As usual, this episode had its share of difficulties and concerns, which tends to be more the case when I write these more stand-alone episodes. Will it seem too random? Will readers be disappointed it doesn’t answer big questions or advance the overarching plots? Will it have enough of the characters readers like? Will people be bored because not enough happens? I always worry about these things, even when I end up with a strong episode, which I think this is.
With only one episode between this one and A Matter of Facts, my biggest worry is that this is too much Arval. I really like Arval as a character. Unlike Kiluron, who was designed to lean into tropes about princes in fantasy novels, or Doil, who was similarly trope-inspired, Arval is sort of the opposite of most major characters in fantasy. He’s an unambitious, nearsighted, portly, balding, middle-aged inventor with a distinct lack of self-confidence. However, I don’t know if readers like him as much as I do, so I worry. I won’t apologize for this episode, though, because I think it turned out well.
Nothing truly Earth-shattering happens in this story. Oh, there’s the magic Gruordvwrold rocks, which might show up again, and we get to see some of Evry’s scheming, but this episode is meant to stand alone and just be an adventure that happens. Sometimes, stories don’t need to change everything to be worth telling, which is part of why I wanted Blood Magic to be semi-episodic in the first place.
There are some things that I intended to do with this episode that ended up not quite fitting. I wanted to bring back the Rovis refugees who Kiluron resettled back in In Contempt, and I wanted to give us more about the tribes in the Unclaimed Territories that we learned about in Fallen Angel, but neither of those things quite fit. It would have either felt forced, or made there be too much going on, or made this episode twice as long, so I settled for a few references and left it at that. At this point, that means we won’t be getting more of either in the series, and that’s okay, though I’m sure it will disappoint a few readers. That’s why you have your own imaginations.
That scene from Doil’s viewpoint, near the end, is my favorite in the whole episode. For those of you who have read since the beginning, it should be strongly reminiscent of the very first scene, with Borivat sailing to the Isle of Blood. The mist, the darkness, the clandestine meetings to benefit the Prime without his actually knowing about it…while I didn’t want to make it too obvious for a casual read, the resonance is definitely there. Doil has his struggles, and a realistic character never just “finishes their arc,” but this should feel like something of a climax for him. He’s had strong moments before, but this is him coming to truly fill Borivat’s shoes. It’s just a minor thing, but at the same time it’s more. This, I think, is what is meant by ‘show, don’t tell,’ which is something I always struggle to implement.
There’s just one more episode before we start on the two-part series finale. Three episodes of Blood Magic left to write, and that is a little hard to fathom – I’ve had another Blood Magic episode to write for three years. We’re closing in on the end. I hope you’re enjoying the ride, and I’m pleased to present Drive On.
So many eyes were fixed on Arval, enough to make him sweat even if he wasn’t tending to a burgeoning conflagration. Although the fire was contained, it was still hot: hot enough to make its metal containment glow ruddily thanks to the venting Arval arranged. It burned hotter than a blacksmith’s forge on a summer day.
Above the oven was bolted a canister full of water. Arval stood up from tending to the fire to check on the water; it was already beginning to simmer, but it would need to reach a raging boil before anything substantial began to occur. He tried not to think about his audience, but it was hard to forget that the Prime of Merolate, his Advisor, and several ministers were standing in his warehouse, which managed to feel both cavernous and confined simultaneously.
None of them were the most critical of his work, though. “It won’t work,” Evry declared, her arms folded as she glared at Arval. In truth, he had never seen another expression from the Pifechan engineer. “This way is too inefficient a harnessing of the motive power of fire, and the materials are insufficiently thermally insulative.”
More reasons to sweat, but Arval did his best to ignore Evry. His machine worked in testing, if imperfectly. True, it didn’t do everything he wanted it to do, and he couldn’t imagine it powering something on the scale of a Pifechan warship, but it did function. It was, after all, just a prototype.
The first bubbles began to roll up from the bottom of the canister, and Arval leaned in to hear them, since he couldn’t see inside the metal cylinder that held the water. His eyes tracked along the progressively narrower pipes through which the steam generated from the boiling water in the canister would run, giving it more and more pressure until it could fill the spherical vessel with its single outlet and set it spinning. That would draw on a chain, which wound around a series of gears, and eventually the motion of the steam spinning the spherical vessel would cause the cart to move across the laboratory under its own power.
Granted, the cart was significantly smaller than Arval first envisioned for this project, more like a child’s toy than the full-size wagon in his original sketches. In testing, its trundling pace across the warehouse floor was slower than a one-legged man walking, and it only made it a third of the way across the cavernous space. Even that was an unprecedented accomplishment, but Arval struggled to be impressed with his own feat, aware that Evry, who knew how to harness steam so efficiently that it could propel a ship across the ocean and against the wind, would scoff at it.
If only it didn’t take so long for the system to generate sufficient steam for motion; this awkward wait and the impatient murmurs of the Prime’s ministers were exacerbating Arval’s nervousness. He wondered if the Pifechans had found a solution to that problem, or if they kept their fires always burning, but he was not supposed to ask Evry, even if he thought she would tell him anything useful. Doil wanted their work kept separate for security, and Evry didn’t like him, anyway.
At least it was cooling off outside, so Arval could open the warehouse’s windows to provide some ventilation before it became too stifling. During his experiments, while the heat of summer was still beating down, he’d sometimes been forced to wait outside the warehouse because it got so hot with the fire. That was doubtless another sign of inefficiency in his design. He sighed, but then cut the expression off when he spotted the first wisps of steam escaping from the spherical vessel.
Arval clamped down the stopper on the outlet, letting the steam build up; after enough time passed, he yanked out the stopper by its cord and leapt backwards so that the spherical vessel could begin spinning freely. Well, ‘freely’ was probably the wrong word; even with the gear ratios Arval employed to create a mechanical advantage, the amount of mass being moved via the chain that looped over the spherical vessel meant that the steam did not produce a very rapid rotation. But it was moving!
Grinning, Arval turned to his audience as the contraption strained and began to lumber across the dusty floor, lurching forward at less than half a normal walking pace. Yes, he still found it exciting, and he could have watched the cart move back and forth across the warehouse all day, but he’d seen this before, and it was more important to see his audience’s reactions. Doil was scribbling notes as he watched the approaching cart with one eye, and Kiluron had his head cocked in an expression of curiosity. Evry, of course, had her arms crossed and was frowning as she shook her head.
When the cart rocked to a stop, its supply of steam exhausted, Arval went about shutting up the furnace to deprive it of air and extinguish the fire, and then he held up his arms to invite questions. Doil raised a finger. “This is adapted from the aeolipile designs?” he asked.
Arval nodded. “Yes. I changed the furnace and canister positioning in order to make it fit on the cart, dropped and moved forward the spherical steam vessel, and then connected the steam vessel to a gear chain in order to drive the rotation of the wheels.”
“Is that as fast as it can go?” Kiluron asked.
Arval flushed. “Well, I’m still working on optimization, this is just a prototype, you see, but, ah, yes. That’s the only speed it can attain right now.”
Evry stepped forward. “This is ridiculous,” she declared. “Your contraption is slow, ponderous, and inefficient. It bleeds heat all over the place, its fuel usage is impractically high, and its cargo capacity is nonexistent. In Pifecha, we have…” she snapped her mouth shut on whatever she’d been about to say.
“The flying machine was better, lok,” Inpernuth interjected, ignoring the looks he received.
Arval sighed. “Think of the potential, though. I can iterate on this idea, try different things, come up with something that can move a whole wagon. Imagine wagons that could move without needing horses or blummoxes or kungas.”
“That depends on the efficiency and cost-effectiveness you can achieve with your design,” Borivat observed. “It will not be useful if it is cheaper and easier to use traditional beasts of burden.”
“I…yes, I suppose that’s true,” Arval admitted.
Doil looked around, saw no other comments, and nodded to Arval. “It’s a worthy project, and it shows progress on understanding the principles upon which Pifechan technology is based, even if it does not produce a practical application. Please keep me apprised of further developments.”
That was it. The ministers, Evry, the Prime, and Advisor Doil all filed out of the warehouse, leaving Arval alone to contemplate his invention, lurking where it ran out of steam. “Well, Hemi, looks like I won’t be freeing all of your cousins from the harness anytime soon,” he muttered.
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