Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 9: The Letter

The city smelled of smoke. It soaked into Dominic’s clothing and filled his nostrils. His sweat made black streaks on his skin where it touched the bits of ash. After the first hour, he’d developed a light cough that he was sure was going to get worse as the night dragged on.

A few of the fires had been easy to deal with. They had been in relatively affluent parts of the city, as befit the Council of Laborers’ stated ideal. The print shop had burnt to the ground, but when the fire made the leap to other buildings, there were people ready with buckets of sand to toss on top of the embers. There had been a sizable crowd ready to see justice done, but few really wanted to see the whole city burn, even if it was one of the richer areas. The fire in the church had consumed the interior, but there was no risk of it spreading. It was a building of thick stone, ringed with a few precious feet of green grass that had now turned brown. It was a similar story at three of the banks; the illustrati of flame there had gone nearly unchecked. Rather than proselytize to the crowds, he had set himself wholly on fire and burned his way through the buildings with as much heat as he could manage. He had done an immense amount of damage, and burned through countless ledgers, bills of exchange, letters of credit, and the various paraphernalia of the moneyed. The fire itself had been contained within the ornate masonry and tiled floors, and hadn’t spread outward.

Not every part of the city was so lucky.

The group walked quickly, and in tight formation. Ember had been coaxed from the Flower Queen’s lap, leaving an imprint of tears there, and against the orders of the queen, Steelminder had chosen to accompany them with his steel armor covering him from head to toe. He had a sword so massive that it looked like it was designed for cleaving horses cleanly in half. Welexi flew overhead, while Vidre and Dominic moved their small party along at what seemed to be a glacial pace. Dominic’s job was to act as the secondary lookout by peering into the shadows. The enemy was using incognito illustrati, and Dominic was tense with the feeling that they could be attacked at any moment. The fire ahead of them had gotten noticeably larger.

There had been a strong argument for staying in the palace and letting the commoners take care of themselves. Fires — even bad fires — weren’t unheard of in Meriwall. The city had been marred by a serious one just twenty years prior. In the wake of that, the city had passed certain laws and made a few preparations. The constables had buckets of sand to put out errant embers, and there were bucket brigades to bring up water from the River Hathim that ran through Meriwall like a thick vein. When Steelminder had begun to talk about how thatched roofs had been outlawed, and how new construction was done with stone instead of wood, Dominic had grown more certain that there was still a need to act. He had seen enough of the city to know how much its citizens cared about those laws. He’d run across hundreds of thatched roofs without having the slightest hint that they were illegal. The law had been put in place to appease someone, and actual enforcement had fallen to the wayside. That was a pattern that Dominic knew all too well from Gennaro.

“Just this one more, Ember,” said Vidre. “We’ll put out this fire, and then we’ll go back to the palace and sleep the night away.” Vidre was walking faster than anyone else, and kept having to make frequent pauses to wait for them to catch up. Ember had been given new clothes, which were now singed, but the illustrati-forged chainmail coat she wore would protect her modesty in all but the strongest fires. “I can carry you, if you’d like,” Vidre said for the third time.

Dominic’s watchful eyes caught Ember’s for a brief moment. She was staring at the fire, which rose up over the rooftops. “It’s so large,” she said. “I don’t know if I can.”

“Let’s get there first and then see,” said Vidre.

The crowds began two blocks from the fires. Some of them were merely watching, while others were more clearly refugees whose homes and businesses were burning. Every one of them had to be looked at with suspicion; any of them could have been one of the hidden illustrati that the Council seemed to have in abundance. Given how heavily armored Steelminder and Vidre were, it was little wonder that the crowds gave them a wide berth. That was a small piece of fortune. They couldn’t risk getting touched by one of the commoners, not if they could secretly be holding the domain of flesh.

“They’ll tell stories about you, Ember,” said Vidre. “They’ll talk about how you saved this city from a fire that was set to consume it.”

“I can feel the heat from here,” said Ember. “My face is warm already.”

“Fire can’t hurt you,” said Vidre. Her voice was calm and steady, but that was the only part of her that was keeping up the act. Dominic couldn’t tell whether he was seeing anxiety or impatience, but there were emotions close to the surface that Vidre didn’t have the energy to hide. The night felt like a fortnight; at a guess, it was four o’clock in the morning, and there had been stress enough during the day.

“Fire isn’t heat,” said Ember. “They’re paired, and they have overlap, but they’re not the same. And immunity is linked to standing, I know that much, so why should I be protected from an inferno? I could die in there.”

“You can take it slowly,” Vidre began.

“I can’t,” said Ember. They were three houses away now, and had come to a halt. Dominic was sweating profusely, and he had to avert his eyes from the intensity of the flame. He was casting long shadows, and directed them back towards the flame to put himself in his own shade. “I can’t,” repeated Ember. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to do it without me.”

“Kaitlin,” said Vidre with a soft voice. Dominic had practically forgotten that Ember had a given name. “Have you ever heard the story of how I got my scar?” The glass faceplate had parted further to show the pearly white line that ran down the side of Vidre’s face.

“I don’t … it was a fight, wasn’t it?” said Ember. She was looking at Vidre now, with the fire raging behind her.

“It was early in my career,” said Vidre. “I didn’t have any experience with what it meant to be a fighter. I was really just a girl, cast out from my home and living off the kindness of strangers. I’d taken dinner with a few of the nobles of Abalon, and one of them had invited me back to his home. I was very free with my body in those days. When I came into his bedroom, and began to undress for him, he called me a whore and spit on me. I had been a queen; I wasn’t about to stand for that. I got haughty about it, and began to curse him out. That was when he pulled out a knife and slashed at me. I was terrified. I clutched at my bleeding face and after I had fled, I spent the night crying. That morning though, even though the fear hadn’t left me, even though the wound hurt terribly, I decided that I wasn’t going to let it control me. We define ourselves by how we respond to pressure and strife. Running away is easy. Letting someone else deal with a problem is easy too. But that’s not how we grow as people. It’s not how we become a better version of ourselves. Kaitlin, you need to do this. Not because it’s the right thing to do, though it is, and not because you’re the only one with the right domain, though you are, but because this is the moment where you define yourself against the fear and anxiety.”

Ember nodded along towards the end of this speech. She set her jaw and turned back towards the fire. “You’re right.” She stepped forward, and faltered slightly. Dominic could imagine the heat.

“You can do it,” said Vidre.

“Yes,” said Ember. She steeled herself and strode towards the burning tenements, and this time she didn’t slow down.

Vidre let out a low sigh. “That was a near thing.”

Steelminder coughed into his fist. “Your majesty, I had heard that the scar was symbolic, but the story itself … I had never heard it. I know it was not meant for my ears,” he looked towards Dominic, “But of course I will practice discretion in this matter.”

“I appreciate that,” said Vidre. “It’s not a story that’s made it into my biographies.”

Dominic wanted to ask whether the story was true, but Ember had reached the first of the burning buildings. The flames died down where she walked. Soon she was inside the building, and hidden from view. The plan was simply to burn the buildings to the ground. Ember would increase the flames while drawing them inward, in an attempt to burn all the fire’s fuel while preventing it from spreading to the other buildings. Space was at a premium in Meriwall, and the buildings had been numerous stories which jutted out at every level to monopolize the space above the roads.

“She’ll die if the building collapses,” said Dominic. “A thick wooden beam to the head would knock her out, and there would be no way to rescue her.”

“A bigger concern is that one of the illustrati of flame might be in there, waiting for her,” said Vidre. “Nothing to be done about it though. Just keep your eyes out for threats.” She glanced up as a glowing white form passed over them. “More likely Welexi will see it first, but all the same, we have little better to do at the moment. Be prepared to start making firebreaks.” She glanced at the city block around them. “If we bring down those buildings, perhaps we can prevent the fire from spreading.”

Ember might well have been sent to her death with a story about personal growth, and Vidre didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned. It occurred to Dominic that the death of the queen’s alchemist might be a good thing for the country of Torland. The narcotic flowers were produced by the queen and distilled by Ember. Dominic was certain that was how Vidre would think; if Ember managed to put out the fires, then that was some good accomplished, but if Ember died, it would help to restore the queen to her former self.

It took an hour and a half in total. A dozen buildings had been destroyed, and one of them had collapsed, but Ember emerged, if covered in soot and looking worn down. What clothing she’d had on had burned away, save for the steel chain shirt, which glowed orange with the heat. When she smiled, her white teeth gave a contrast to her ash-coated skin.

Dominic worried about an attack during the entire trip back to the palace. He worried that there would be another fire that would demand their attention. Nothing came though. He collapsed into his bed just as the sun began to rise.

“What do we know for a fact?” asked Vidre.

“Nothing,” said Gaelwyn. He had slept far more than anyone else, but didn’t seem much better for it.

“We know that they were enhanced,” said Dominic. “Better muscles and likely better bones.”

“That’s a guess,” said Gaelwyn. “If I had been there, I might have been able to tell for certain, or if I’d had a body to autopsy.”

“We were busy,” Welexi said with a smile. “Next time perhaps.”

“There are at least three sides,” said Vidre. “The Council of Laborers are local, opposed to the Flower Queen’s rule, and trying to start a coup. The Iron Kingdom is presumably backing them, but even if it weren’t, the Iron Kingdom will sense weakness and be ready to strike. That would be difficult without casus belli, because too many other countries and illustrati would be pulled in. The Flower Queen’s side, which we can call the royalists, just want everything to stay the same.”

“The Iron Kingdom has control of Harbinger artifacts, and the knowledge to use them,” said Welexi.

“No,” said Gaelwyn. “It’s one thing to say that, it’s another entirely to prove it. Vidre wanted to know the facts, and what you’re offering is a hypothesis.” He folded his hands across his chest. “I would require extraordinary proof to accept that something so truly unprecedented is going on.”

“There’s a mundane explanation,” said Dominic. “The Iron Kingdom might have just made those men we fought famous through the usual means. Pay enough bards and it’s possible, right?”

“Now is not the time for skepticism, Lightscour,” said Welexi.

“It’s just an explanation,” said Dominic. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Vidre. “What matters is how many illustrati they can field using whatever method they have. Our current guess, based on what we’ve seen, is five or six. Four of them are dead. I doubt that they would reveal everyone at once though. There’s also an upper limit to the number that they could possibly have. If they had hundreds, they could simply have forced a surrender through brute strength alone.”

“If they — the Council or the Iron Kingdom — have the ability to create illustrati from whole cloth, stopping them takes precedence over protecting Torland,” said Welexi.

The room went silent for a moment as that declaration sank in.

“You would abandon this kingdom to its own devices?” asked Vidre.

“If need be,” said Welexi. “If someone has found a way to upset the current balance of fame against power, or worse yet has grabbed onto the source of power by its root, then we’re speaking of the end of the world as we know it.”

“Does this change your proposed course of action?” asked Vidre. She laid her hands on the table and spread them wide. “Does this materially alter what we need to do? If it’s a matter of calling in the Zenith and leaving shore, then I would have to disagree. Whatever is happening is happening here, now. We need to expose the link between the Council and the Iron Kingdom, if one exists.”

“We’ll stay in Torland,” said Welexi. “For now.”

“If they did use a Harbinger artifact, or Harbinger knowledge,” said Dominic. “Is it possible that the Iron Kingdom wasn’t involved at all?”

“Possible,” said Welexi. He rubbed at his bald head. “But of course that raises the question of where they would have gotten such things.”

“We’re going in circles,” said Vidre. “I’ll ask again, what do we know for a fact?”

“There are three sides,” said Dominic. “Or possibly two. The enemy has resources, to some extent, and those resources might exist outside the context of what we know. The enemy has a goal of some kind, which we are mostly ignorant of. They have plans, which we have so far ran straight into with open arms. Because we don’t know what they’re planning, we can’t formulate a response, unless that response is defensive. Going on the defense leaves us weak.”

“Well said,” replied Welexi. He was intently gazing at Dominic. Dominic couldn’t read the expression.

“We need to start talking peace,” said Vidre. “We need to sober up the queen for long enough to get her talking to the Council of Laborers, or whoever speaks for them. If the queen won’t do it, we need to give her husband the spine to act in her stead.”

“You must speak more carefully in their presence,” said Welexi.

Vidre rolled her eyes. “I am a queen, in case you had forgotten. I have leeway.”

They left their meeting room and walked down the hallways of Grayhull Palace. Last night, while they had been out saving the city from rogue illustrati and enormous fires, many members of the Flower Queen’s court had been having a celebration of sorts, and the palace was more or less devoid of illustrati as many of them were in their rooms nursing a hangover. Dominic had only gotten four hours of sleep, and desperately wanted more, but there was no reason to suspect that the enemy would relent, even with the loss of four of their members.

Vidre and Welexi seemed to be in some disagreement about the significance of those four. In some sense, it had been an even trade between the royalists and the Council; both sides had lost four. That was more than could be hoped for when the enemy had prepared an ambush. In another sense, the whole thing might have been avoided if they had gone about the work of quelling the riots and putting out the fires as though they were already at war. It wouldn’t have done their side any favors to be seen in a tight cluster with heavy armor and drawn weapons, but it would likely have prevented the deaths.

“They’re calling them the Phoenixes,” said Steelminder when they got to the throne room. The Flower Queen was nowhere to be seen, and the throne itself was empty, with Steelminder sitting to the side of it. It wasn’t clear whether he had been waiting for them, or just using the wide open space to think.

“Who, your Royal Highness?” asked Welexi.

“The common folk,” said Steelminder. “The story being passed around is that Kendrick Eversong has gone to the heavens, and his music so stirred the gods that they began granting extraordinary powers to the Blood Bard’s friends. They were given power over fire because they acted justly in starting those fires. The Vicar Most High is quite displeased by this development. He actually suggested to me that we should start hanging people for heresy. There are bankers who lost their fortunes in the fires, with whole ledgers of accounts having irrecoverably gone up in smoke, and while the city has mostly settled, it seems certain that there will be riots again tonight.” He spread his hands with his palms up. “My queen would like a solution to these problems.”

“If there were a way to find Kendrick,” Vidre began.

“They’re having a funeral later today,” said Steelminder. “Thank god the spies are still bringing information back to the palace. Kendrick’s body will be on display for everyone to see.”

Dominic considered that as Vidre swore. It would be possible to fake, if you could gather the bodily domains together to alter the appearance of an existing corpse. Gaelwyn had compared the subtle alterations that could be made to a person’s face as a form of art, and to do it properly would require three or four illustrati who were artists in their own right.

“Gael, are you certain that you did nothing to the Blood Bard?” asked Steelminder.

“I,” began Gaelwyn. “Your Royal Highness, I would never. I was going to heal him of his wounds, to prevent his death. When I touched him, he did something with his blood, enough to cause damage I wouldn’t have been able to fix. It was as though he broke a dam within himself. I thought he had killed himself.” He paused. “I’m not entirely certain that he didn’t.”

“I’m afraid that’s no longer enough,” said Steelminder.

“Don’t do anything foolish,” said Welexi, but even as the words were leaving his mouth, guards were entering the throne room.

“The situation has grown far beyond your control,” said Steelminder. “A cynical man might believe that a trial was only meant to appease, but not all men are cynics. I am sorry, Gaelwyn, that it has come to this.”

Dominic was ready to form a blade of shadows, but one look at Vidre and Welexi told him that this wasn’t the course of action that either of them planned to take. The guards weren’t illustrati; they were there primarily for symbolic reasons. Even though his injuries hadn’t healed, Welexi could have killed all of them without breaking a sweat by twirling his spear around and piercing straight through their armor. Vidre could likely have done something similar. Dominic primed the shadows all the same, giving his focus to the shape that he might need.

“What charges does Gaelwyn face?” asked Welexi.

“Murder,” said Steelminder.

“Please,” said Gaelwyn.

“You understand that we have no desire to be outlaws in your land,” said Welexi.

“There will be a trial,” said Steelminder. “A fair one. We should have set this in motion before, but we bowed to your threats. If you had found a better solution to our problems, this could have been avoided. The trial can be announced before the Blood Bard’s funeral begins.”

Welexi hesitated.

“Take him down to the dungeon,” Steelminder said to the guards. “Give him everything that he wants; it is possible that the trial will end in his favor, and an innocent man shouldn’t suffer too much from having suspicion cast on him.”

Gaelwyn looked to Welexi, but Welexi averted his eyes.

“It’s a response,” said Vidre. “Not a good one, but it’s bold in a way that I wouldn’t have expected from him.” They sat at one end of a long dinner table, eating strips of sliced beef on top of a bed of root vegetables.

“Even our allies are enemies,” said Welexi. He rested his face in his palm, and looked far older than Dominic had ever seen him look before.

“He was trying to define himself,” said Dominic. He looked to Vidre. “By how he responded to strife and pressure.”

“What is the story here?” asked Welexi, as though Dominic had said nothing. “What is the shape of it? An enemy two steps ahead of us isn’t so strange. The reappearance of Harbinger artifacts is something that I’ve long expected. What resolution do we bring to this issue with Gaelwyn though? What story are we completing?”

“You’re tired,” said Vidre. “We all are.” The bulk of her glass armor was sitting in two halves on the floor beside her, ready to be put on at a moment’s notice. Dominic could see her age too, and the exhaustion that marked her face. Vidre was nearly thirty years old, but it was rare that she looked it.

“Gaelwyn needs to be exonerated,” said Dominic. “That’s the story.”

“How?” asked Welexi. His voice was faintly suspicious.

Dominic licked his lips. His first inclination was to lie; they could falsify some proof, in the same way that the supposed crime itself had been falsified. But the more he looked at Welexi, the more he knew that Vidre was right; there were certain things that Welexi would rather have done away from his sight so that he could play the hero. The shape of the story was different, depending on whether the exoneration was done in good faith or as a lie.

“What was Kendrick like in private?” asked Dominic. He looked between the two of them. “You both knew him, didn’t you?”

“He wanted to be an illustrati more than anything,” said Welexi. “He was driven by a relentless sense of self. His desire for fame eclipsed all other desires; that was what made him a bad person. He would have killed, if he thought that it would get him to the top. He would have — he did — cheat, lie, and steal, most noticeably from us.”

“You’re casting him as a villain,” said Dominic. “But people liked him. They must have had a reason to, and it wasn’t all lies.” He turned to Vidre. “He was flippant, wasn’t he? And overly dramatic? Was he actually that way, or was that just an act?”

“Those were things he chose to accentuate,” said Vidre. She frowned. “I don’t see where you’re going with this.”

“What I’m saying is,” Dominic began. He looked to Welexi. “Can I speak with Vidre privately?”

Welexi’s eyes narrowed. Without a word, he got up from his chair, taking his plate of food with him, and walked out the door.

“Inelegant,” said Vidre. “If you wanted to speak with me privately, you should have done so before raising those questions.”

“Was the Blood Bard in love with you?” asked Dominic. He saw her raise an eyebrow and continued on ahead. “It doesn’t actually matter, we can say that he was, I was just wondering whether there was some deeper history.”

“You’re hatching a plot,” said Vidre. “And yes, of course he was in love with me. He tried to woo me whenever we made port. Some of the songs he wrote about my beauty are still sung today, though of course that’s not what I would prefer to be known for. And yes, he had a flair for the dramatic, even when we were in private. It was a shield he put up, between himself and the world.”

“He left a letter for you,” said Dominic. He tried to put some authority into his voice. “He knew that there was going to be a chance that he would be betrayed, so he arranged for a letter to be delivered to you in case something happened to him. The letter would prove that Gaelwyn was innocent, and point a finger at the Council.”

Vidre stared at Dominic. “Any particular reason that people would believe this?”

“There will have to be something damaging to us,” said Dominic. “How damaging — how true — will be something for you to supply. We can tell them that the entire duel was staged. He did trick us; it’s reasonable that he would want to gloat. All we need to do is undermine his martyrdom and deflate the Council’s righteous anger.”

“I can see why you wouldn’t want to speak of this in front of Welexi,” said Vidre. “He would never agree to it.”

“But you would?” asked Dominic. “If there are problems with this plan, outside the moral ones … we’re using a lie to erase other lies. If Kendrick is still alive, he won’t be able to come out of the shadows without proving that the whole thing was a sham in the first place, and given how tarnished our reputation already is in this place, I think on balance we still come out ahead.”

“It’s a good enough plan,” said Vidre. “Assuming that we can find a printing press, we can have copies of Kendrick’s letter flooding through the city.” She pushed her plate of food forward. “Composition will be the difficult part.”

Dearest Vidre,

If you are reading this, then I am dead. I’ve always wanted to send a letter from beyond the grave, and I hope that you will forgive me for the melodrama. Dead men are allowed some leeway in such matters. Writing such a letter is supremely morbid, but the domain of blood lends itself to morbidity. This is not the first such letter I’ve written. I hope that it is not the first that gets delivered, but of course I wouldn’t be writing if I didn’t think there was a chance.

There are many reasons to compose such a letter. It is almost always a form of insurance. Sometimes the contents may be known to your rivals, and help to ensure that they have less incentive to do as they might otherwise do. That requires a fair amount of existing leverage, but at the same time ensures a lasting mistrust. In my case, however, it is a form of spite. I have been with this Council of Laborers for a long time, and my spite is directed at them only in the case that they decide to kill me. Personally, I can understand why they would. After the duel, I will have played my part.

I was anxious when I saw that Welexi had been injured, and puzzled when Lightscour stepped forward. It would have sunk our plans entirely. You can’t imagine how happy I was when you came in through my bedroom window and tried to get in my good graces. When you proposed that we rig the match, I could barely keep from laughing. The plan leapt straight back onto its track; pretend to take a wound, pretend to require healing, pretend to be killed by that monster. It took me some time to work out why you would ask. You love Dominic de Luca. It was clear on your face in subsequent meetings. You, who had never loved a man, who had let countless have their way with you, had fallen in love with what amounts to a puppy. You might think that I would be jealous, but I recalled the stories of what you did to puppies. You were always a dangerous friend to have. If you’re reading this letter, that unfortunately means that I won’t be around to see the spectacular conclusion. How much of it would reach my ears? Perhaps just a single line of a song written hundreds of miles away. Lightscour, shattered like glass at the bottom of a ravine, and that would be the only hint that you had grown tired of him.

You’re still wondering about the spite. You never did know how to be properly wounded by an insult. It was always about base pragmatism with you. Very well. I write to name the Council of Laborers as my executioners. If I had known which of them was going to kill me, I would simply avoid my death. They are the ones to gain from ending my life though. It doesn’t take the cleverest bard in all of Torland to recognize that. I’ll admit to putting myself in a dangerous position. It seemed for the best, at the time, but I write that as a living man only pretending at being a dead one. Perhaps if I actually die I’ll feel differently.

I won’t ask for you to avenge me. I imagine that you’re going to cut through the ranks of the Council of Laborers regardless of my wishes. Violence was always your preferred solution to any problem. You will have your work cut out for you, but by the time this letter reaches you, you’ll already know as much as I do. If I had lived — and this letter being in your hands means that I did not — I would be bound for the rolling hills of Lerabor to start a new life.

I loved you, Vidre. But you knew that.

Vidre looked over the letter a third time. It took two full pages of paper, in somewhat cramped script.

“I don’t like the ambiguity,” she said. “I wish we knew more. As it stands, we’re not changing the narrative enough. If we knew where the Phoenixes came from, we would have a better weapon.”

“If,” said Dominic with a shrug. “We don’t know, so we can’t say. It saves Gaelwyn, and that should be enough.” Vidre seemed unimpressed by this line of logic. “Would Kendrick have been so cryptic about what was happening?”

“Absolutely,” said Vidre. “He’d take joy in it. He was always joyful, even when he was being mysterious.”

“Then we’re ready?” asked Dominic.

“I suppose,” said Vidre.

Welexi had been meeting with the Flower Queen and Steelminder, in order to work out the details of Gaelwyn’s trial. The excuse they’d given him had been a flimsy one; Dominic had wanted to ask Vidre indelicate questions about her relationship with the Blood Bard. Once the letter came forward, it was impossible that Welexi wouldn’t figure out that they’d been the ones to forge it — but then, perhaps he would choose not to pull that thread. At the moment, Dominic and Vidre were supposed to be out in the city, traveling incognito and gathering information. Instead, they’d found a quiet part of the palace and sat down to write. They would leave later on, and come back empty-handed, and it was doubtful that anyone was tracking their movements too closely. This was their fourth draft of the letter, and Dominic still thought that it wasn’t quite right, but he had met Kendrick on only two occasions, and those had been performances for the public.

An hour before Kendrick’s funeral procession was to begin, a small boy arrived at the gates of Grayhull with a sealed letter clutched close to him. He handed it to the guards, who brought it to the valet, who in turn got it back into Vidre’s hands. A performance consisting of subtle changes to her face followed as Vidre read the letter in front of Welexi and Steelminder.

“A gift from the Blood Bard,” she said. “A barbed gift, but a gift all the same.” She set the letter down. “This exonerates Gael. There are some unfortunate truths here though, ones that will need discussing.” She took a deep breath. “Kendrick, Dominic, and I all came to an agreement about how the duel was to go.”

Steelminder stared at her with an open mouth, then looked down at the letter. His cheeks began to grow red. “You’re responsible for all this?” he asked.

Vidre turned to one of the porters. “Have the scribes copy this down, then take it to Cartwright’s and have them begin setting the letters into their blocks. Tell them we’ll pay whatever is necessary to have this done as quickly as possible.” She turned back towards Steelminder. “How responsible I am depends on what you mean by ‘all this’. If you mean the current civil unrest, then of course not. That had been set in motion long before we arrived. The duel I can take responsibility for though. I should have seen it coming.”

“Your Royal Highness, I wasn’t innocent in the matter,” said Dominic. “Vidre can’t take all the blame. What came after, the trick that the Blood Bard played, that was an opponent seeing weakness and moving in for the strike.”

“I should have you both hanged,” said Steelminder.

“It is unfortunate that we are the most skilled fighters in your realm,” said Welexi.

Steelminder looked Welexi dead in the eyes. “You threaten me.”

“No, your Royal Highness,” said Welexi with an easy calm. “I only point out that we are useful to you, and that the position in regards to negotiation will worsen dramatically if we are gone.”

Steelminder’s red cheeks stood in contrast to his gray mustache. He seemed about to say something two different times, but on the third he visibly sank down into his seat. “Fine. Do what you must. If we’ve been given a weapon … so be it.”

Four men carried Kendrick’s coffin. It was opened, to expose his face to the crowds that had gathered. Kendrick was well-known but not particularly well-loved. People liked him. Many had listened to his songs, either sung by others or by the man himself. He was too flippant and caustic to inspire much love though, even if it had been agreed that he cared deeply for his country, and had been doing his best to right a wrong. No one was going to speak ill of him so soon after his death though; he’d had his life taken in full view of half of the city, by a man who had killed Toric men, women, and even children, all in the cruelest ways. It might have been one thing if the Blood Bard had fallen to the newcomer Lightscour, but comparing the Blood Bard to the Red Angel almost had to leave the Blood Bard looking nearly faultless.

The four men who carried Kendrick’s coffin called themselves the Phoenixes. They had put on new clothing since their transformations last night, and now they moved around in simple tunics that had been dyed a deep red. They weren’t illustrati; to the extent that any of them had been known, they were dockworkers or laborers. Now they were something else. The only black mark on their new reputations was the fire that had been started in Lowside, but that fire had come after the others, and it was slowly becoming common knowledge that it had been the work of one of the queen’s agents in an attempt to frame the Phoenixes.

A voice began booming out over the procession. “Dearest Vidre,” it began. The source was a town crier, who was standing on top of a nearby building and reading from two sheets of paper.

The noises of dissent began as soon as he was done.

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Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 9: The Letter

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