Going back and re-reading these early episodes has really made me recognize just how much my writing has improved (in my opinion, anyway) in the less-than-a-year since I started releasing Blood Magic here on the site. The beginning of this episode, much like episode two, was told in a weird, semi-omniscient viewpoint, before reverting to the third person limited that is characteristic of most of the series. I think this was probably me trying to do a sort of “establishing shot,” like would be done in a television show, but that technique really doesn’t work for writing. It makes me wonder if I even recognized how jarring the viewpoint switches would be, or if I even knew I was doing it.
What I do remember is that this episode was pretty challenging to write when I was first working on it. I had been two months ahead going into the first season, and this episode was what left me often writing episodes right up against the deadline by which they needed to be posted. For all that, I was actually pleasantly surprised once I got past the first scene with how the story flowed. Although I had some small adjustments, I think that past me did a pretty good job with the characters and relationships in this episode (with the exception of the awkward relationship between Kiluron and the foreign princess, but then that one is supposed to be awkward).
However, I did a lot of work building out Naleen’s plotline, beyond changing her initial scene. I decided to add extra scenes with her as the POV character, which allowed me to better show what she was trying to do there, and whether or not she was actually any good at her spy-work. That whole plot-line felt a little awkward to me in the original version, and I think it’s improved by the additions – hopefully you’ll agree when you read it. This also led to what might be the first time that I’ve flipped the order of scenes around after I’d written them, which was rather exciting in an odd way. Yes, I get excited about some rather boring things.
I still don’t think that this is a fantastic episode, and by that I mean that it just doesn’t seem very exciting, but I do think it is stronger for its revisions, and it provides some valuable world and character-building. With my new emphasis on trying to remember to name characters, and on doing better about continuity in the Blood Magic series, I suspect that some of the characters that I introduced in this story as one-offs may be reappearing in later episodes. Plus, I’d really like to have an excuse to have Vere and his lieutenants gambling bread again, because that might be my favorite scene in this episode. I hope that you enjoy the revised edition of Thicker Than Blood.
Somehow, it seemed just Naleen’s luck that a storm was blowing up from the Aprina Sea that particular night, setting the sails fluttering out on the harbor and swirling fallen leaves about to stick to her wet face and bedraggled hair. The only positive she could see to being alone, wet, cold, and miserable while approaching the imposing gates of the city of Merolate with a long-shot assignment to infiltrate the castle and learn everything she could about the young Sub-Prime was that it would be very easy to act the part of the lonely, wet, cold young girl just arriving to a foreign place in the middle of a chilly autumn storm at night.
“There’s just nothing I can do,” the guardsman said again, as rain pinged off his armor. He had been explaining to Naleen that Merolate didn’t allow travelers in after dark. “I’ve got my orders, and I can’t just go letting people in when they come knocking on my gate after dark, no matter how pretty they might be.”
Rain coursed down Naleen’s face; with the hood of her sodden cloak down, her hair hung in straggly tendrils around her cheeks. They were uncomfortable, and she would have liked to brush them away, but they contributed to her act. Clearly, this guard was already sympathetic to her plight. It wouldn’t be difficult to persuade him to bend the rules a bit further for her. “Couldn’t some manner of exception be made? I’ve come a very long ways.” That was certainly true. Princess Ihona had only been able to arrange transport for her as far as Ebereen’s border. From there, she had been obliged to make her way across Crebart to the Merolate Union, and then through the Union’s provinces to Merolate itself, mostly on foot, except when she was able to persuade some farmer or another on their way to the harvest markets to let her ride a ways.
Putting on her most convincingly innocent and helpless face, Naleen waited as patiently as she could while the rain kept falling; it wasn’t as if she could get any more soaked than she already was. The guardsman was silent, and then sighed. The gate creaked, swinging open, and he stood in the opening, silhouetted by the warm light streaming from the guard tower beyond. “Come in,” he whispered. “Quickly. I can’t let you into the city, but you can at least come into the tower and get warm.”
“You are most gracious,” Naleen said as she ducked beneath the guardsman’s arm and hurried for the shelter of the tower. Her cloak swished about her ankles as she walked, but the rain had made it more than heavy enough to conceal the slim, short sword hanging from her waist. The guardsman noticed nothing untoward. Almost, Naleen felt badly for manipulating him into relenting, but there was a burning brazier just inside, and the air was noticeably warmer; with her entirely unfeigned shivering finally beginning to subside, the feeling of guilt did not last long.
Even inside the tower it was still slightly damp, but it at least wasn’t actively raining, and warm torchlight turned the stones a welcoming orange that wound its way up the broad, spiral staircase. Once inside, the light illuminated Naleen, revealing a pretty, pale face, marred by a single scar that traced down over her cheekbone from her eye, or rather, what had once been her eye. It was now nothing more than a polished, black ball of glass, though her other eye was a striking green. It itched slightly, but she fought the urge to rub at it; it already was more distinctive than she would like for her line of work.
“There’s a guardroom up the stairs,” the guardsman said, gesturing with the hand that didn’t hold a spear from where he was taking the opportunity indoors to warm himself before a brazier. If he was surprised by Naleen’s scar or her eye, he made no sign nor mention of it, which instantly earned him Naleen’s appreciation. “The other guards should be able to find you a dry cloak, at least. Once morning comes, we’ll see about getting you into the city.”
Pushing water out of her hair with her hands, leaving it plastered against her skull, Naleen smiled, genuinely this time. It was always easier to act when as little of it was an act as possible. “Thank you.”
“Well, I better be getting back outside,” the guardsman remarked, stepping reluctantly away from the brazier and putting his hand on the tower door. “Say, what did you say your business was in Merolate? You have family here or something?”
“I didn’t,” Naleen, humor sparkling in her living eye. “But since you ask, I’m here to see my brother. I haven’t seen him in many years, but I’ve finally tracked him here. Who would have thought he’d be a personal servant in the Prime’s castle?” This story had been the result of careful planning and research, calibrated deliberately to be interesting and to provide sufficiently strong reasoning for Naleen to have come to Merolate, without being too memorable or interesting. It also had to be believable; this was the first time she was testing it, and that always seemed the most nerve-wracking part, though she would face greater trials of her cover soon enough.
Wincing as he put on his helmet, and shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, the guardsman smiled back. “I’d be happy to take you there, when my shift ends.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you,” Naleen replied, pausing on her way up the stairs to look back down at the guardsman. “I’m sure it can’t be too hard to find the castle of Merolate’s Prime. Thank you again for your help tonight.” The last thing she needed was to show up to the castle accompanied by a guardsman.
“Oh, well, of course,” the guardsman mumbled, looking terribly embarrassed, and Naleen realized she had misread his overture entirely. “Well, if you change your mind, just ask for Guardsman Proid.” Then he stepped back out into the rain and shut the door behind him.
Pressing her lips together, Naleen watched the door through which he had disappeared, and sighed. It wasn’t a good sign if she was missing obvious queues like that; she was thinking too suspiciously. The more suspiciously she thought, the more suspiciously she would inevitably act, and that would draw very undesirable attention upon her. Still, she was in the city, and no one seemed suspicious of her real motivations, at least not yet. The first step, at least, had gone as planned. She ascended the stairs to find the warm cloak that Guardsman Proid had mentioned.
Click here to read the rest of Blood Magic S1:E3: Thicker Than Blood (Revised Edition)
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