Ten Years Ago

            It was a dark night.  All nights are dark, but there are some nights when the darkness takes on a substance of its own, when the blackened fabric of the nocturnal sky is knitted together into solid cloth once more, the holes of the stars and moon patched and repaired.  This night was one of those, which did nothing to assuage the tribulations of the visitor who made his quiet way from the mainland to the Isle of Blood.  It was not a trip that any made lightly, and even fewer returned.  There was only one form of payment on the Isle of Blood.

            The little rowboat bumped against the half rotten outcropping of wood that served as a dock for the Isle, and the cloaked and hooded visitor carefully moored the little craft before gathering his walking stick and stepping gingerly onto the platform, securing his oars.  His eyes flicked guiltily to the bundled form at the bottom of the boat before he straightened.  Seaweed-slicked planks creaked in mild warning as he walked onto the Isle.  A mist swirled about, obscuring the temples and other outlying buildings that housed the little island’s reclusive population.  It was better that way, the visitor thought, for it served also to obfuscate the horrors he might otherwise be made to perceive.  The rule of law did not reach the Isle of Blood.

            Mist stirred ahead, and the visitor stopped just before the gates of the temple and waited.  There was no need for him to announce his presence: it would have been noted the moment he set foot from his boat.  Indeed, a man-shaped figure in red robes soon stepped from the mist to stand just in front of the visitor.  The visitor adjusted his grip on his walking stick as the man in red robes examined him.  The red robed man’s head was bald and bare and glistened slightly in the mist, and the robe was fastened at his throat with obsidian clasps that appeared to bite slightly into his pearly white skin.  Peeking out from beneath the robes, a broad, black sword was just visible.

            “Welcome, Borivat, Advisor to the Prime of Merolate,” the red robed man said, in a voice that seemed a perpetual grumble.  “For what reason do you presume upon the…hospitality of our sanctuary?”

            The visitor, Borivat, bowed his head slightly.  “I seek to lift a curse,” he said.

            The red robed man smiled, but there was nothing joyous about the expression.  “The Prime’s newly chosen successor has been cursed, so he turns now to the very magic he has prosecuted for his entire reign?”

            “No,” Borivat said, “the Prime does not seek this.  He seeks the death of the witch who cast the curse, believing that will lift it.”

            “And you, Borivat, Advisor to the Prime of Merolate, have come to us, because you know that the mere death of a witch will not lift the curse.”  The red robed man made it a statement, not a question.

            “Will you lift the curse?” Borivat asked.

            “You know the price of our magic,” the red robed man said.  “If the price is paid, we will break the curse upon the new Sub-Prime.”

            “In the boat,” Borivat said, gesturing with his walking stick.

            The red robed man reached up to the clasp of his cloak and pressed slightly.  The clasp bit into his neck, blood welling up around it, but almost all of the blood was absorbed by the clasp.  His eyes flared red for a moment, then returned to their previous solid black.  A gesture of one hand, and tendrils of mist extended outward to the rowboat, scooping up the man-shaped package and bearing it back to the red robed man, where the package stopped and hovered, firm in the misty grasp.

            “This will do,” the red robed man determined.  “The curse will be broken by morning.”

            Borivat nodded.  He did not thank the man in red as he turned to rejoin his fellow priests in the temple beyond, the man-shaped package floating along behind him.  There would have been no point.  Instead, the Prime’s advisor turned and slowly shuffled back to the little rowboat.  Settling himself as best he could and storing his walking stick securely beneath the bench, Borivat took up the oars and began to slowly row himself back towards Merolate.

The Present DaY

            Sub-Prime Kiluron ducked the drunken blow and buried his fist into his opponent’s stomach as the bigger man stumbled forward, off balance from the blow and the alcohol.  The man’s stomach was soft, and Kiluron heard air whoosh out of the drunk’s mouth.  Gaping like a fish, the man sagged around the Sub-Prime’s clenched fist and slowly slid off onto the floor, whimpering between agonized gasps for breath.  Kiluron stood up and faced the crowd.

            “Would anyone else,” he proclaimed, “care to insult my mother?”  Never mind that he could hardly recollect his mother.

            No one moved.  No one spoke.  They had all seen the symbol on Kiluron’s cloak, and none dared raise a further hand against the Prime’s chosen successor.  After a minute of surveying the crowd, Kiluron spun around and strode from the bar, slamming the wooden door behind him.  Rain was sluicing down, but he paid it no heed, splashing through the quickly forming puddles to where his horse was tied.  Freeing the animal, he slung himself up and snapped the reins harder than he normally would, startling the horse.  Muddy water splashed as the horse whinnied and cantered off into the stormy darkness. 

A second horse followed a moment later, moving awkwardly in an attempt to catch up, a slight figure clinging to its back.  “Sub-Prime Kiluron!” the boy called, the reins clenched in a white-knuckle grip in his fists.  “My lord, wait!”

            Kiluron paid no heed, either to the boy, or to the rain, or to the mud splashing up to stain the white belly of the horse or the fine leather of his sword sheath.  Before long, he had left the village behind, heading generally back towards the city of Merolate.  Yet he wasn’t ready to return, not in this state.  He turned sharply off the main road and urged his horse into the murky forest, reducing his pace to a quick walk amidst the tangled undergrowth.  The boy sighed and followed reluctantly, taking care to duck beneath the low-hanging limbs that sought to sweep his from his perch in the saddle.

            “Sub-Prime Kiluron, please.  We should return to the castle.  It’s not safe to be wandering through the woods at night.  We should never have even been out here.  The Prime will not be pleased,” the boy pleaded.

            “I can take care of myself!” Kiluron cast back angrily, “And as for the Prime’s pleasure, that is no bloody concern of mine!”

            “But my lord – “ the boy protested, ducking closer to his horse’s neck to avoid being torn off by a low hanging branch.

            “Don’t ‘but my lord’ me,” Kiluron retorted.  “You’re my servant, not my advisor.  For now, anyway.”

            The boy was quiet after that, and Kiluron continued picking his way deeper into the forest.  At length, they came to a small clearing, where he dismounted.  He strode angrily about the clearing, kicking at the moldy leaves.  His fist opened and closed spasmodically on his sword hilt.  He heard the boy stop his horse and dismount to stand quietly next to it at the edge of the clearing, but he ignored them.  Kicking angrily once more at the leaves, Kiluron returned to his horse and sagged, his arms draped over the saddle.  The anger had fled from his face.

            “What is wrong with me?” the Sub-Prime demanded.  His anger had given way to simple weariness and frustration.  “I’m such a mess.  If anyone could see how I truly am, I’d disgrace the whole Union.”

            The boy approached cautiously.  “You’re not a mess, my lord.”  He took in the mud splatters staining the Sub-Prime’s clothes and the disheveled hair.  “Well, perhaps physically, right now.  But not in general.”

            “Thanks, Doil,” Kiluron snapped.  “You’re really helpful.”

            “My lord,” Doil replied.

            Kiluron sighed.  “I’m sorry.  It’s not your fault.”

            “This isn’t about that drunk insulting your mother, is it,” Doil observed.

            Kiluron shook his head.  “I don’t know quite what it’s about, honestly.”  He sighed again, and swung himself up onto his horse.  “Come on.  Let’s get back to the castle.”

            “Yes, my lord,” Doil said, clambering up onto his own steed and following the Sub-Prime back to the road.  He thought that sounded like a very good idea, one of the few he’d heard from Kiluron that night.  Ahead of them, the watch towers of Merolate glimmered in the darkness, just barely visible through the heavy foliage.

            The throne room was not a large place.  Most castles had a large throne room to serve as a venue for various ceremonies, but Prime Wezzix preferred to think of the throne room more as a receiving area, a sort of council room.  The great hall, to his mind, was the place for ceremonies, whereas the throne room was the place from which the actual running of the kingdom was done.  True to that end, his throne room was dominated by a large oaken table, narrow at the far end, where he sat, and broadening out as it approached the door.  The room itself was paneled in marble and polished hardwood, which the Prime did not see as ostentatious, but rather as a way to visually represent the dignity and gravitas requisite to the rule of law that was embodied in the throne room.

            Even the throne itself reflected this perspective.  It was a wooden piece, elegantly carved, but lacking any other ornamentation, and only lightly cushioned.  In his younger years, Prime Wezzix had even forgone the cushion, but as he had aged, he had come to the conclusion that the hard rule of law did not need to be reflected at all times in the condition of his backside.  He resolutely maintained, however, his upright posture and dignified composure.  For bells each morning, he would invite the citizens of Merolate, both the city and the kingdom, to come to him with their thoughts, complaints, questions, and supplications.  It was not nearly enough time to address them all, and at the same time it was far too much time eating into the business of governance, but he felt it was his duty as ruler.

            He could be a hard man, but Prime Wezzix liked to think he was, above all, a just man.  He ruled by law.  To him, there was greater comfort in the predictable outcomes based upon established laws than there would be in the sporadic mercies of what some would consider a more benevolent ruler.  The citizens, he knew, would never sing his praises, but they also did not curse his name, and he had observed that, by and large, their lives were reasonable.  That was more important than their adulation.  Yet for all that Prime Wezzix believed that he understood the needs of his people, he could not seem to fathom the needs of his chosen heir.

            “Am I to understand,” Prime Wezzix said slowly, “that you did not return to Merolate until the moon had nearly set this morning because you first got into a bar fight, and then proceeded to wander aimlessly through the forest in the dark?”

            “Er, yes, my lord,” Kiluron said, unable to meet the Prime’s piercing green gaze.

            “Why?” the Prime asked, bemused.  “Why would you do these things?  You’re far brighter than that.  Do you not understand the nature of your position as Sub-Prime and heir to the throne?”

            “I do understand,” Kiluron insisted.

            “A ruler must maintain his stature, must maintain a certain aloofness and bearing of nobility with regards to the citizens at all times.  Only then will the people believe in your ability to dispense justice in accordance with well-developed laws.  A kingdom cannot be governed by one who engages in common bar fights.  And a ruler also has a responsibility to not unnecessarily risk their own life, for their life and death have far ranging affects,” the Prime lectured.

            “I know, my lord,” Kiluron said.  “You’ve told me this before.”

            “Then why do you continue in this manner?” Prime Wezzix asked.  “What am I missing, that you still refuse to behave in a mature and noble fashion?”

            “I just – I don’t know.  I’m sorry,” Kiluron said, his eyes downcast.

            “I’m sorry too.”  The Prime was silent for a time.  “Please see that it does not happen again.”

            “Yes my lord,” Kiluron said.

            “Now, there is another matter that I wanted to discuss with you,” Prime Wezzix said.

            “My lord?” Kiluron asked.

            “The CDF is preparing for the christening of a new ship, the MUS Doreen.  They have requested that you be the one to give the first order for the ship,” the Prime explained.  “After that, the ship is setting sail for Corbulate.  I would like you to accompany the ship there to pay a visit to the city.  Remind Governor Parl of the rule of law.”

            “I will be there,” Kiluron said.

            “Good.”  There was silence.

            “Was there anything else?” Kiluron asked.

            The Prime sighed.  “No, nothing else.  You may go.”

            Kiluron bowed and left the throne room, leaving the Prime staring after him.

            Unlike other formal ceremonies, which would take place at dawn or dusk, the times of greatest balance, christening ceremonies were beholden to the tides, which is why Sub-Prime Kiluron at midmorning stood on the bridge of a ship the color of fresh cut wood, dressed in his formal uniform.  His buttons and boots had been polished, his sword cleaned, and his clothes stiffly pressed, courtesy of Doil, who waited in the shadows in case of some mishap.  It had never been made clear what the servant boy and future advisor was expected to do if something did go wrong, but he was always supposed to be available for the Sub-Prime.  Kiluron tried not to fidget.  The uniform was uncomfortable, and the speeches were long and interminably dull.  He was subject to all this discomfort because some admirals of Merolate’s Coastal Defense Force wanted him to be the first to call out “anchor aweigh!” for the new ship.

            It was a pleasant day, at least.  The sun was warm, but there was a cool breeze blowing across the bay that kept Kiluron from growing too sweaty in his heavy uniform.  Perhaps it was fortunate that the ceremony was at midmorning, since it meant that it was a little cooler than it would be later in the day.  There was very little shade on the deck of the new ship, and Kiluron couldn’t retreat to what shade there was, anyway.  He couldn’t be seen as if he were standing in the shadows, and the Prime would not be pleased if he did not put on a dignified and noble face for the gathered citizens on the docks and piers below.

            The CDF’s docks were impressive, though simple; the sailors kept them impeccably cleaned and well maintained, in stark contrast to the commercial, private, and public docks that jutted out into the bay from other parts of the city.  The waters of the bay were dark and deep and murky, although that did little to prevent the bright sunlight slanting in from being reflected blindingly into the eyes of both the onlookers and the participants.  If he looked at just the right angle, Kiluron thought he could make out a glint of a fish or two in the depths; it gave him something to do while he listened to Prime Wezzix drone on with his speech.  Kiluron did not envy the sailors lining the edges of the ship, who could not shade their eyes or shift their position, and did not have the benefit of the bulk of the ship to block the light of the water from their eyes.

            “And so we come to the climactic moment,” Prime Wezzix was saying in his best orator’s voice, “for the time has now come to officially christen and commission this new ship for Merolate’s Coastal Defense Force.  It is, with great honor and pleasure that I, Prime Wezzix of Merolate, fifth of that title, christen this grand vessel to be the Merolate Union Ship Doreen, and grant her commission to bear forth the will, honor, prestige, and strength of the great Merolate Union.”  So saying, the Prime turned and, with a practiced hand, broke the proffered bottle of sparkling wine over the prow.

            The crowd cheered, the navy men stood to attention, their officers saluted, and Sub-Prime Kiluron stepped forward.  He held up his hands, there was a moment of silence, and he dropped them.  “Anchors aweigh,” he said.  “Take us out.”

            Chains clattered, wood creaked, men shouted, and the deck was filled with movement as the sailors rushed about, hauling in the anchors, securing lines, and generally making the ship ready to depart.  On the docks, men engaged the heavy wheels on either side of the new ship, which, when turned, extended long, heavy timbers beneath the water to push the ship out from its moorings.  Once the ship was freed from the docks and in the relatively open water of Merolate’s huge bay, oars bristled out from the ports on either side of the ship in two tiers. 

           A low, steady thumping could be heard over the other sounds of the ship as the ship’s beater struck out the tempo for the rowers.  Kiluron could just faintly hear, even through the wooden deck, the oarmaster’s voice calling out a reverse row.  The first set of oars dipped into the water and pushed as one, churning the water but giving little apparent movement to the ship.  Then the first set of oars was withdrawn and the second set dipped in their place.  Again the water churned, and this time Kiluron could feel the ship begin to slide through the water, pulling away from the docks.  The rowers pushed against their oars and against the water again, and again, until the docks began to visibly recede. 

           The oarmaster ordered various rowers to alter their rowing.  Soon, the ship began to turn about, water churning all around it.  The sailors on the deck scampered about, and soon several small sails were billowing in the cross-breeze, aiding the efforts of the rowers belowdecks.  Kiluron stood back, watching the proceedings.  Growing up in Merolate, he was familiar with sailing and the sea, but he was no sailor.  Besides, the sailors would not take well to a sub-Prime attempting to aid them in their craft.  Better for him to stay out of the way; Guardcaptain Vere had taught him that much.

           Between the efforts of the rowers and the contributions of the sails, the helmsman was soon able to guide the Doreen clear of the bay and out into the open waters.  The ship had been named for an admiral of the old Merolate’s navy who had served during the wars for unification, more than eighty years ago.  That was before the navy had been restructured as the Coastal Defense Force. Captain Ferl, the true commander of the new vessel, stepped to the center of the bridge, having already changed out of his dress uniform into the more utilitarian sea uniform.  He checked some figures on the chart table at the center of the bridge, and looked out along the coast line.

           “Helmsman,” he called, “set course one two point four degrees south of east, full sail.”

           “Aye, sir!” the helmsman replied.  The order was echoed across the deck, and sailors scrambled to obey, hoisting the huge mainsails that dominated the ship’s two masts.  The wind caught them at once, the oars were retracted, and the ship began its journey down the coast.

           Sub-Prime Kiluron gazed at the city of Corbulate from his position with Doil on the ship’s bridge as the crew bustled about, making ready to dock.  Unlike the city of Merolate, Corbulate was an organized affair.  Every street, building, dock, and alley was laid out with a precision and order that was militant in its feel, and for good reason.  Corbs were a military society; the very fabric of their lives was martial in nature.  During the Warring States period, they had been the greatest threat to Merolate, only submitting to Prime Revanti in 35 PU.  Welate Province had held out slightly longer, but Corbulate had always been the most restless in its status as a province of the Merolate Union.

           “I will be glad to get off this ship and have some real rooms again,” Kiluron mused.  “Though I can’t say that I’m eager to confront Governor Parl.  From what Borivat told me, he’s not an easy man to deal with.”

           Doil looked at him.  “Has your time on the ship been so bad?  The captain gave up his own berth for you.”

           “True, but you snore,” Kiluron said.

           “I do not!  My lord,” Doil said fiercely.

           “You most certainly do,” Kiluron said.

           “Perhaps I just breath loudly,” Doil suggested.  “I most certainly do not snore.”

           “You breath loudly,” Kiluron repeated.

           “Perhaps,” Doil said, then quickly changed the subject.  “I assume you read the brief on Governor Parl and the situation here while I was keeping you awake with my loud breathing?”

           Kiluron sighed.  “Yes, Doil.  I’m not completely irresponsible.  Apparently, Governor Parl has been violating the rule of law.  We’re supposed to counsel him on the importance of maintaining the integrity of the law of the whole kingdom of Merolate.”  This was said in a disgruntled parody of Prime Wezzix.  “The best I can tell, this is either Parl testing the limits of his discretionary authority under the Prime’s rule of the Union, or we have an actual difference in perspective.  Personally, I hope for the former.  Politics is so much easier than handling actual problems.”

           “Are,” Doil corrected absently.  He raised an eyebrow.  “From what I understand of Corbulate, I would think its governor is the last person to be doing either of those things.  They’re a strictly regimented society.”

           “And yet, here we are,” Kiluron said.  “I guess that’s the difference between reading and doing.”

           “You might find it easier to do if you did a little more reading,” Doil griped.

           “Perhaps.  But that’s what I have you for,” Kiluron said, smiling.

           “My lord,” Doil acknowledged.

           As soon as the ship had docked, Kiluron thanked the captain, and with Doil a step behind, strode down the gangway to the docks, where he was met by a small group of Corb guards.  They came to attention as Kiluron approached, and the one in front snapped a sharp salute.

           “Welcome to Corbulate, Sub-Prime Kiluron, chosen successor to Prime Wezzix of Merolate,” the lead guard said.  “It is truly an honor to have you with us.  I am Master Sergeant Gorvin of the Corbulate Guard, first armsteam lead of the Personal Protection Division, and these fine guards here are the members of the first armsteam.”

           “A pleasure to meet you, I’m sure,” Kiluron said, looking around himself.  “This is my personal assistant, Doil.  I assume that you are here to escort me?”  He did his best to look and act his own legitimacy.  It was sometimes hard to feel that way.

           “Yes, my lord,” Sergeant Gorvin said crisply.  “General Parl has requested that I escort you to headquarters at once.”

           Kiluron arched his eyebrows, and wondered if it wouldn’t have been more appropriate for someone of higher station to be meeting him.  Doil would know.  “He has, has he?  Well, in that case, lead on, Sergeant.”

           “Yes, my lord,” Sergeant Gorvin said, saluting again.

           The other guards arrayed themselves around Kiluron and Doil, and with Sergeant Gorvin in front, they made their way into the city.  Kiluron couldn’t decide if he felt escorted more as a guest or as a prisoner.  The streets were as neat and clean as was implied by their carefully ordered appearance; even the people exhibited a distinct military discipline, down even to their dress.  Whether their choice of nearly uniform costumes was a matter of social habit, or the result of government edict, Kiluron could not tell.  Again, doubtless Doil would have known.  Kiluron really had read the brief about his assignment while on the ship, or he’d at least skimmed it.  That had seemed sufficient, at the time.

           Headquarters, it turned out, was simply how the Corbs referred to their city’s castle.  It was certainly a very plain, austere affair; Guardcaptain Vere would probably have approved of it, although it may not have had enough books of poetry.  Where Merolate’s castle was first a place of living and governance, the Corbulate castle was a place of defense first, and a residence and government center second.  It was the sort of place that only had round towers for their defensive advantages, not for aesthetic appeal.  Yet for all its brutishness, it was not modest: the Corbulate castle could house the whole population of Corbulate in time of emergency, and even Kiluron’s untrained eye could tell that no expense had been spared in making the fortress entirely impregnable.

           After being marched over the drawbridge, across the courtyard, through several halls and up and down various narrow stairwells that seemed designed as chokepoints in a castle that felt like a maze, Kiluron and his escorts at last stood before a large, heavy door, with three more Corb guardsmen standing before it.  One of them stepped forward and spoke quietly with Sergeant Gorvin, who showed some kind of token and gestured at Kiluron and Doil.  The Corb guardsman nodded and stepped back so that the other two could swing the doors open; Kiluron noted that they swung outward, rather than inward.  Doubtless it was another defensive feature.  When they were fully open, the guard who had spoken with Sergeant Gorvin stepped forward so that he was just inside the threshold of the throne room.

           “General Parl, I announce Sub-Prime Kiluron of Merolate,” the guard called out.

           “Send him in,” came General Parl’s reply.

           The guard stepped to the side and nodded to Sergeant Gorvin, who nodded back and also stepped aside, opening the way for Kiluron and Doil.

           “Thank you,” Kiluron said to the guards, inclining his head slightly, and then he strode through, Doil following behind him.

           Upon his entering the throne room, General Parl rose.  He was a surprisingly small man, his muscles wiry and defined.  His uniform was relatively simple and unadorned, and the sword he wore at his side was clearly not a mere ceremonial piece.  He held himself like a veteran.  “Welcome, Sub-Prime Kiluron.  It is an honor to have you here.”

           “I am honored by your hospitality, Governor,” Kiluron said, emphasizing the choice of title.  He might be a general amongst the Corbs, but to the Prime, he was governor of Corbulate Province.

           If Parl took notice of the emphasis, he gave no sign of it.  “Come,” he said, “it is nearly time for the noon meal, and I’m certain you are ready to eat something other than ship’s fare – at least, if my own navy’s galleys are anything to go by.  We can discuss your visit while we dine.”

           “That will do nicely, Governor,” Kiluron replied.  Meeting over a meal might be less formal, but it tended to make conversations go more smoothly.

           The dining room, it turned out, was as austere and purposeful as everything else about the castle, indeed, about the whole city.  For some time, they ate in silence, to the point that Kiluron began to wonder if his thought that a meal would be a less formal setting was going to be proven hasty.  Doil waited in the shadows.  Kiluron felt guilty about that, but there was little choice.  A servant, even a Sub-Prime’s personal assistant, could not dine with a Sub-Prime and governor, but Kiluron couldn’t dismiss him to take his meal with the servants.  As Doil had pointed out earlier, his knowledge was invaluable to Kiluron’s success, and the Sub-Prime was not about to risk not having him on hand should he have need of him.  It would be so much less awkward once they were Prime and advisor, but they were both years away from having that level of responsibility, thankfully.

           “So tell me,” Parl began, “what is the purpose of your visit?  The Prime’s letter informed me of your coming, but was cryptic as to the nature of your visit.  I do not get the impression that this is merely a vacation.”

           “Quite correct, Governor,” Kiluron said, glad that the silence was finally broken.  “This is not pleasure visit.  The Prime has certain concerns which he hopes you and I will be able to smooth out.”

           “I see.  And just what are these concerns?” Parl asked.

           “Prime Wezzix is concerned that the rule of law is not being dispensed in a fully just fashion,” Kiluron said carefully.  The words didn’t really sound like his, since he was basing it on Borivat’s assignment brief, but he tried not to let them sound awkward in his mouth.

           “I cannot fathom what could lead him to such a conclusion,” Parl replied.  “As you have observed, there surely is not a more orderly city in all of the Merolate Union.  Can you really imagine that this is a place of lawlessness?”

           “That was not the accusation, Parl,” Kiluron said, deliberately neglecting the man’s ambiguous title.  As Sub-Prime, he technically was the second highest ranking person in the Union, although his actual authority was only so great as Prime Wezzix chose to delegate to him.

           “Under the Union’s charter, I have the authority to enforce the law in whatever manner I see fit, provided that it is enforced.  You question that such enforcement is happening?” Parl demanded.

           “You don’t have the authority to enforce the law in an other than just fashion,” Kiluron snapped.  This was a negotiation, not a conversation in a bar, so he took a deep breath.  “Prime Wezzix has always been very clear about the importance of an equitable enforcement of the law across the whole Union.”  Again, it sounded more like a phrase that he had heard someone else use.

           “Our society here in Corbulate is quite different than that of Merolate Province.  A certain amount of discretion is necessary,” Parl said.

           “Discretion, yes,” Kiluron exclaimed, “but not arbitrary pronouncements of guilt and innocence.”  He immediately regretted it.

           “Ah,” Parl said, his mouth smiling faintly but his eyes flashing with suppressed emotion.  “So we have at last come to the crux of the issue.”

           Kiluron sighed.  “It would seem that we have.”

           “We Corbs are a unique people,” Parl explained with infuriating patience.  “Our entire society is based on the principles of the professional military, and so we have somewhat unique needs when it comes to law and order.  Discipline, you see, is essential to who and what we are, and the continued prosperity of our city.  It must, therefore, be maintained, enforced, and reinforced, regardless of the cost.  Prime Wezzix’s laws are surely wise and just, but they are tailored for a very different kind of people, especially the justice system.  What you see as an arbitrary pronouncement of judgement is simply what the needs of our society make appropriate.”

           Kiluron held his ground.  “Regardless of the unique situation of the Corbs, laws are laws.  Have you, or have you not, violated the terms of the agreement you made with Prime Wezzix and the specifications of the Union’s charter?”

           Parl hesitated, and Kiluron felt something shift between them.  “I have done what was necessary,” Parl finally said.

           Kiluron nodded.  “Now that we’ve cleared that up, we should discuss what to do about the matter.”

           It had felt like a victory, but as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Kiluron realized he had made a mistake.  In an instant Parl had regained his confidence and superiority.  Kiluron berated himself for slipping out of his role, but there was no going back.  He would have to work with the new situation and hope he could avoid slipping again.  There was just no way that he could talk as smoothly and eloquently as someone like Prime Wezzix, or even Doil.

           “Surely the Prime would understand that my actions were needful.  He has no more love for the balancer cult than I do,” Parl said.  “In the rest of the Union, their continued existence can be tolerated, as long as they do not display their beliefs or practices, but the nature of Corbulate society does not allow for such toleration.  I’m certain Prime Wezzix would understand this.  At the end of the day, we have simply rid the Union of another cursed blood worshipper.”

           Kiluron opened his mouth to respond, but before he could do so, the door to the dining hall swung open.

           “General,” a guardsman announced, “there is a ship in the harbor flying the banner of the Isle of Blood.  A man claiming to be some kind of high-level priest is on board and demanding to speak with you.”

           Kiluron looked at Parl, feeling the momentum of the room and the conversation sliding back towards his favor.  “I wonder what he could want with you,” he said sweetly.

           Parl’s face darkened, and he rose.  “Lead on, Sergeant,” he said to the guard.  Kiluron and Doil followed behind him without waiting to be invited.

           The Isle of Blood’s ship appeared old and decrepit compared to the new MUS Doreen and the well-maintained ships of Corbulate’s small navy.  The wood was grey where it was not black, and the boards of the hull were visibly warped in places, seeming apt to spring forth from the pegs and nails holding them in place.  There were no oar ports, and it bore a single, triangular sail on the main mast that stretched from the top of the mast nearly to the deck.  It was holding position just off of the docks, sitting eerily still in the water.  At the top of the main mast, the banner of the Isle of Blood, which showed two hands rising from a pool of blood, one flaming, the other open, fluttered in the breeze.

           “We told them to wait for permission to dock, General,” the port master said, snapping a salute.

           “Very good, Commander,” Parl said, returning the salute.  He peered out at the Isle of Blood ship.  “Grant them permission, but tell them that only two representatives may disembark to negotiate with me.”  He turned to one of his guardsmen.  “Sergeant, you will escort these representatives to the port control authority building, where we will have our discussion.”

           Both addressed men saluted and spun about to execute their orders.  Kiluron started to make an objection, seeking a chance to assert his authority, but Doil laid a hand on his arm and shook his head slightly.  Kiluron sighed, but heeded the unspoken advice.  Just because he probably could have ordered otherwise didn’t mean it was appropriate or necessary to do so.  He wished sometimes that he could be so discrete without Doil’s prompting.  In moments, the Isle of Blood ship had slid into the dock, navigated there by some unseen mechanism that seemed independent of tide or sail, a gang plank had been extended, and two figures in red robes were walking slowly down to the dock, where guardsmen were waiting.  A brief debate appeared to ensue over the weapons borne by the red robed figures, but in a moment the escorted figures were proceeding to the port control authority building, their black swords still just faintly visible beneath their robes.

           Entering the port control authority building, the red robed figures let down their hoods, differentiating them for the first time.  One was entirely bald, his head shiny and smooth and very round.  He was the shorter of the two, and seemed almost burly within his robes; his neck was thick and muscular.  The other man, though only slightly taller, seemed much more so.  His hair was tied back in a ponytail, and he was lean to the point of seeming almost skeletal, especially about his face.  Both of them stopped to stand directly in front of Parl and Kiluron.  As one, they inclined their heads slightly, first to Kiluron, and then to Parl.  For cultists, they seemed remarkably versed in Union diplomacy.

           “I am Priest Fel,” the thin man said, hands clasped before him, “and this is Priest Herlglut.  We thank you for entertaining us on such short notice.”

           Kiluron found himself taken aback by the sheer normalcy of Priest Fel’s tone.  The Prime, and the law, took a hard stance on blood worshipers, but their priests were shown no mercy at all.  Considering that a few hundred years ago the Balancers had almost united the continent of Lufilna in the Blood Empire, perhaps that suspicion was merited.  From the whispered stories of the priests of the Isle of Blood, Kiluron had assumed they would be consummate villains, but these men at least on the surface were not.

           “Why have you come here?” Parl asked, his tone clipped.  His glance at Kiluron made the Sub-Prime suspect that Parl had hoped Kiluron might take charge, but Kiluron made no move to do so.  He wasn’t going to get Parl out of his own hot water.  Besides, he wasn’t sure what the specific diplomatic protocol to use here might be.

           Priest Herlglut’s voice was almost a growl, but he didn’t sound specifically angry.  That just seemed to be how he spoke.  “I think we all know what our visit is about.”

           Parl hesitated.  Kiluron wondered how he would respond to that challenge, but Priest Fel jumped in.  “What Priest Herlglut means is that our visit is about a matter of mutual importance.  I apologize for his lack of tact; he is distressed by the events which have transpired here recently, and which are indeed the subject of our unexpected visit.  You see, we have reason to believe that a family of faithful was executed here a few weeks ago.”  Kiluron wondered if Priest Herlglut had been chosen deliberately as an emotional contrast to Priest Fel’s cool diplomacy.

           “If you are referring to the unfortunate occurrence with regards to a small clan of cult – er, Balancers, I assure you that we in Corbulate were only upholding justice and the law of the land,” Parl said.  There was a degree of venom in his voice as he spoke, which Kiluron took note of – there was something personal in Parl’s prosecution of the blood worshippers, something more recent than an empire several centuries defunct.

           “Sub-Prime Kiluron,” Priest Fel said, and Kiluron had to drag himself back into the flow of the meeting, as he had not expected to be addressed, “correct me if I am wrong, but does not the law laid down by Prime Wezzix state that the practice of the religion which you call blood worship or balancing is permitted in the Merolate Union?”

           “The question is irrelevant,” Parl interjected, before Kiluron could reluctantly confirm the priest’s words.  “The blood worshippers in question were not executed for their practicing of the religion.  They were executed for their use of supernatural forces, which is prohibited most strictly under the laws of both the Merolate Union and Corbulate Province.”

           “There’s just one problem with that,” Priest Herlglut said with his characteristic growl.  “They were not using ‘supernatural’ forces.”

           “How can you know this?” Parl demanded.  “The evidence was quite clear and incontrovertible.”

           “I will controvert it,” Priest Herlglut retorted.  “They were not using supernatural forces because they could not use supernatural forces.  Only Blood Priests are capable of doing the things you categorize as the use of supernatural forces, and this family did not have the necessary training.”

           “Then perhaps they were priests,” Parl argued.  “The evidence is quite clear.”

           “They were not priests,” Priest Herlglut snapped.  “We have, at the Isle, a record of every priest, both living and dead, who has ever served the faith.”

           Parl started to retort, but Priest Fel spoke up before he could.  “Governor, perhaps you could tell us the nature of the evidence which you found so convincing as to justify the killing of an entire family?”

           Parl hesitated only a moment.  “A plague recently swept through our city.  It was not deadly, but many were infected.  The clan in question were the only people in their neighborhood who were not infected.  Furthermore, a search revealed artifacts related to the supernatural in their house.”

           Both priests seemed nonplussed at this.  “And you consider this kind of evidence permissible in a court of law?” Priest Herlglut asked incredulously.  It was in character for him to be the one to make the exclamation, but Priest Fel appeared to be thinking the same thoughts.  “You would murder on evidence like that?”

           “The evidence is quite clear,” Parl affirmed.  “And it wasn’t murder.  It was justice.”

           Priest Herlglut looked disgusted, but before he could speak, Priest Fel laid a restraining hand on his arm.  “I am sure, Governor Parl, that you can see our dilemma,” he said.

           “Enlighten me,” Parl grumbled.  Kiluron wondered if he was being purposefully obtuse, or if he really couldn’t see the Blood Priests’ perspective.

           “Although this family lived under your jurisdiction, they were members of the faithful, and as such, we at the Isle of Blood are also, in a certain sense, responsible for the welfare, especially as it pertains to the faith.  Since their deaths seem to have been in large part related to the practice of their faith, we find ourselves in a quandary.  It is true that you had a right to enforce your laws and uphold your justice, however much we might disagree on what that constitutes.  But it is also true that we have an obligation to ensure the safety of our faithful,” Priest Fel said.  “Thus, we are in an awkward position.  If we do nothing, it will set a precedent that the faithful can be hurt or killed, and the faith will do nothing to protect them.  Yet what can we do?”

           “Nothing,” Parl asserted.  “As you said, you have no jurisdiction here.  Now, I think this meeting has gone on long enough.”  He started to rise, but Kiluron stopped him.  He had an idea.

           “Gentlemen,” Kiluron said, choosing his words carefully, “let’s not be hasty here.  What happened with the family in question is unfortunate – I think that we can all agree on that.  But what’s done cannot be undone.  Perhaps some conciliatory measure would be acceptable?”

           Priest Herlglut narrowed his eyes.  “In the faith, the cost of a deed is simple.  Blood for blood, life for life, death for death.”

           Parl looked ready to erupt, but Priest Fel quickly spoke up.  “However, we do not think that would be appropriate here.”

           “What would you accept in recompense?” Kiluron asked.

           Priest Fel looked thoughtful.  “No monetary compensation can recoup the cost of lost life.  Perhaps something to help ensure that something of this nature is prevented in the future.”

           “What did you have in mind?” Kiluron asked, as Parl glowered.

           “Perhaps the government of Corbulate would agree to donate a plot of land for a temple of the faith,” Priest Fel suggested.

           “Impossible!” Parl exclaimed.  “This is outrageous!”

           Kiluron interrupted him.  “I don’t think that would be acceptable under the laws of Merolate,” he said, “but perhaps a compromise could be had, in that vein?  Is there some kind of worship or faith support center you could establish that would not involve a full temple?”

           “Am I correct in thinking that you are concerned about our, as you put it, supernatural practices, were we to establish a temple?” Priest Fel asked.

           Kiluron nodded.

           Priest Fel glanced at Priest Herlglut, who nodded.  “What you describe is not something that we’ve done before, but I think it would be possible.  Perhaps it’s even something that we ought to have done before.  And we would agree that this would be a suitable conciliatory measure.  That is, assuming that Governor Parl agrees to this idea.”

           All eyes turned expectantly to Parl, who grimaced.  “It’s still an outrage,” he growled, “but I suppose I’ll consent to it.”  Not that he really had a choice; he’d been effectively backed into a corner, and Kiluron was feeling rather proud of himself for it, although he wished he could unobtrusively wipe the sweat away that was tracing its way down his spine.

           “Thank you,” Priest Fel said.  “I’m relieved that we were able to come to a settlement.  And thank you, Sub-Prime Kiluron.  I suspect that a settlement would not have been so forthcoming without your insight.  Please give the Prime our regards.”

           The two priests rose, and Parl and Kiluron rose with them.  Pulling their hoods back up over their heads, the two priests nodded to Parl and Kiluron, and then turned around in a swirl of red robes and returned to their ship.

           “How dare you,” Parl growled at Kiluron, as soon as the priests had left.  “How dare you interfere in my city.  You had no right.”

           Kiluron fought down his initial surge of anger.  A shouting match with Parl would be unproductive.  “I’m going to pretend that you just said ‘thank you.’” said he said.  That seemed like a generous thing for him to do.  “Assuming that you uphold your end of the bargain that you just struck with my help, I will consider our own business here settled, and assure the Prime of your continued loyalty.”

           Parl stood still for a moment, then spun about abruptly and stalked away, leaving Kiluron alone with Doil.

           “Well?” Kiluron asked.  “How did I do?”

           Doil hesitated.  “I think that went rather well, my lord.”

           “Really?”  Kiluron frowned.  “You sound surprised.”

           “I am, my lord,” Doil said.

           “You didn’t think I could handle it?” Kiluron demanded.

           “You never cease to surprise me, my lord,” Doil said carefully.

           “You didn’t think I could handle it,” Kiluron contended.

           “That is not what I said, my lord,” Doil protested.

           “Right.  Come on,” Kiluron said.  “Let’s get back to the ship.  The Prime will want to hear of my exceptional diplomatic prowess without delay.”

The end of Blood Magic S1:E1: Pilot. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the next episode will go live on February 29th, 2020.

Need more Blood Magic in your life? See our additional resources on the main page, and consider participating in our Blood Magic forum.

Copyright 2020, IGC Publishing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s