-princes and holy men that ruined themselves in pursuit of her. The vertical scar that ran from her brow to her cheek was supposed to have been the result of one of those liaisons. Yet in the morning light, it was easy to forget all that and feel the tug of infatuation all the same.

Vidre took one look at him, sighed, and began to fix his outfit.

“It was the best I could do on short notice,” she said as she pulled down the fabric of his tights. Her hands were firm and businesslike. “We’ll have to get you to a proper tailor once we reach Torland, I know just the woman, but for now … gods this looks terrible. It will have to do though.” She did up some buttons on his shirt that he hadn’t even known were there, and pulled his hat off to one side, so that it flopped down to touch the top of one of his ears. Apparently that was how it was meant to be worn. “Now, I don’t have the time to run you through who anyone is beyond what I’ll say in introduction, nor do I have the time to make sure that you know the proper forms of address, and you’re not going to see these people again for a long time anyway, so just for the next hour or so, you’re the naive newcomer, startled by the world that you’ve been thrust into and not sure what to make of it. You’re overawed by all these people, these legends of your city that you’ve been hearing about since you were a little boy. They’ll like that. And I think it should go without saying, but do not mention anything about our inept assassins, especially not the prisoner in my cabin.”

“Who’s watching him?” asked Dominic. He was slowly remembering himself. He wasn’t some besotted fool, he was an illustrati now, Vidre’s equal. He straightened up. Pretending at being naive and overwhelmed was something he could easily do, but the only way to earn his place was if it was an act.

“Wealdwood is out cold,” said Vidre. She caught his look. “But I also have two of my most trustworthy sailors ready to stab him to death if he wakes up and tries to talk or move, which he probably won’t be able to do because he’s gagged and bound. I took off all his armor last night, and Gael did some additional work this morning that will prevent him from doing anything more than breathing—and then only slowly—even if he does wake up. Satisfied that I’m not an idiot yet?”

“It never crossed my mind,” said Dominic. He smiled at her, but she didn’t smile back. On closer inspection, her makeup was especially thick beneath her eyes. It wasn’t too much past dawn, and she had apparently spent the night watching over Wealdwood and writing letters without taking time to sleep.

“This is backstage,” said Vidre, gesturing to the cabin. “Out there, it’s a performance. Keep that in mind. Most of these people won’t care about you, they only want to be seen with you.”

Vidre walked down the ship’s corridor and up into the light of dawn, where she received cheers and applause from the crowd, who were gathered considerably further down the docks than the night before. Dominic followed after her, and got the same treatment—perhaps even more so. He couldn’t keep from smiling. Yet when Welexi came up from within the cabin, Dominic could see that this was the reason that hundreds had gathered on the docks so early in the morning just for a send-off. Welexi wore the same silver armor that he’d had on the day before, cracked and torn. The spots of rust had been scoured away, and it was now beautiful in its state of decay. Bright light shone where the armor had been damaged, and not a bit of the leathers that Welexi wore beneath his armor could be seen. He’d used the light to fill himself out, and change the shape of his profile. The man Dominic had seen bleeding on his bed was muscular but slender, almost lanky. Welexi had made himself imposing now, with pauldrons of light that gave him the appearance of broad shoulders, and greaves that made his legs seem thicker than they were. Welexi was taller too, even more than his natural height, which must have been the result of his boots having a high lift to them. His bald head gleamed in the sunlight.

Dominic had trouble looking away. Welexi had been intimidating before, but now he was fearsome, an idealized warrior. When he moved, there were signs that not all was right. He had a slight limp that would be invisible to the crowds, and he kept his right arm unnaturally still. His damaged hand was covered by a gauntlet made of hard white light. The bruises had vanished, no doubt thanks to the work of Gael. Dominic could see a few places on Welexi’s face where there were lines of small white stitches, which stuck out against Welexi’s coffee-colored skin, but those too would be invisible from a distance. The crowd had begun cheering for him as soon as he stepped onto the deck. He waved at them, though his smile was strained.

“Let’s get this over with,” said Gaelwyn. “Having him move around is firmly against doctor’s orders, however masterfully his casts of light have been crafted.” Dominic hadn’t even seen Gaelwyn come up on the deck. He was dressed in a clean green apron, and otherwise wearing a tan-colored tunic and trousers, with little of the accents that Dominic’s own clothes had. It was a costume too, in its own way.

Two dozen people filed onto the ship, and Dominic was introduced to them all. Most of them were senatori, illustrati, or both, and while most of the names were familiar to him, little else about the situation was. They shook his hand, asked him some polite but meaningless questions, and smiled out at the crowd. Dominic had thought that the whole thing would be perfunctory, but it kept going on well after he had grown ready for it to end. Welexi was repeating the story of the fight, with Gaelwyn looking nervous at his side, while Vidre was looking happier than Dominic had yet seen her, touching arms and laughing at jokes. She didn’t seem like she had killed a man eight hours earlier.

“Lightscour, your father is making a cake for me,” said a man who had half his face covered by a white mask. Dominic found himself trapped in a half-circle of men and women in their elaborate costumes. He realized only belatedly that he’d been steered there by Vidre.

“He is?” asked Dominic. He vaguely remembered his mother saying something about that. He had forgotten the name of the man almost instantly, but it didn’t seem to matter. They were all speaking to him like he was an old friend.

“The cake is for my daughter Margherita’s coming-of-age party,” said the man. His smile was halfway covered by his mask. “It’s two days from now; I do so wish that you had the time to attend. It was my understanding that the Zenith would be in port for another three days, perhaps longer, and we had been looking forward to seeing Welexi and Vidre there.” Gaelwyn’s name was conspicuously absent.

“It’s unfortunate, I agree,” Dominic nodded. “When I picked up that spear I had no idea I’d be leaving my home so suddenly. But Welexi has his reasons, not least of which is the bad omen that was Zerstor.”

“It must be terrible to leave your family,” said a woman with copper wires around her wrists and neck. “I’ve left Gennaro twice, once to travel to Lerabor, and once to Maskoy. The trip to Maskoy was marvelous; I saw the minarets towering over the city and ate far too much of the black-spiced food. The algalif took dinner with me a few times; he’s a righteous man almost the equal of Welexi in his convictions, if not his physical prowess.”

“Physical prowess? The Sunhawk was lucky yesterday,” said a large man with a braided beard. He had the look of a foreigner. His name hadn’t even had the hint of familiarity. “He was losing, and a boy steps out from the crowd to land a solid hit. A shame the fight was decided by that fortune alone, isn’t it?” Dominic could feel eyes on him, not just from the half-circle of people around him, but from other nearby clusters of people, who had gone silent to wait for his response. The large man’s voice had carried far.

“It was fate, not luck,” said Dominic. “Fate only conspired to bring the fight to me. I was standing right next to the statue of Gennaro when Welexi came crashing down, and I was closest to him when he looked half-dead. It might be easy to say that this was simply arbitrary, but I felt the tug of destiny. I picked up the spear and fought as Welexi would have fought, because I believed in the message that he preaches to the world. If their situations had been reversed, if Zerstor had been the one broken and bloodied, no one would have come to his aid. Those two titans reaped the harvests that they’d been sowing for years, and I was only the instrument of that realization. Luck had nothing to do with it.” Dominic glanced to the side only briefly, but was gratified to see a small nod from Welexi’s direction.

Conversation continued on for some time, veering back to less important matters. He learned more than he had ever wanted to about the algalif of Maskoy, and promptly forgot all of it. He was told about people he would never meet and estates he would never visit. Some of these people were local legends, but Dominic had never taken much stock in legends. It didn’t seem to matter to any of them that he would be gone for a long time, and they asked surprisingly few questions about the fight between Welexi and Zerstor; they were more concerned with speaking than listening. It was an utter relief when Vidre slipped into the circle of conversation and politely informed everyone that the ship would be leaving soon, and they would have to take their leave unless they wanted to travel to Torland. This drew a few laughs and smiles, and after another quarter hour of everyone saying their goodbyes, the visitors finally departed.

Dominic walked to the stern of the ship and looked out on the crowd. He was surprised to see a few familiar faces. Many of the racers were there, with Franco up on Lorenz’s shoulders, waving frantically and making a scene. Corta stood with her musclebound sons, though she was speaking with other people instead of looking at the ship, which Dominic was glad for. And there was another girl waving to him that he almost mistook for his sister, until he realized that it was the girl Clarissa that had offered to be his assistant. He felt a slight pang of guilt at that.

Though he looked for them, his family was nowhere to be seen, not even Anna.

“That’s Leon and Marco,” said Vidre. She stood by his side, and pointed out two men with thick beards who were speaking loudly to the crowds. “They’re the ones that will make you famous, at least in Gennaro.”

“I’m already famous,” said Dominic. He could hear his name—not “Dominic” but “Lightscour”—being spoken here and there. In part, the crowd was there for him. “Everyone in the city has heard the story by now.”

“No,” said Vidre. “News travels fast, but reaching every last person doesn’t happen nearly so quickly. Even for something like this, there will be a fair number of people who haven’t heard the story. And even among those who have heard the story, some will have forgotten it immediately, because it has no impact on their lives, or because they don’t care about the illustrati, and you can’t count those. Some will just be confused about what’s happened, until they hear a compelling version of the tale from our bards, or someone that our bards have paid, or one of their friends who’s heard it from the bards. An event by itself is just a nascent story—it’s not until someone has put in the work of adding flourish and context that it can properly reside in a person’s mind.”

“So I’m going to get stronger?” asked Dominic. He stretched his fingers out then closed them into a fist. “I’ll gladly accept that.”

Vidre covered her mouth for a yawn, then looked around to see how much progress the sailors had made. “Much stronger,” she said. “Gennaro has perhaps a quarter million people. There’s more growth to happen here, people who will start to care about you, to invent stories of their own about the time you did some ridiculous, implausible thing. And given your history, there are people who will come forward claiming that you stole from them. Within a week, women will be claiming that you slept with them, or tried to, and men will claim that you were a long and lasting friend, or a bitter rival. That’s one of the wellsprings of fame, and all of it will happen without you having to lift a finger. But this is just Gennaro. A large city, but not the largest.” She pointed out across the harbor, to a few other ships. “Packet service across the Calypso will carry letters from myself, Marco, and Leon. Maskoy, Lerabor, Rannos, Grantholm, Parance—all the major centers of population, one by one. We employ hundreds of bards. You’ll wake up and feel the difference every so often, as the legend spreads to some new node of civilization. The scholars’ best estimate is that there are a billion people in the world, and while there will always be people in some backwater that have never heard of you, eventually you’ll have your own legend.” She turned to look at him with tired eyes. “Assuming that you don’t get yourself killed first.”

Dominic would have frowned at that, but he was in good cheer, so he simply ignored her. Vidre had been trying to teach him a lesson about learning his place last night, and he’d stabbed Cerulean Bane all the same. There was little chance that she had missed that fact, but she hadn’t yet said anything about it, and he hoped that she wouldn’t.

Dominic looked around at the sailors, and then back to the crowd. He had a small, foolish hope that his family would arrive at the outskirts. They would have better sales if they could be seen with their son the illustrati, but not even that self-interest would compel his father to come. He hoped that his sister Anna had been kept home, but worried that she had simply chosen not to see him go.

When the ship finally cast off, the masses began to cheer for them anew, and Welexi came out to the back of the ship to stand firm and tall. There was a spot of glowing light on his back that burst outward into wings so large that they hung over either side of the ship, and the noise from the receding crowd grew louder. Dominic found himself waiting with bated breath to see Welexi fly, but there were only a few flaps of the wings before they folded in behind him, arching several feet above his shoulders and nearly dragging on the ground before folding inward.

“They love that,” said Vidre to Dominic. “It’s authentically impressive, and impossible to fake. Nevermind that it takes him an hour every morning to get those wings created, and that he’s going straight back to his cabin immediately after this. An hour’s work for a dozen seconds of spectacle.” She shook her head. “It’s not all moonlit assassination attempts and courtyard battles. Most of it is tedium, endless meetings, boring parties, talking to people who are only trying to use you for their own ends. You had the abbreviated version of that this morning. But maybe it’s worth it, for those dozen seconds.”

The Zenith had moved into the bay, and though there were other ships around them, and no doubt spyglasses trained on them from the shore, Welexi moved away from the helm and back to the center of the ship. His limp was more pronounced now that he was without his audience, and he cradled his broken arm. Dominic followed.

“You need rest,” said Gaelwyn. “You’re low on blood and your bones need to mend.”

“Do you remember how brilliant you thought the brace of light was?” asked Welexi with a smile.

“Years ago I thought it would help you to heal faster,” said Gaelwyn with a cluck of his tongue. “Now I see that it’s only made you more inclined to push yourself.”

Welexi gave a weak laugh, and turned to Domininc. “Lightscour,” he said. He looked Dominic up and down. His face was gentle, and the bulk of his armor had begun to fade as pieces of light vanished from it. “If I had to pick the name over again, I would have chosen differently. In the context of your domain, it’s a villain’s name—not one who scours with light, but one who scours the light itself. Not a cleaner of rust, but a consuming darkness.”

“I’m honored by it,” said Dominic.

“You’ll have a new name in time,” said Welexi. “Something more appropriate to you, something we’ve given due consideration.” He smiled, showing pearly white teeth. “I have full faith that you’ll earn another name soon.” With another small tug at his armor from Gaelwyn, Welexi turned to go down into the ship. Gennaro had disappeared behind them, and there were no other ships within sight. Dominic didn’t really consider himself to have a home, but the city he’d grown up in had faded entirely. He was in Welexi’s world now.

“What’s the Numifex?” Dominic asked, before Welexi could disappear entirely.

Welexi turned around slowly and carefully. “She called it that?” asked Welexi with a faint smile. His eyes flickered to Vidre. “I’ll have to inquire about what else my travelling companion has been telling you. That term, ‘Numifex’, dates back decades. Too early for you, and too geographically distant. There was a bard near Grantholm, a storyteller and an illustrati, who was famed for how his stories ended—namely, that they didn’t. He would stretch a tale on for hours, and at the very end, he would say something like, ‘And there I was, laying in bed with the beautiful lass, and I saw her begin to raise a dagger dripping with poison—but ah, it’s getting late, and the rest of it will have to wait until tomorrow.’ Then the next night he would repeat the entire process again. It was bunk, all of it, but he was a good storyteller, and sometimes that’s enough for some smaller measure of fame. Some pointed out the contradictions in these stories, but he would explain them away. He was always ready with another lie. It didn’t seem to matter though; people always wanted to know what was going to happen next, no matter how improbable the story was.”

“Get to the point before you collapse,” said Vidre.

“One of the hallmarks of his stories was a chase for an object,” said Welexi. “Not one, but many. These were gained and lost as his tales stretched on, never important save for how and where they propelled this bard, or what machinations they forced his foes towards. The point,” he looked toward Vidre, “Is that it wasn’t important. The object never mattered to the story, it could have been anything, something crafted by the Harbingers, the crown jewels of some forgotten kingdom, a spear forged by the gods—it didn’t have any consequence, ultimately. The Numifex was one of these, the most nondescript of all these objects, and the one that he went after the most often. It was variously described as a golden orb, or a broken sword, or an eldritch tome. This bard wrote down his tales into many books, and he didn’t even keep the descriptions consistent within a single volume. Over the years, it became a derisive term used by storytellers, and thus by the illustrati. The Numifex is what you call something that’s meaningless save for its role in the story.” He looked to Vidre and smiled.

“So … we’re going to Torland because we’re tracking down a thing that doesn’t matter?” asked Dominic.

“We’re going to Torland for many reasons,” said Welexi. “Not least of which is the request of the Flower Queen, and the news of civil unrest. But yes, I have long been tracking an object of ancient power, and there is a scholar who my recent investigations have revealed might be able to help me. Vidre, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, believes I’m chasing a phantasm.”

“To bed,” said Gaelwyn. He touched Welexi lightly. “I can practically hear the sound of bone grinding against bone.”

Welexi nodded. “I believe that my physician may have a point. We will speak on these matters later.” He hobbled off, moving slowly and stiffly, with his armor of light seeming to do most of the work.

“Come on,” said Vidre. “I need you to keep an eye on our prisoner while I get some sleep. And after that, your training begins. We’ll see what we can do with you in nine days time, shall we?”

Dominic followed Vidre down into the ship, and stood next to her outside the door of her cabin, where Gaelwyn had his hand on their prisoner’s chest. He had been stripped of his armor, and wore only white underclothes and a gag.

“He’s still alive,” said Gaelwyn. He sighed with relief. “It’s easy to knock a man out, but hard to make sure he’ll be able to return to consciousness. I’m going to bring him out of it.”

“He’s going to wake up?” asked Dominic.

“Restricting bloodflow is a short-term solution,” Gaelwyn replied. “If you want a person to come out the other side without brain damage, anyway. There’s also the issue of bedsores, given that he can’t properly move.”

“Wait,” said Vidre. She turned to Dominic. “I meant to run this by you earlier, but you were the one to kill Cerulean Bane. He snuck up on me, got a lucky hit in, left me sprawling on the ground, and you defended me from the killing blow. You saw me helpless, and that’s what gave you the courage and fortitude to fight.”

Dominic frowned. “Why?”

“It’s a better story,” said Vidre. “It sets up a romance between the two of us that people will find compelling, and it makes the both of us come out looking better. People like when I’m vulnerable. People will want to see you as strong, brave, and willing to fight against the odds.”

“Fair enough,” said Dominic. His mind had tripped itself on the word ‘romance’.

“You don’t need to relay any of this to Wealdwood, just don’t contradict it,” said Vidre.

“Welexi is okay with this deception?” asked Dominic.

“It’s true enough,” said Vidre. “There’s a chance—albeit a low one—that I would have died without your help. And without your intervention, it’s possible that Cerulean would have been able to slip back into the water. Is this going to be a problem for you?”

“No,” said Dominic, and it wasn’t. If he could have turned back time, that was how the fight would have gone, with him standing firm above Vidre, knife in hand against her aggressor, facing down impossible odds and winning. Besides that, Vidre had already spent the last night writing letters to the bards and others, so if he was uncomfortable with the mild deception, it was likely too late to do anything about it.

Gaelwyn worked his domain. Wealdwood stirred slowly, ineffectually straining against his bonds with his disconnected muscles. He froze when he saw Vidre and Gaelwyn. He tried to say something around his gag before realizing it was there. Gaelwyn nodded, and left for Welexi’s room.

“Lightscour is going to watch you,” said Vidre. “Give him any trouble, and I’ll kill you without hesitation.”

“Can I speak with him?” asked Dominic.

“You have a dozen books that you need to read,” said Vidre. “Etiquette, history, dossiers, all manner of things you’ll need to be passable at court. And I don’t see what you would hope to get out of it. He’s said everything that he knows.”

“He’s answered every question that you’ve asked him,” said Dominic. “That’s not the same thing.”

Vidre shrugged. “I’m too tired to argue.” She stepped forward and slashed at the gag in one quick motion. Wealdwood spit it to the side, and Vidre grabbed him by the jaw. “I’m going to take a nap.” Somehow she made that sound foreboding. “Lightscour has my full permission to kill you if he thinks that’s in his best interests. If you scream and wake me up, I’ll jam a dagger through your eye and go straight back to bed.” She turned to Dominic. “Speaking of which, I’m taking your room for the day. Don’t wake me unless it’s urgent.” She placed one of her daggers in his hand, then left the room without waiting for a response.

“Release me,” said Wealdwood, as soon as Vidre was gone.

“No,” replied Dominic. “Besides, you’re not moving anywhere anytime soon. The bonds aren’t doing much. If you had your strength, I’d bet that you could simply snap them.”

“I could make a wooden pod and float away from the ship,” said Wealdwood. “I could find someone to repair the damage the Red Angel has done.” He tried to turn his head and failed. “Help me.”

“No,” said Dominic. “I want to know about your master.”

“I’ve said already,” Wealdwood replied. “He was always in shadows, with a hood that hid his face.”

“But not his hands,” said Dominic. “Those were visible, because you could see the ring he wore. What were his hands like? What color was his skin? How old was he? Did he have calluses?”

“White skin,” Wealdwood replied. “Wrinkles. Thin fingers. He wasn’t tanned at all, I don’t think he was a worker.”

“You said that you were surprised to see him in Gennaro,” said Dominic. “Where did you first make the arrangements?”

“Please let me go,” said Wealdwood. “Help me to escape, escape with me, and we can expose—”

Dominic shook his head. “All I want are answers,” he said. “Something that I can bring to Welexi to help him solve this mystery.”

“You want to be his lapdog?” asked Wealdwood. “What do you even know about the Sunhawk? About the Red Angel? About the depravities of the Queen of Glass?”

“Where did you first make the arrangements?” asked Dominic again.

Wealdwood’s face fell. “Do you understand what Gaelwyn Mottram is? How many thousands of innocent lives he took?”

Dominic shifted in his seat. The truth was, he didn’t know much about the people he was traveling with beyond what he’d heard in the stories, and those couldn’t be trusted. “I want to know about this mysterious man,” said Dominic. “They’re planning to let you go, but if I tell them that you’re hiding something …” Dominic shrugged, and hoped that it came off with the same nonchalance that Vidre had affected.

“They’ll kill me,” whispered Wealdwood. “Not in front of you, but all it will take is a touch from Gaelwyn to weaken my heart, and the next time that I get into combat, the strain will make something pop, that will be it for me. They’ve done it before.” He tried to turn his head again, and again failed. Wealdwood’s eyes moved to Dominic, and he licked his lips. “I first met him in the Iron Kingdom, in the city of Larance. I was running low on coin, and was forced to work at making boats, but fame is fleeting and I knew I wouldn’t last for long doing that. The Knight of the Woods reduced to a simple carpenter, and I could feel the legends fading away, even after the scandal I’d run from. This man came to me one night and made me an offer. A return to fame, and fortunes beyond my imagining, and all I had to do was sink the Zenith.” Wealdwood paused. “I refused. Even seeing his ring, and feeling its unmistakable signature of power, I refused him. He began to tell me stories of Welexi. They were stories that I already knew, of Whitespear striding onto fields of battle, or fighting in narrow castle corridors, of forest ambushes where the Brightshield defended merchant convoys against well-armed bandits. You’re familiar with the legends?”

“Familiar enough,” said Dominic. He didn’t have an exhaustive knowledge, as he’d always tried to avoid the stories, but he had picked many of them up all the same. It was difficult not to, when that was all some people wanted to talk about.

“Welexi planned out his most famous fights. He worked in collusion with his villains,” said Wealdwood. His brow was furrowed. “How else would so many of the battles have ended with his opponent slinking off to return another day? The man has a reputation for being soft, for letting people go, but to hear my benefactor tell it, this was all part of the plan. If two people fight, it raises the reputation of both. But it went further than that. Those well-armed bandits? My benefactor spoke with some of the men, decades after the fact. They had been paid, paid to attack, and paid to fall back. That was how Welexi forged his legend, and it’s only because he’s so good with his lies that he hasn’t been unmasked. People revere him now. They don’t want to think the worst of him. But look at the company he keeps, no offense.”

“It all sounded true to you,” said Dominic. “And so you agreed that you would kill him.”

“No,” said Wealdwood. “We were never meant to kill him. Think for a moment. There was a gaping flaw in the plan if our intent was to kill Welexi.” He paused, and a slow smile spread across his face, as though it was amusing. “He can simply fly away. And as our benefactor said, that’s what he would do. He would watch his crew flounder from the air. He would watch Cerulean Bane choke Vidre out. And he would leave Mottram to sink to his death. We weren’t trying to kill him, only weaken him.” His face fell. “Cerulean Bane is truly dead?”

“Yes,” replied Dominic. He rubbed at his chin. “So the plan was to weaken him, and then what?”

“We never knew,” said Wealdwood. “Our part in it would have been done then. I met with our benefactor three times in total. The first was when he introduced himself, the second was when he paired me with Cerulean, and the third was in Gennaro, when he changed our plans. Cerulean … we spent time chasing down the Zenith. We became friends. I used to joke with him about his name. It didn’t make any sense. Blue Bane? He’s the bane of things that are blue? Or is he a bane that’s blue? A bane of what?” Wealdwood closed his eyes. “And now he’s dead.”

“He’s trying to gain your sympathy,” said Gaelwyn. He stood just outside the door, frowning slightly. “Have you learned anything interesting?”

“No,” said Dominic. “Just pieces of the puzzle.” There was no gentle way to ask whether any of the accusations against Welexi could possibly have been true, even if Gaelwyn would have known. Nor was there a gentle way of asking Gaelwyn whether he could sabotage someone’s heart. “I was hoping that I would find some small detail that would illuminate matters.”

“Vidre wanted me to have a talk with you in private when I found the time,” said Gaelwyn. He walked over to the prisoner and touched him briefly on the chest, knocking him out cold. “Welexi will want you in better fighting shape, which means making some modifications.”

Dominic frowned. Matters of the flesh, he’d heard it called. The domain of flesh was associated with death so often that it was hard to remember that it was also used for other things, if you were rich enough. There was a taboo that surrounded the bodily domains, one which encompassed the changes they could make to a person.

“Your consent is important to me,” said Gaelwyn. “If you don’t want me to make you stronger, just say so, and that will be that.”

“No,” said Dominic. “I do. I’ve just heard … I’ve heard stories about it going wrong for people.”

“It can be dangerous, if you’re just starting out,” said Gaelwyn with a nod. He took off the green apron, and began to unbutton his shirt. “But I’m no amateur.” He pulled his shirt to the side.

Gaelwyn Mottram was a short man, half a head shorter than Dominic, and to look at him you might think that he was small and bookish. Beneath his loose clothing he was hiding a body that would put Corta’s sons to shame. There wasn’t an ounce of fat anywhere. As Dominic watched, unable to look away, the muscles strained and twisted, like a crossbow being drawn.

“There was a time, after I left the Iron King’s service, when I kept myself deflated and weak. It was a penance, I thought.” He touched his abdomen. “It was Welexi who showed me that I didn’t have to reject my domain.” He looked up at Dominic, and began buttoning back up. “Of course, it doesn’t do to show it. I heal so many people with every place that we visit, and I know half of them would turn away if I looked like the monster they thought I was.” He gave a nervous laugh.

“And the side effects,” said Dominic slowly.

“There are none, if it’s properly done,” said Gaelwyn. “It’s the freshly minted illustrati of flesh that are the problem there. They pack more and more muscle on as quickly as possible, leaving stretch marks on their biceps and legs, warping everything out of proportion, until bone or connective tissue give way. Or they offer their services to some nobleman, who isn’t willing to put in the work to keep the physique that they’ve purchased, and a year down the road there are ugly rumors of a man with sagging skin that once held impressive brawn. Sometimes the illustrati won’t know enough, and work on domain intuition alone, which can have bad results, and occasionally ruin something in a way that can’t be fixed. Change the muscle, and you have to change everything else, and that means giving it some time.” He nodded to himself. “We go in cycles, let the body rest. Remove any fat, pack on muscle, prevent the skin from stretching too much or outright splitting, make sure that you’re not losing blood—”

“Losing blood?” asked Dominic.

“Not actually losing blood,” Gaelwyn explained quickly. “But for every ten pounds of muscle you gain, you need an extra pint of blood, so the effect can be similar.”

“Can I think on it?” asked Dominic.

Gaelwyn’s smile was strained. “Certainly, certainly. But it’s better to start soon, given the number of cycles we’ll need to do. It’s not painful at all. I can understand though, if the concept is foreign, or unfamiliar to you, how you might hesitate, I don’t blame you for that at all—do we need to speak candidly?” He saw Dominic’s look. “You’ve heard rumors about me, stories, tall tales, and if you’re going to be with us it might be better to clear the air.” He laughed slightly. “People hear about something like a crate of teeth or a headless child, and their imagination runs wild, and it would be so much better to simply explain things.”

“You’ve been kind to me since the moment I got here,” said Dominic. “But if someone asks me about your past, I don’t think it would be good for me to shrug and say that I never cared enough to ask. So if you don’t mind,” he looked to Wealdwood. “Is he going to be okay?”

“Just fine,” said Gaelwyn. His hands fidgeted.

“Then yes,” said Dominic. “I think it’s better for me to know.”

Gaelwyn was ten years old when he got his turn in front of the audience.

He stepped out onto the stage with a light shove from one of the masked attendants, and then there were ten thousand people staring at him. The master of ceremonies began to speak, the domain of sound making his voice boom out across the open air, and the words that came out were all about Gaelwyn Mottram, something between an introduction and a promotion. It was late in the evening, and Gaelwyn was far from the first, and so the master of ceremonies was working against the natural inattention of his audience.

“Let me tell you about Gaelwyn Mottram!” the master of ceremonies screamed. “When he was only a baby, a stray spark from a fireplace lit the thatched roof on fire! Baby Gaelwyn was trapped inside the house, about to burn alive! But he turned to the fire, and he commanded it with his first words, striking a deal—that the fire could forever find a home in his hair, if only it let him live!”

One of the attendants pushed Gaelwyn forward, towards where the dozens of objects arranged on a table. There was one for every domain, some in small jars, some simply sitting there, and a series of cages that held the animals. He had instruction beforehand, but being the focus of attention was making him feel sick. The attendant leaned down and whispered in his ear.

“Find which one is yours, don’t waste our time.”

Gaelwyn reached out and touched them one by one as the master of ceremonies droned on. He was telling a story about how young Gaelwyn, at the age of five, stared down a grizzly bear. The stories were obviously untrue, but enough that the audience might be able to overcome their apathy for a moment. Ten thousand people, focused all on a single small boy, was supposed to be enough to allow his domain to be found.

He didn’t know enough to know what it was supposed to be like, when you found your domain. If you had the temporary fame of the crowd you were supposed to simply know, but as Gaelwyn touched the blocks of metal that comprised the metallic domains, he grew worried. Children were supposed to stay as long as it took, and the audience was often blamed for a failure. Too much time, and someone would be grabbed at random by the attendants and publicly whipped for a few minutes before being returned back to the crowd. The master of ceremonies aside, this was one of the things that helped to focus attention.

Gaelwyn touched every domain for long enough to be sure. Glass, sand, ash, and a candle that served triple duty as smoke, heat, and fire. He went through the animals quickly, reaching into their cages to touch them and see their reactions to him. The cat looked up at him with a blank expression, and the dog seemed interested only in a piece of meat that sat on the table, and none of the others were anything more than put upon by the contact or simply non-responsive. It was none of the base elementals, or the derived elementals, none of the ephemerals, nor the animal domains, nothing manufactured, or organic—and that left only the six bodily domains, which everyone saved for last. They were set off to the side, clustered together. Hair, bile, skin, bone, blood, and flesh.

Yet even before he touched the quivering chunk of meat, he knew it for his domain. He was flesh, the temporary attentions allowed him to feel it beneath his skin, a whole part of himself that he’d never really given much thought to before. So it was no surprise to him that he could make the chunk of meat move slightly beneath his touch. He was happy to show the attendant, happy that he hadn’t had to go through all of them a second time, and happy that no one had to be whipped. The attendant had nodded, marked something on a sheet of paper, and led him away.

He never saw his family again.

He shared an enormous building in the country with a hundred other children and twenty teachers. He cried often, early on, but less as time passed and life in the school assumed a sense of normalcy. The full meaning of the school wasn’t fully apparent to him, as nothing was ever explained to the children, but gradually Gaelwyn came to understand. The Iron King was famous for many things, but his cannons were chief among them. He could make them quickly, much faster than any forge, and he had used that ability to extend his empire around the world. At the school he was doing something different; taking the raw ingredient of childhood and forging something useful.

Gaelwyn took to his studies more than the other children. He was intelligent, and in this new environment he had a chance to show it. As the years passed, other students left, sometimes taken away in the middle of the night. Gaelwyn was one among many with the domain of flesh, but in the end, the Iron King would only need one. Gaelwyn knew what his role was to be before he was told, and took to studying his domain, not only what was written in the library’s books, but his own body as well. He went from lean to powerful, growing slowly so as not to make mistakes, honing his craft in front of a full-length mirror. He was short, but he made his shoulders broad and his muscles thick.

One day Gaelwyn became the last remaining illustrati of flesh at the school, and the next day he was standing before the Iron King.

The Iron King stood eight and a half feet tall. He was a mountain of a man, an impossible giant, and when he saw the perfection of the king’s form, Gaelwyn wondered what he could possibly be needed for. Yet on first touch, it became apparent. The king had not started out so enormous; he had been made that way. He was a sculpture of flesh and bone, changed and warped into his state of seeming perfection. Yet there were flaws; he had little feeling in his legs and feet, and suffered disorders of the body. His joints were weakened, and though he was extremely powerful, above and beyond what was granted by his fame, he moved sluggishly. Gaelwyn was able to solve some of these problems, with time, and give instruction to alleviate some of the others, but eight feet was taller than a man should be, especially one that demanded such an excess of muscle. The Iron King weighed eight hundred pounds. He ate two dozen eggs for breakfast, and a whole chicken for lunch. By most accounts he was a titan, yet he was king all the same.

Gaelwyn wasn’t allowed to work on the king at first. He was given prisoners to practice on, and instruction in making them as powerful as he possibly could in conjunction with one of the Bone Warden’s acolytes. He refined his techniques and his artistic talent. It was easy enough to swell the muscles, but there was a difficulty in making sure that the men were still aesthetically pleasing afterward, and unintended consequences that could result from putting emphasis in the wrong place. Domain intuition wasn’t enough, it took study of human physiology and a keen eye for the arts, both of which Gaelwyn was made to learn. He made mistakes, in those early years, but there was always a fresh body to practice on. He made a half-hearted effort to fix his errors, but one of the king’s advisors had stopped in to say that his job wasn’t to fix things—it was to never make a mistake in the first place.

Officially, Gaelwyn was the court physician. The Iron King didn’t publicly admit to using the bodily domains to his advantage, in part because he had made the practice illegal, and in part because it might have hurt his reputation. The stories circulating about the Iron King claimed that he was born enormous, that his mother died in childbirth because of his size, that he could lift a wagon with one hand at the age of ten, on and on. His father had prepared him well for the role of king, with a mythology that he easily slipped into. Gaelwyn never shared the king’s company in public, only in small, secret rooms, when repairs and modifications needed to be done to the king’s flesh. It continued that way for a time, until a fateful day when the king asked a question.

“Where does blood come from?”

Gaelwyn recited the theories. The older theory was one of latent domains. Domain genesis was often considered one of the core abilities, and few domains lacked it; the Iron King could produce more iron simply by touching an existing stock of it, and with concentration and an exercise of will, produce it from thin air. The theory of latent domains postulated that every person contained within themselves all the bodily domains, and had a mild, entirely subconscious access to them. Bones knit by themselves, given time. Flesh would mend, if slowly. Hair grew, skin stretched, all—so the theory went—because people had an unspecialized and basal access to those domains. The answer to where blood came from was then the same as the answer to where any substance produced by the illustrati came from, which was a great and unsolved question of a different magnitude.

The second theory was that blood was produced by some organ of the body, in the same way that salivary glands—isolated only five years prior—produced saliva. Which organ was an open question; many thought it was the heart itself, in the course of its constant beating, while others said it was a secondary (or even primary) effect of the lungs or liver.

“Find out for sure,” commanded the Iron King.

Gaelwyn didn’t start by taking people apart. He started with rats, with hounds, with other animals whose biology was close enough to human. He wrapped himself in the problem, partially because there was nothing better to consume his time, and partially because he found it faintly absurd that no one knew the answer. Blood was so basic to life, so elemental to human physiology, but they had no idea where it came from. Gaelwyn ran his experiments, often several in parallel. He would remove a single organ from a rat, then drain a quantity of its blood, and compare these different rats to each other after several days. The heart was a tricky one, but the solution had been simple—remove the heart, then stitch together veins and arteries from a second living creature, so that both shared blood. It took many iterations to get right, with mysterious deaths that couldn’t be accounted for by the trauma of the surgery. He made investigations, and found that this was a problem long-known by the illustrati of blood, an incompatibility that they couldn’t explain.

He published a brief titled “The Classifications of Blood” which documented his methods and his findings. It was the first of its kind, an attempt to bring the revolutions in study to the human body. The second volume he produced gave detail to the process by which blood was created in the marrow of the bones, something he’d discovered when he’d begun removing bones from his rats. Before, Gaelwyn had been elevated through the Iron King’s sheer might and bardic organization. Afterward, it was through a measure of his own success.

Gaelwyn pushed himself, and the Iron King smiled on these efforts. There were new things to learn, questions that the Iron King found value in having answered. How long could a man survive cold? How long could he survive heat? There was no domain to govern the majority of the organs with a man, but could it be made safe to replace a sick organ with a healthy one? How were teeth made? Why did people have two sets of them? What governed the natural repair of bones, if the theory of latent domains was incorrect? What caused people to be misshapen, or to have disorders of the mind? Gaelwyn wanted to know the answers to these questions, even more than his king did. Curiosity was part of it, and he wouldn’t deny that fame was too, but mostly it was that sense of progress that came when the air smelled metallic and his fingers were slippery with blood.

Many of his subjects were prisoners, but not all. He was given a building to conduct his studies in, and it housed a number of his subjects, many of them oddities brought in from around the Iron Kingdom. Gaelwyn never killed anyone, at least never by intent. With his power he could split the skin and tug at the muscles to look at the inner workings of a person, to inject drugs directly into their vital organs or make observations of the body under distress. He was kind to his patients, and understanding. They were provided for. They were comfortable.

The Peddler’s War brought changes. The Iron Kingdom was attacked, and when it fought back, more viciously than anyone realized it could, prisoners of war were given over to Gaelwyn. Gaelwyn published many volumes on the findings that resulted, and the state of the art was advanced immeasurably. He surrounded himself with assistants and like-minded colleagues, and rarely ventured from his hospital save to attend to the king’s body and keep it in its optimal shape. The hospital was Gaelwyn’s castle, and he thought of himself as a king in his own right, a ruler over human biology, an explorer forging straight ahead.

When the Peddler’s War ended, Gaelwyn was nearly executed. The Iron King had won the counter-war, claiming land in the process, but Gaelwyn had become too well known, and too much of a political liability in a time of peace. He hadn’t known before how much of a monster the world saw him as, nor had he heard the stories that were told about him. His mail had been censored. The domain of flesh was looked down on or outright hated, and the stories of mangled men and piled up corpses had only added to that. The Iron King settled on exile instead of execution, and Gaelwyn was thrust out into a world that hated and feared him. The bubble he’d been living in was popped, and he was left to face cold reality.

“I drifted,” said Gaelwyn. “For three years. I heard the songs that they sung about me, watched on occasion as they burned my books. I kept myself shrouded. I was hunted from time to time, but I fought back. I was strong, monstrously strong, a tight ball of muscle and pain. I lashed out. I grew despondent. I tried to hide, and failed. And in the end, it was Welexi who brought me back from the brink.”

“You saved his life,” said Dominic. He had heard that story before. As it went, Welexi had been badly injured in a fight and nearly dead. He propped himself up against a lonely orange tree, waiting for the end. His heart had stopped when Gaelwyn found him, but for Gaelwyn, a stopped heart was an easy problem to fix. Ever after, Welexi had traveled with Gaelwyn, and acted in his defense.

“I saved his life,” nodded Gaelwyn. “And he, in turn, saved mine.”

Dominic wondered whether it was true. It was impossible to say just from watching Gaelwyn’s expression, but Dominic suspected that it wasn’t. There were many reasons to keep Gaelwyn Mottram close to you, not least of which was the fact that he was a powerful illustrati and—even assuming some exaggeration—one of the foremost healers in the world.

“I worry I’m a stain on his goodness,” said Gaelwyn. “I worry about the answers that he has to make for me. The duels he’s been forced to fight because I’ve vowed to take no further lives. Welexi wouldn’t throw me away like the Iron King did, wouldn’t ever turn his back on me, but I worry about what I cost him. It’s been nine years since the Peddler’s War, and still people talk. Sometimes I think that I’m the only thing that they remember from that time, nevermind that the death toll between all sides was four hundred thousand men. I was a symbol. I still am.”

“I’ll take whatever enhancements you can give me,” said Dominic.

Gaelwyn’s eyes lit up. “You will?”

“I trust you,” said Dominic. “Whatever is in the past is in the past.”

He said it with his most ready smile, but the truth was that he knew he was going to take the offered advantage at some point in the future, so it was better to simply take it now, when he could gain the most benefit from it and solidify a bond between them. For all Gaelwyn had said in his story, there were few enough specifics. Don’t admit to anything specific, show contrition, promise reform, talk about your crimes like they’re all in the past. It was close enough to that script that Dominic had used, if he was being cynical. And Gaelwyn had never explained the headless child, or the crate full of teeth. In a world full of stories, perhaps it was simply easier to say that all the bad ones directed your way were inventions of the frightened and ignorant.

Gaelwyn touched him lightly on the arm, and the change began. Dominic’s muscles twitched slightly, moving of their own accord. He sagged slightly, leaning against the wall. Parts of him were shrinking, or vanishing entirely. He felt like there were tides of flesh moving within him. And then, just as quickly as it had begun, it was over. It hadn’t been unpleasant, exactly. Dominic flexed with newfound strength, a physical might that seemed to nearly match that granted by his fame. He felt the need to go running, to stretch his legs out and punch at the air.

“That’s the beginning,” said Gaelwyn with a small, cautious grin. “We’ll let your body adjust over the next few days. I’ll watch this one; go do some stretching out, feel how things are working, and report back to me at once if you feel something wrong in one of the joints. And save some energy for later in the day. I know that Vidre wanted to put you through your paces.”

“I will,” said Dominic. “And thank you.”

Gaelwyn rested his hand on Wealdwood’s chest.

Would the world be a better place if Wealdwood never woke up?

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Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 4: An Interlude at Sea

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