Vidre walked through the city streets of Meriwall, incognito. She had a hood up to hide her hair, and had pinned it back in a tight and efficient way. In the stories, a woman who was traveling as a man was always revealed by her hair, which was dramatic but also stupid. The sole tactical advantage to that reveal was an element of momentary distraction, and that wasn’t enough for it to be worth it. A woman who couldn’t secure her hair properly had no place trying to be sneaky, in Vidre’s opinion. The rest of the disguise was a bulky coat and thick pants, with fifty pounds of glass armor to give her some bulk. The beard she wore was made from beaver fur and tied in place; she was less sure about that part of the disguise, but it was easy enough to stick in a pocket. With the disguise on, she was a burly, if short, man, and no one would bother her. The only way it could have been more convincing would have been if she’d had Gaelwyn reshape the muscles of her face, but asking him for that would mean that Welexi would know, and she wanted to avoid that.
Leaving Grayhull Palace had been simplicity itself. Getting back in would be slightly more difficult, but only because she didn’t want them to raise the alarm. Half of the illustrati that Vidre had seen were taking the same concentrated dose of narcotic that the Flower Queen had, albeit less intensively. The other half were more concerned with palace intrigues and political positioning. Only a fraction of them were in fighting shape, and the palace had no illustrati as guards. If the Iron King attacked, his illustrati would move through Meriwall like a flash flood, leaving buildings toppled and trees uprooted.
Kendrick Eversong still lived in the same place; she’d checked on that before donning her disguise and making her journey. The lower portion of the building was a shop that had previously sold heavy fabrics and now fishing equipment. Kendrick owned the entire building, which he’d inherited from his father, but he only lived in the upper half of it.
This area of Meriwall was primarily home to shops and industry, with few living spaces, and the crooked roads meant that line-of-sight was poor. When she’d assured herself that no one was looking, Vidre set her sights on the two feet of roof outside one of the upper windows and leapt up towards it. She landed perfectly, stuck her hand straight through the glass like it was a cobweb, unlatched the window, and stepped into Kendrick Eversong’s bedroom with her daggers drawn.
It was late, but he would still be out carousing, and probably singing that infuriating song in whatever tavern would have him. He wouldn’t be one to squander the fame he’d just gotten, and no doubt if he’d seen the show he would be spinning up some new verse to replace the old one about Zerstor, or claim that the fight in Gennaro had been something of a lover’s quarrel, or a mock battle turned real. Vidre could see the shape of those stories, but they were weaker than what Welexi had presented on stage, and couldn’t hope to match the reality of the missing fingers.
Kendrick’s bedroom had a large bed, a number of outfits draped over chairs and dressers, and half-melted candles sitting on a multitude of surfaces. Vidre looked around only briefly before moving into the next room, which Kendrick used as a place for reading, composing, and occasionally meetings. Six years had done little to change it. The smell of tobacco smoke was stronger, and there were more books on the shelves, but it was still substantially the same. There was a small staircase at the back of the room that led down to the street; Vidre pulled a chair from behind a desk, placed it so that she could sit with moonlight striking her face, and waited.
It was only a half hour before Vidre heard raucous laughter coming up from the otherwise silent streets. It came closer to the house, and Vidre worried briefly that Kendrick would bring people up with him, but then the conversation began to grow distant, and the sound of a single man’s unsteady footsteps came up from the stairwell.
“Kendrick Eversong,” said Vidre, a fraction of a moment before he would have noticed her.
Kendrick swayed slightly and peered at her. “What heavenly beauty is this that I find lying in wait?” he asked. A grin spread across his face. “I find myself flushed and flustered by this marvelous militant, clad in her domain, a reflection of its sharp yet brittle nature.” He swayed slightly. “Come to kill me, Vidre? No, but you’re too practical for these theatrics, were that the case. You use the drama only when it suits you, and slip out of the role of actor just like you’ve slipped out of so many dresses over the years.”
Vidre’s hands rested on her daggers. “Purify your blood. This isn’t a conversation that you want to be drunk for.”
Kendrick sighed, but closed his eyes and did what he was told. His swaying stopped, and when he spoke, his words were precise. “I do note that you didn’t say you weren’t going to kill me,” he said. “Was my song really so offensive?”
“What do you hope to gain from all this?” asked Vidre.
“‘All this’,” repeated Kendrick Eversong. “If you mean this conversation, then I suppose my hope is to see you disrobed and bent over my bed.” He leered at her, in a way that men sometimes did when they wanted to make her uncomfortable. It had stopped having an effect long ago, but coming from Kendrick she felt a small twinge of sadness that her face would never show. They had once been friends.
“There’s no audience here,” said Vidre.
“If by ‘all this’ you mean the duel, then I suppose my aim is to put an end to the — I’m certain — wonderfully charming Lightscour, and then do the same to the monster Gaelwyn Mottram,” said Kendrick. He made no indication that he had heard what she’d said. “And if ‘all this’ is to mean anything after that, then I would suppose you’ve already made your guesses about that. It’s no secret that I’m in with the Council of Laborers. I’m certain that you didn’t come here to talk politics though, and seeing as you’re still dressed, I suppose it’s not a yearning in your loins. So that means you’re here to make a deal.”
“A play is always better when everyone is following the same script, isn’t it?” asked Kendrick. “I consider you a great thinker, did you know?” Vidre only stared at him. “You know that coming here gives me ammunition against you, and you know that it allows me to know that there’s a very good chance I’ll win this duel, and you came here all the same in order to try to work something out. So I’m left wondering what incentive I would have to make a deal, do you see?”
“Your victory is far from assured,” said Vidre. Her hands clenched around her daggers. “I can still take Lightscour’s place, in which case there would be little chance of you walking away.”
“At great personal expense,” said Kendrick with a shrug. He leaned back against the railing of the staircase.
“My reputation would take a hit,” said Vidre, “Welexi’s reputation would probably also take a hit, and Lightscour’s as well. I don’t want to make you into a martyr either. But on balance, it might be worth it if I thought that the risk of us losing the duel was too high with Lightscour fighting. I wouldn’t have any trouble killing you.”
“There’s no narrative to spin there,” said Kendrick with a wave of his hand.
Vidre shrugged. “The narrative isn’t always the most important thing.” The fall back plan was to fabricate a romance with Dominic. If she could convince Dominic and Welexi, this could be done prior to the duel itself, and she could stand in Dominic’s place in much the same way that Dominic was standing in Gaelwyn’s, though she didn’t imagine that anyone in the audience would like it. Failing that, if it looked like Dominic was going to lose, Vidre could step in, claim that she wouldn’t let her lover die, and kill Kendrick. And if Dominic lost so quickly that she couldn’t do that, then she could pretend to fly into a rage using that romance as her motive and kill Kendrick before he had a chance to demand Gaelwyn’s head. These plans had flaws in them, but they made the best of a bad situation.
“You negotiate by saying that you’ll kill me?” asked Kendrick. “Well, I can’t say that I care for that.”
“That’s the stick,” said Vidre. “As for the carrot, you haven’t made your demands.”
“I have,” said Kendrick. “Gaelwyn Mottram, dead.”
Vidre frowned. “He’s been my traveling companion for six years, whatever else he’s done.”
“So you’d have me believe that you’re loyal to him?” asked Kendrick. “No, I rather think not. Gaelwyn is powerful, and a useful man, but he’s a liability, now more than ever. It wouldn’t have escaped your notice that much of the messiness of the Peddler’s War could be cleaned up by putting Gael in a shallow grave. By all rights it should have been done years ago, as soon as Welexi saw the man who’d saved him. Do you remember me telling you how my father died? Ripped apart, piece by piece, because Gael wanted to know how the brain controls its limbs. They told me it took a dozen hours, as the Red Angel prodded at bundles of nerves in the spine with a needle. Can you even imagine the betrayal I felt when Welexi brought him into the fold?”
Vidre could have mounted a defense. Gaelwyn killed prisoners that the Iron King had condemned to die. He had saved hundreds of lives in the past six years, ever since joining up with Welexi. The lives lost in Gaelwyn’s hospital counted for less, if they were men who would have died anyway. Eventually the balance of good and evil would swing the other way, if it hadn’t already, and Gaelwyn would be a net good in the world. It would be possible for a skilled bard to paint Gaelwyn as a tragic figure. He was a man forged by the Iron King, and aimed like a cannon along a specific trajectory.
She’d given these defenses before. Yet with every year it became more difficult; there was something unsavory that lay within Gaelwyn, a way that he never took full responsibility for his actions, or pretended that they could be justified on their merits. His pacifism and nervousness were hiding something in his core; she had no idea whether he had killed Wealdwood, but her suspicion was that Wealdwood would never be seen again.
If she was being honest with herself, she’d first thought about getting rid of Gaelwyn after the fight with Cerulean Bane. She had heard the noise from down in the cabin, and her immediate reaction had been to hope that Gaelwyn had been killed. It would have been convenient for him to have finally gotten his redemption through a timely death.
This wasn’t what she had planned when she’d decided to pay Kendrick a visit.
“Your original goal couldn’t have been to kill Gaelwyn,” said Vidre. “It was to bait Welexi, and the point of that was — well, unclear to me, but I presume you thought he would show you mercy, and you would get a free stage to incite the people of Meriwall against their queen?”
Kendrick shrugged again, an elaborate roll of the shoulders. “Plans change.”
“You don’t want to die,” said Vidre. “Dominic doesn’t want to die. If we agree on this script together, it’s the only way that everyone gets what they want.” She took a breath and tried to map out her course. “Gaelwyn … was a friend.”
Kendrick grinned in the moonlight.
After the conversation with Welexi, Dominic hadn’t been able to sleep. He’d thrown on his now-familiar outfit that Vidre had procured for him the day they left Gennaro, with its purple tights and baggy sleeves, and wandered the hallways of Grayhull. It was quite late; no one was awake, and the hallways were in darkness save for the moonlight. He could see perfectly, without need for a candle, and went so far as to admire the paintings on the walls in the pitch blackness. After looking around for a moment, he unlatched one of the side doors and stepped out onto the manicured grounds that surrounded the palace. He looked at the empty space in front of him for only a moment before getting down into a crouch, counting silently to three, and then sprinting forward.
The grass was slick with dew, and Dominic was faster than he’d ever been before. Each step put on more speed, and though the grounds were as long as a full city block, he didn’t have nearly enough room. A wrought-iron fence decorated with tastefully-sculpted spikes loomed in front of him, nearly fifteen feet high, and Dominic leapt over it.
He rolled into a landing on top of a house, and pitched over the side of it when he was unable to find his purchase. It was a two-story fall, and it hurt, but the pain was only temporary, and he’d suffered none of the broken bones he would have in his old life. Welexi had fallen down from above the clouds and suffered relatively minor injuries for it, and some day Dominic would be at that level too. For now, falling down from rooftops was no longer a concern. Dominic got up, brushed himself off, and leapt back up.
The rooftops of Meriwall weren’t as conducive to a run as the rooftops of Gennaro, but Dominic was stronger and faster than he’d been, and could compensate more easily for the dips and valleys as he passed from house to house. The darkness was a friend to him, and no hindrance to his ability to see, and he was soon moving faster than he’d ever moved before, save perhaps for when the Zenith was moving at full sail and a strong tailwind. He began to sweat from exertion, and pushed himself harder, until he began to feel a familiar ache in his lungs that came more sharply with every breath.
He dashed across the city until the buildings grew thin, then dropped down onto a wide street and kept on going. A pair of constables spotted him, but made no move to stop or even call out after him. He hooked right, nearly skidding across the cobblestones as he made his turn, and leapt back up onto the rooftops to continue his run. He had no particular destination in mind until he saw the spires of Laith’s Cathedral, and then he forged a lazy path towards it.
Laithism had been founded a hundred years ago, when Laith was in his waning years. He had been fading away, with all his attempts at gathering more fame or forestalling his decline doing little for him, and had invited spiritualists and scholars in from all over the known world. He had taken many of the ideas about reincarnation to heart, and began to write a lengthy tome filled with his own ideas on the subject. The central idea of Laithism was that he would one day rise again, and that the citizens of his kingdom would one day be ruled over by a King Eternal. The religion (such as it was) was only practiced in Torland and its colonies, and was largely seen as being both inauthentic and derivative. Much of Laith’s book had been copied wholesale from other tomes; the ideas in it were already well-worn when it was written. Still, the clergy held some power in Torland, and the Vicar Most High was an illustrati in his own right.
The cathedral was silent and empty. Dominic began his climb. It was easy going, for the most part. There weren’t any convenient handholds, but the cathedral was constructed like a tiered cake, getting smaller as it rose and having a number of nearly flat surfaces to stand on. Dominic could simply leap from one landing to another. He was halfway to the top, five stories up, when he realized that he was being followed.
A figure stood twenty feet below him, on one of the gently sloped parts of the cathedral’s lower tiers. It was a short, stocky man with a thick beard and what looked to be a pot-belly. His head was covered by a hood, but he was staring up at Dominic. The man was an illustrati, that was clear enough by the fact that he was on the roof, but Dominic hadn’t memorized the list he’d been given well enough to know who it might be. It was also conceivable that this was the man that had set Cerulean Bane and Wealdwood on them, or someone in his employ. Dominic crouched down slightly and began to form armor around himself, which was a serious violation of etiquette if the man was friendly but quite sensible if he was an enemy. The figure leaped up towards Dominic, and landed on the rooftop near him just as Dominic finished making a sword of shadow — now a firm and substantial blade, not the wispy construct of his first night as illustrati.
“We need to talk,” said the figure, in a high voice that momentarily startled Dominic. When he saw the scar, he dismissed his sword and armor and flopped down on the roof.
“How did you find me?” he asked.
“You weren’t exactly being secretive,” said Vidre. “I spotted you running along the rooftops, and thought that I should make sure that you weren’t doing anything foolish.”
“Sorry,” he replied. “I know I shouldn’t have. I just needed time to think.”
“The palace isn’t a prison,” said Vidre. She pulled her false beard aside and drew back her hood. “We’re free to come and go, so long as we don’t commit any breaches of etiquette in doing so. Which, of course, is what you’ve done. Leaving a domicile in which one is a guest without first informing the staff is a gross violation of protocol. Unless you did inform the staff?”
“Etiquette,” said Dominic with a shake of his head. “I hate that word.”
“This indiscretion doesn’t matter,” said Vidre. “I’ll help you to sneak back in.” She looked out over the city, at the river that meandered through the heart of it and at Laith’s Face, always present wherever there was a view of the horizon. “I’ve cut a deal with Kendrick.”
“The Blood Bard?” asked Dominic, but he knew this was a stupid question, the kind that only leaves the mouth because the brain is still trying to catch up. “What sort of deal?”
“The two of you will fight,” said Vidre. “You’ll get in a position where you have him at your mercy, and then spare his life. Welexi can’t ever know of this, which means that Gaelwyn can’t either.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve grown some sense of morality all of the sudden?” asked Vidre.
“I could have won,” said Dominic. “Not easily, but it was a test that had been put before me, and … you want me to just breeze past it with this deception?”
“This kingdom is on the brink of a civil war, in case you hadn’t been paying attention,” said Vidre. “There will be other, truer tests of your ability. Dominic, I need to know that you’ll go along with this.”
“You should have asked before you went to talk to him,” said Dominic. “I would have said yes, but …” He trailed off. “I don’t want to betray Welexi.”
“You don’t know Welexi,” said Vidre. “In certain matters, he prefers to play the role of the hero. If that means that there’s someone working behind the scenes to set him up for his moments of dramatic climax, that’s perfectly acceptable. Why do you think we travel together? I can act in ways that he can’t.”
“Is this an arrangement that’s been expressed explicitly, or …”
“No,” said Vidre. “No, of course not. Welexi believes in his own legend. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have an understanding though. There are certain things that he couldn’t possibly ask for, but which he would want done all the same. This is one of them.”
“You’re guessing,” said Dominic.
“You don’t understand what I’ve done for Welexi,” said Vidre. “When I came aboard the Zenith, it took me a month to get a look at the ledgers. It was Welexi, Chrysos, and Pescond in those days, with Welexi as their leader, but they treated him like his rule was unquestionable. It was Welexi who negotiated the contracts and decided where the ship would go, and Welexi who paid the bards. He couldn’t ask for help, and when people offered help, his persona obligated him to turn them down, but after stopping in three different ports I started to get a feel for how the conversations would go. The bards loved him, because he was a hero, but they weren’t getting paid on a regular basis. Welexi was always ready with an apology and an excuse, but it wasn’t until I looked inside the ledger that I saw what a mess he’d made of things. I don’t blame him for it; the work of moving money is tedious, and he had no natural talent in that area. I took the ledgers from within his cabin, spent several days looking them over, and from then on I was the one who dealt with payments and receipts. We never once talked about it, no matter how grateful I could tell he was.”
“And this is one of those things,” said Dominic. What she’d said had made him feel better. There was little question that he was going to take the deal, given how frightening the thought of the Blood Bard was, but he felt the knot of stress untwisting itself. “What about the greater game though?”
“I don’t know,” said Vidre. “It’s an open question, and one that Kendrick wasn’t willing to provide answers to. Getting through the duel is the important part though. You’ll go along with it?”
“Yes,” said Dominic. “It feels like I’m walking a tightrope without knowing where it’s going, but … yes.”
“Good,” said Vidre. She looked out over the city, like she was contemplating something of her own. “Come on, I’ll race you back to the palace.”
Two days passed quickly. Dominic was given more instruction in single combat from both Welexi and Vidre, but it could only happen in the off hours, when the Flower Queen’s court didn’t demand their attention. There were performances to see, tales to recount, and seemingly endless dinners to sit through as course after course of food was served. Welexi didn’t speak to Dominic about the Harbinger artifact, but it underscored their conversations; the same went for Vidre and the deal that had been struck with Kendrick. Dominic tried to prepare himself as best he could, but when he wasn’t speaking with the aristocracy of Grayhull Palace, time seemed to fly by. He took solace in the fact that it wasn’t a real duel, and he wasn’t at risk of dying; he might otherwise have resented the time spent pretending at enjoying the company of glittering, empty-headed women and arrogant, foppish men. He was offered the narcotic flower three times in total, and turned it down each time.
They didn’t have Amare’s Theater for the full day. The duel was only scheduled for an hour in total, and there were plays being performed both before and after it. Now that he knew there wasn’t much risk to him, Dominic could look on all of it with a sense of humor; there was a fair amount of business involved in a production like this, a flow of people into their seats that was accomplished with a swift efficiency by the attendants who spent their entire day moving people around the theater. The upper tiers of seating would have an exceedingly poor view of the duel, but they were filling up all the same.
Dominic had given himself as much armor as possible, but Vidre had been right; he still wasn’t able to get anything close to airtight. He had a breastplate, and a helm that left the majority of his face exposed, and a number of plates of armor on his arms and legs for protection. Everything else was covered with fabric, which meant heavy gloves and thick boots. It was a cool day, but he could feel himself sweating, even before the fight had begun. Dominic could cast shade on himself, but that was only of marginal help.
The trick was to make the fight look real to everyone watching. Vidre had said that most people were used to the sorts of fights that they saw in plays, given that Torland hadn’t seen a war in nearly a decade, but there was still a strong chance that someone knowledgeable would be watching them, and looking closely enough that they could make out some kind of deception. The hits would have to actually connect, which meant that the fight would have to be a real fight, at least in some sense. Dominic hadn’t talked to Kendrick at all; Vidre had done the negotiation between their sides. There was a small part of him that expected betrayal, either from Kendrick or (less likely) from Vidre, but there was nothing much that he could do about that. He’d certainly had his own thoughts of betrayal, but both Vidre and Welexi had agreed that it was better not to make the Blood Bard into a martyr; Welexi thought it was likely that it couldn’t be helped.
Vidre fussed with his outfit. “His natural instinct will be to get close, and your instinct needs to be to get some distance between the two of you. The further you are from him, the better. Polearms are good, but don’t hesitate to form a sword to push him away. He’ll want to talk, but that’s a way of baiting you in and getting you to make the first move, which will give you a disadvantage and waste your energy. Small cuts can win you the battle, if you can give him enough of them, because it’ll take up his attention. Too many, and he’s a dead man walking.”
They’d talked about all of this at length, and Vidre was simply repeating herself. She seemed as nervous as Dominic was, in her own way, though it was only obvious in the decisive way that she moved around the backstage area and checked everything over time and again.
Welexi stood with the light bracing his broken limbs. He offered no words of encouragement, but the set of his shoulders and the radiant aura of his armor were enough that Dominic grew more confident just by looking at him. In Welexi’s mind, the outcome of the duel was practically preordained, and had been ever since it was set in motion. He’d never doubted Dominic’s abilities, not even in private, and that was far more reassuring than all the training and planning that Dominic had done with Vidre, and even more reassuring than the fact that the duel had a fixed outcome.
“One final enhancement,” said Gaelwyn. He laid hands on Dominic without asking, and began mild tweaks that could hardly be felt. It felt brazen to do this in the relatively open backstage, but Gaelwyn didn’t seem to pay any mind to it, and no one seemed to be looking. “You’ll do well, I know you will.”
“I hope so,” said Dominic. He had no idea whether he’d said it convincingly; he’d always thought that he was an excellent liar, but he’d never had the stakes quite so high before, not even when he’d been lying to Corta.
“Prepared to die?” called a rich, well-worn voice from some distance away. Kendrick Eversong strode towards Dominic with a grin on his face. For all that the last three days had seemed to revolve around the Blood Bard, this was the first time that Dominic had seen him since they met at the docks. “I suppose no man is truly ready to die, save for those that bring an end to their own lives. Did you know I’m the favored? You should have bet on yourself, for if you die there’s no cost to you. I’ve done the same, naturally.”
“I don’t want to kill you,” said Dominic. It was better to establish that now, with everyone watching, so that showing mercy later wouldn’t be suspicious.
“Well, this should be quite the easy duel to the death then,” said Kendrick with a smile. He wasn’t dressed for battle, and wore no armor, but Vidre had warned that he wouldn’t; for how little protection he needed, it was better for him to have the maneuverability, at least in this sort of fight. He wasn’t even wearing a helm, and Dominic couldn’t help but wonder whether the Blood Bard would have made the same decision if the duel wasn’t a sham. A single strike to the head was all that it would take.
“Shall we?” asked Kendrick. “It seems the most important members of society have come to see a killing, and the crowds are growing restless.”
Dominic nodded, and they stepped out onto the stage together.
Kendrick was right; everyone of importance had come to see them fight. Amare’s had a central area of the seating reserved for the queen and her court, which amounted to forty people all told. They weren’t watching the stage, even after Dominic and Kendrick stepped out together; instead, the illustrati and hangers-on were talking to each other, or sipping at heady wines.
“Gaelwyn Mottram killed thousands!” Kendrick shouted. The murmuring masses began to grow quiet at this. Kendrick and Dominic were standing apart from each other, but this wasn’t anything that they had agreed upon. Dominic wasn’t sure whether to let Kendrick talk, or just to start the duel. He shifted from foot to foot, and tried not to cast a glance back towards where Vidre was waiting backstage.
“Gaelwyn Mottram killed thousands!” Kendrick shouted again. “The Sunhawk will say that this was all under the orders of the Iron King, but the truth is that Gaelwyn was always a monster. He would give his would-be patients sweets in the morning and dissect them at night. Gaelwyn will tell you that he sought only to promote the useful sciences, yet there was no reason for him to be so cruel. He gave no soporifics to let his victims go quietly into sleep! He did nothing to dull their pain! He did not plead with the Iron King to stop these vile practices! I have read every piece of correspondence that I could get my hands upon, and Gaelwyn never once speaks of the burdens of his position. It is only a breathless excitement about what he has learned by his murders.”
“He’s changed,” said Dominic. He realized that his voice wasn’t loud enough; it would never reach anyone in the back rows, but even those in the royal seats would have trouble hearing. Kendrick was projecting his voice, like bards were trained to do, and Dominic had to do his best to match it. “Gaelwyn has changed!”
“The Flower Queen did not know!” called Kendrick in response. “She provided him with a pardon on nothing but faith alone, and it was not even that. She wanted his expertise and power to shape her! Even now a fool could see how much younger she looks than she did four days ago. Like her ancestor Laith, she was willing to set aside the will of the people in order to have a continuation of her youth. A thousand of our countrymen were ripped into, their flesh taken from the bones of their comrades in arms and fed to them, and that was forgiven because the Flower Queen wanted to be more beautiful. This is how little we mean to her!”
“We’re not fighting over what happened in the past,” said Dominic. “This is about the present.”
Dominic was trying his best to gauge the reactions of their audience, but it was difficult given that the various tiers of seating divided people roughly by their class. Kendrick had their attention, and that was bad enough.
“The past shapes the present!” crowed Kendrick. His smile didn’t reach his eyes. He stood with his rapier held out like a baton. “Of the Flower Queen’s crimes against the people of her city, the pardon of the monster Gaelwyn Mottram has not been the worst, but it’s the only one that a lowly man like me can work to correct.” He turned towards Dominic and held his sword out in front of him. “I’m only sorry that you were so foolish as to stand in his way.”
Dominic’s shadow sword came up to block the rapier, and Kendrick kept coming, moving his left hand forward to try to find purchase. Dominic spun backwards and got into a defensive stance; the fight had begun without him being entirely ready, and it wasn’t clear whether Kendrick had already broken their deal.
They watched each other carefully. Dominic waited for the opportune time, when Kendrick’s gaze shifted slightly, and transitioned his sword of shadow into a long spear with a sharp point on the end. The sun was out and the sky was fairly clear, which meant that his shadows were able to draw a little bit more strength.
Dominic made a lazy forward attack with his spear, which was both a probe of Kendrick’s stance and a signal that their deal was still in place. Kendrick responded by leaping past the point of the spear and again trying to grab at Dominic. A single touch wouldn’t be a disaster until after Dominic’s clothing had been ripped, he’d asked Vidre about that a dozen times, but it seemed that Kendrick was trying to do his best to rip the clothing as a precursor to that. At the last moment, Dominic moved away, releasing his spear and conjuring up another one. It left them both in nearly the same position that they’d been in before, but Dominic had used some of his previous reserves of energy and was beginning to heat up.
It was a slow fight. Kendrick spent much of the time talking, which he could do without much cost to himself. The topic of conversation was invariably the Flower Queen, and how little she cared about the people of Torland. Every time Kendrick would attack, Dominic would give a little bit of ground, but Kendrick was making no efforts to press his advantage; he was perfectly willing to let Dominic tire himself out. It was impossible for Dominic to tell whether this was a legitimate effort or simply part of a play they were putting on. Vidre had said that she would intervene, but Dominic was worried that Kendrick would simply call the bluff.
Kendrick was not a terribly good fighter; that made sense, as he was a bard by trade. He was also slower than Dominic. When Dominic realized this, he put himself on the offensive again, striking forward. Welexi had used two spears in tandem, but Dominic just used the one, trying to find a place to stick Kendrick. The proper use of a spear was to have one hand near the back, which provided forward thrusting, and one hand near the front, which provided a point for the spear to pivot around. Using his rear hand, he was able to thrust the spear forward quickly and then pull it back, and with a minimum amount of effort, Dominic was able to put Kendrick on the defensive. It would do little good without a hit though; Kendrick wasn’t tiring. One of these thrusts found its mark in Kendrick’s chest though, and even though the hit felt weak, Kendrick staggered back. The front of his outfit was white and ruffled, and soaked through with blood almost instantly until Kendrick stopped the bleeding.
Kendrick stared hard at Dominic and began to attack in earnest. Dominic was forced to drop the spear again, and pulled a thick sword from the shadows even before he could watch the spear fade. Kendrick’s rapier was pushed aside by the shadow sword at the last moment, and clanged off of Dominic’s pauldron with a dull sound. Kendrick was a sloppy fighter, but he could afford to be, and he attacked a second time, following up on the first. Dominic was getting quite hot by now, even with shadow cast over him, and his sweating hands nearly caused him to lose his grip for the second parry.
“You want to defend him?” asked Kendrick. “Those who defend monsters are no better than them! They’re equally worthy of destruction!” His cries broke the silence of the theater.
Dominic had no breath to respond with. He dodged a third attack, and parried a fourth, but it was becoming clear that if this fight was no longer a play, he was going to lose. The blood that had soaked Kendrick’s white ruffles was worrying; if Dominic couldn’t be sure that their deal hadn’t been broken, then surely the same had be said for Kendrick. When a fifth attack came through, Dominic lashed out with his sword and trusted in his armor to protect him. Kendrick’s rapier bounced awkwardly off Dominic’s armor, and Dominic’s sword bit into the flesh of Kendrick’s arm.
Kendrick cried out in pain and stepped back. He watched Dominic closely and licked at his lips, then began to draw up a small globe of blood into his off hand. When this was a sufficient size, he formed it into a whip, and stalked forward, with a blood whip in one hand and a rapier in the other. Dominic dodged the first crack of the whip but not the second, which struck his armored wrist hard enough that the construct of shadow disappeared completely. The third crack of the whip was aimed at Dominic’s head, and he ducked beneath it, only to find blood dripping down onto him from above; Kendrick had released the whip from his control.
They fought on. Despite his best efforts, Dominic was beginning to tire, and the fight was feeling far too real. He needed to end it, either on his terms or on the terms that they’d agreed to. He found his chance when Kendrick made another sloppy attack. Dominic kicked out at him, and Kendrick fell to the ground. Before he could spring to his feet, Dominic planted a foot on Kendrick’s chest. He brought his sword down quickly, until it was resting against Kendrick’s neck. Just like that, he had won. A part of him wanted to end it right there, to simply press down with his sword until it had pierced Kendrick through the neck, but even that didn’t seem guaranteed to kill quickly and cleanly. Besides that, it wouldn’t have been what Welexi would have done. The crowd was cheering for him to do it, to end the duel with a severed head, but this was a moment to prove himself as a hero. All that aside, he and Vidre had agreed that it was better not to make a martyr.
“Yield,” said Dominic. He pitched his voice to the crowd. “I don’t want to kill you.”
“Kill me?” asked Kendrick. He laughed, though he could scarcely draw breath. “You’ve already killed me. My heart’s been pierced, and that’s the end for me.”
Dominic hesitated. “Gaelwyn can save you, if you yield.” He kicked out with his free foot and sent Kendrick’s rapier spinning across the stage.
Kendrick laughed again, though his laugh was hollow. “Prove that I have no convictions? Prove to everyone that I don’t care about my country so long as my own life can be saved?”
“Better to live and fight than become a martyr,” said Dominic.
Kendrick turned to the side, and it took Dominic a moment to realize that he was crying. “My father,” said Kendrick. “Fine, let the bastard prove himself.” This last was said so quietly that Dominic was sure he was the only one who heard.
Gaelwyn came onto the stage with timid footsteps. There were boos from the crowd. Kendrick tried to get to his feet, but Dominic’s boot was still in place.
“Let him up,” said Gaelwyn. “Eversong, for what happened to your father, I am truly sorry, but I hope that with time you can understand.”
Dominic allowed Kendrick to stand up, and watched the scene carefully. He had won the duel, just as planned, and having fought it there was little doubt in his mind that it wouldn’t have gone that way if it had been more natural. Still, there was something wrong with this scene. He kept his sword drawn, and waited. He halfway expected Kendrick to attack, and readied himself for it. People began to come out from behind the stage, with Vidre and Welexi among them.
“Something is wrong,” said Vidre. She stood next to Dominic, with her own daggers out and ready for danger.
Gaelwyn approached Kendrick slowly.
“You will never be anything more than a monster,” spat Kendrick. “Never anything more than someone’s dog. For all that you present a false front, people will see through it. Pretending at being a moral creature will never make you one.”
Gaelwyn reached out a hand. Dominic saw the danger; if two men with bodily domains touched each other, both would be at each other’s mercy. Kendrick might be able to kill Gaelwyn, even if it would have to come at the expense of his own life.
They touched, only briefly, and Kendrick jerked backwards, screaming in pain. His head hit the stage, and he went still, just as everyone exploded into action. Kendrick’s entourage swarmed his body, picking it up and taking it out of the way, while everyone else moved with weapons drawn.
“I didn’t,” said Gaelwyn. He stood with his hand still in front of him and a shocked look on his face. “He did it to himself, he —”
“We need to move,” said Vidre.
Kendrick was carried down into one of the many rooms beneath the theater floor. His body had gone completely limp, and he was having trouble keeping from smiling. There had been two significant points of risk with the plan; the biggest was the risk that Dominic would kill him outright, but at a close second was the risk that this deception would be found out. Gaelwyn’s reaction had helped matters tremendously; Kendrick had been counting on the fact that the damage he’d done to himself with the surge of blood could be felt through Gaelwyn’s domain sense. It really had hurt, but help was on the way, and testing had shown that so long as Kendrick could keep renewing the vital essence of the blood in his brain, little else mattered.
Clarence laid him out on a table, and Kendrick stood up slowly and achingly once the door was locked. “A martyr,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a martyr, but better not to have to die to do it.”
“You are dead,” said the cloaked figure, standing in a corner of the room. A pretty young woman stood beside him, one that he hadn’t been seen with before. “Kendrick Eversong is no more.”
“Yes, yes,” said Kendrick. He’d only rarely met another person who insisted on so much theatricality in private, and he could see how it would be trying. “A new identity awaits, and a life in the Iron Kingdom.”
“Are you injured?” asked the man.
“Yes,” replied Kendrick. He looked down at his shirt. “I might have overdone it with the blood a bit, but I think I can move about. Nothing that will kill me when I’m not awake to keep the blood moving. If I can be seen to by a doctor, that would be for the best.” He laughed. “You know, I think that Gaelwyn was going to do it?”
The cloaked figure nodded. “He follows a moral code.”
Kendrick shook his head, but it didn’t really matter if the benefactor had his quirks; the Council was being supported either way, and Torland would soon be free of the Flower Queen’s influence.
They stood around a thick table in Grayhull Palace: Welexi, Vidre, Dominic, Gaelwyn, Steelminder, and the halfway gone Flower Queen. No one looked particularly happy, save for the Flower Queen.
“It was a play for the audience,” said Vidre. “We just didn’t know the punchline. Easy enough to figure out after it had happened, but that doesn’t help us much.”
“We can cry foul,” said Dominic. “We tell them to show the body. If Kendrick is still alive out there, they won’t be able to do that.”
“It depends on where he is,” said Vidre. “Seeing the body wouldn’t be enough, we would have to inspect it, and I can already imagine the affront that they would pretend at.”
“It’s all in the past,” said Welexi. “There will never be any proof, until the day that we meet the Blood Bard again. People have already seen what they saw, and the narrative has already been set in place. Responding now, without the most concrete of evidence, will do nothing to stop that narrative. Tens of thousands of people were primed to believe that Gaelwyn was a murderer, and they will know what they saw, especially because it makes for a better story.”
“So that’s it?” asked Steelminder. “You’ve done nothing in the time since you landed on our shores but introduce further instability?”
There was a loud banging on the door, and a messenger burst in without waiting for anyone to respond. “The city’s on fire,” he said quickly. “There’s a riot in the streets.”