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.

               With a sigh, Doil knocked on Kiluron’s bedroom door for the fourth time that morning.  Outside, the sun was already well clear of the horizon.  “My lord, you really must be getting up.  The scouts report that Ebereen’s delegation is nearly in sight of the city gates.”

               For the fourth time that morning, the only response Doil received was the quiet thump of a pillow being thrown at the door.  If it came down to a trial of Doil’s patience, versus Kiluron’s supply of pillows, Doil had not doubt that he would lose.  “My lord, the Ebereen delegation will almost certainly consider it a grievous insult if the Sub-Prime of Merolate doesn’t meet them at the gates.  Not to mention that the Prime will be greatly displeased.  He might go so far as to…”

               “Alright, alright,” Kiluron’s voice came muffled through the door, “I’m getting up, I promise.  But I haven’t the slightest idea what I’m expected to wear to this thing, so I’m thinking I’m just going to wear my day clothes.”

               Doil rolled his eyes, safe behind the door.  “Fortunately, my lord, I have already selected your outfit for today’s events.”

               “Don’t think I didn’t hear you rolling your eyes at me!” Kiluron called.  “Just because I can’t see you…”

               He burst out of the bedroom moments later, a bathing robe draped loosely over his shoulders, looking around with wide eyes.  “Lords and ladies, Doil, we’re late!  Why’d you let me sleep so long?”  Looking around wildly for his clothes, he saw the outfit Doil and laid out, and began stuffing himself into it with frenetic energy, trying to put on his pants at the same time as his overcoat, before he’d even put his shirt on.

               With a sigh, Doil grabbed Kiluron’s shoulders, stilling him, and pulled off the overcoat.  “Shirt first,” he said, rolling his eyes again.  “And I woke you four times this morning, my lord.”

               “Just because you have a wool shirt over my eyes doesn’t mean I can’t tell you’re rolling your eyes,” Kiluron complained, his voice muffled by the shirt.  He scratched at it when Doil had settled the shirt, and then shrugged into the overcoat.  There was a lot of lace.  “You’re sure this is fashionable?”

               “Would I mislead you?” Doil asked innocently.

               “Yes,” Kiluron replied, belting on his ceremonial saber, “you would.  Especially if it meant me looking like some kind of confection covered in too much powdered sugar in front of half the city.”

               Doil flung open the door, buttoning up his own overcoat as he did so.  His was plain.  “Unfortunately, we’re out of time.  You’re just going to have to risk it.” 

               Grumbling, Kiluron followed Doil out the door.  Horses awaited them in the courtyard; both of them were running by the time they reached the animals.  Not slowing, Kiluron leapt up onto the larger horse’s back, seizing the reins and kicking the horse into a gallop, barely clearing the gates as the guards opened them for him, Doil a few steps behind.  Caroming through Merolate, they reached the main gates just as the great bell towers rang out, clattering up beside the dignified form of Prime Wezzix, waiting in his full regalia, the gates already flung open.  He made no comment upon Kiluron and Doil’s arrival, but Kiluron found this all the worse; doubtless he was doomed to have a thorough tongue-lashing when the day was done.

               Through the gate, Ebereen’s delegation gradually increased in detail.  Squinting, Kiluron tried to see if he recognized anyone.  Not personally – the last time the formal Ebereen delegation had visited was more than ten years ago – but he was probably supposed to be able to identify the important members of the party based on their assorted crests and colors.

               “Were you paying attention during Borivat’s lecture on the Ebereen delegation?” Kiluron hissed to Doil, attempting to be circumspect.  Despite his efforts, he earned a scowl from Prime Wezzix, and winced inwardly.

               Doil sighed, and replied quietly.  “The two people at the center of the delegation should be High Ambassador Reveen, notable for negotiating the peace treaty between Lucra and Ebereen thirty-five years ago, and Princess Ihona, heir ascendant to the throne and Queen Fenish’s only daughter.  They’ll be accompanied by various lords and ladies deemed important enough to join them, as well as servants, and twenty or so guards.”

               Nodding, Kiluron clasped his hands behind his back and tried not to fidget.  At least Doil hadn’t misled him about the clothes; Prime Wezzix was wearing nearly as much lace, and the man would never wear anything that wasn’t properly dignified.  After what seemed an interminable period, the Ebereen delegation reached the gates.

               “Princess Ihona, Ambassador Reveen,” Prime Wezzix pronounced, “we are honored by your visit.  Our two peoples only benefit from our continued alliance.”

               Swinging down from his horse, Ambassador Reveen bowed.  “And we are honored to be here, Prime Wezzix.  Thank you for your generosity and hospitality.”

               Princess Ihona stepped from the carriage and offered a curtsey.  “It’s been a long time, Prime Wezzix.”

               “Too long, my dear,” Prime Wezzix replied.  “Last time I saw you, you were barely taller than my knee.  I trust your mother is well?”

               “Well enough, though she regrets that she couldn’t join us,” Princess Ihona agreed.  “There are always more demands upon a queen’s time, as I’m sure you are well aware.”

               Prime Wezzix nodded.  “True words.  But where are my manners?  Allow me to introduce the rest of my own party, and then we will get you all put up in the castle, as befits guests of your stature.  I’m sure you must be tired from your long journey.”  Turning slightly to the side, he gestured towards the others.  “My Sub-Prime, Kiluron, his personal aide, Doil, and of course my old and trusted advisor, Borivat.”

               Kiluron bowed upon his introduction, and then they were processing into the city, making their way towards the castle.  As they walked, he heard Borivat lean over towards the Prime and make some comment, at which Prime Wezzix chuckled and clapped his advisor on the shoulder.  Leaning over to Doil, Kiluron tapped his thigh.  “He’s in a good mood.  Maybe I’ll get away without a lecture, after all.”

               “Stranger things have happened,” Doil observed sagely.  “For instance, those demons we had to deal with last month.”

               Before Kiluron could make a suitably sarcastic reply, a new voice interrupted them.  “Doil!?”

               Doil twisted on his horse instinctively at the sound of his name, searching for the source of the voice, and Kiluron looked with him.  A woman with strikingly dark hair against a pale face, only one good eye, and a scar running down her cheek rushed out of the crowd, seemed to realize the company into which she had intruded, and looked around nervously.

               “Oh dear, I’m so sorry.  I should have realized…” her eyes were fixed on Kiluron’s sigil.  “My lord,” she said, bowing.  “Please accept my apologies.  I was overexcited to see my brother.”

               A glance at Doil convinced Kiluron that his aide was just as confused as he was.  “Brother?” Kiluron asked, gesturing absentmindedly for the woman to stand.

               “I – well, I don’t suppose you’d remember, would you – you were so young at the time…” the woman took a deep breath.  “I’m Doil’s sister.  We were separated not long after he was born.”

               “Well then, why didn’t you just say so?” Kiluron exclaimed, as if she hadn’t just done precisely that.  “We’re just riding on back to the castle; you should join us.  Especially if you have embarrassing stories about Doil as a baby.  It would make a nice change from his embarrassing stories about me.”

               “I couldn’t possibly…” the woman began, but Kiluron was already ahead of her, calling for a horse from one of the guards and placing her firmly between himself and Doil.

               “So, Doil’s sister,” Kiluron said, and then hesitated.  “What did you say your name was?”

               The woman flashed a hesitant smile.  “I didn’t.  But since you ask, my name is Naleen.”

               Across from him, Doil looked distinctly uncomfortable, but Kiluron ignored him.  “Well then, Naleen, I want to hear all about little baby Doil…”

               Never in all of her conferences with her leadership had Naleen or any of her superiors imagined her mission going this well; in fact, it was almost going too well, and not just in the sense that she felt certain there must be some kind of trick involved.  At the behest of Merolate’s Sub-Prime she was receiving a positively dangerous amount of attention, and she was quickly becoming concerned that the information they had been able to learn about the young aide’s past might not prove accurate or sufficient for such close examination.  Yet for the moment, at least, she had an unprecedented level of access to the upper reaches of Merolate’s leadership, and that more than made worthwhile the risk she had taken by calling attention to herself during the delegation’s transit to the castle.

               Outside, preparations were being made for the afternoon’s festivities with the Ebereen delegation.  Servants were in the process of erecting risers in the courtyard around a set of sand-filled rings.  There would be competitions of all sorts later that day, for each of the nations to demonstrate its ability, but mostly for the entertainment of the nobility in attendance: archery, horsemanship, running, strength, beast-taming, dueling, painting, and poetry.  Many of those same nobility would participate, though few of them could truly pretend to any kind of mastery in such fields.  Naleen has witnessed such demonstrations before, when the Merolate delegation had last come to Ebereen, and it had been almost humorous to watch stuffy nobles make fools of themselves dancing around with blunted swords.

               Meanwhile, she could see all of these preparations from her room’s window – her own room, in the castle, set aside for her by Kiluron, the Sub-Prime himself, who had overruled or overborne anyone who might have expressed hesitation at housing someone completely foreign in such close proximity to Merolate’s leadership.  He had seemed infinitely amused by the generic baby stories she had given him about ‘Doil’s’ past, and she was relieved that he had finally left her to her own chamber, to prepare for the festivities.  At least he hadn’t invited her to sit with him, thus giving even more chance for her falsehoods to be revealed.  Besides, she had work to do.

               With a servant’s dress on, Naleen hid several knives beneath the skirts, and was about the slip from the room when a knock sounded upon her chamber door, and she blanched, quickly scanning the room to make certain that nothing incriminating or untoward was visible, and then opened the door, pasting on a smile and opening her mouth to exchange further pleasantries with the Sub-Prime.  But it was not the Sub-Prime who stood waiting upon her answer.

               All the ride back to the castle, Naleen had felt Doil’s eyes on her, watching her, studying her, appraising her, like she was one of those infernal blacksmith puzzles that he would find out with his gaze.  Whether because he suspected her true purpose in Merolate, or he merely disbelieved her story about being his long-lost sister, Naleen was fairly certain that unlike his Sub-Prime he did not trust her.  Now it was Doil who stood outside of her door, waiting patiently with those too-thoughtful eyes.

               “Oh, I’m so sorry,” Naleen said, opening the door all the way and beckoning Doil to sit on one of the benches just inside of her room.  “I should’ve probably come and seen you at once, but it’s just been so overwhelming…”

               She received a soft smile in reply.  “My lord Kiluron can have that effect upon people,” Doil observed.  “And certainly I do not mean you to think that I begrudge you time to yourself; doubtless you have had a very long journey, and all of this must be nearly as disorienting for you as it is for me, if not more so.  At least I’m still home.”

               “It has been…a whirlwind,” Naleen agreed.  She took a deep breath, and decided that she would be better off confronting this conversation directly.  Let him see that she had nothing to hide, and perhaps he would yet believe her.  Certainly he was the most likely to find out that she was no more his sister than she was some Territories’ barbarian.  “But that shouldn’t be an excuse.  I’ve spent so long searching for you, and to have finally found you…”

               “I’m sure it was very hard for you; you must have been very young,” Doil said.  His voice sounded calculated, probing, and stiffly formal besides, but that could have just been Naleen’s paranoia.  Besides, she didn’t truly know what he usually sounded like; perhaps he was always so contemplative in his conversations.  He hesitated.  “I do wonder how you managed to find me again, after all these years.”

               “It was not easy.”  Then Naleen paused, and worked over her concocted story once more in her head.  “What do you remember?  That will help me know where to start.”

               Doil sat back, and it was some time before he spoke.  “I remember very little on my own of anything before coming to the castle to live.  But Advisor Borivat told me that I had been orphaned, and that I had been brought by the guardsman who found me to the castle, and Prime Wezzix agreed that I should be taken in and raised to be Sub-Prime Kiluron’s advisor, when the time comes for him to be Prime in his turn.”

               He could have been lying, spinning a vague story or pretending to less knowledge than he had of his past to trap her in a lie, but if so there was nothing Naleen could do about it, save to continue with her story as she had prepared it.  Nothing that he had said contradicted what their research had revealed.  “I was born a few years before you were.  We lived on a little farm in northeastern Merolate, but it was attacked by brigands during the winter, and our parents were killed in the attack; I hid you and me in a woodbin until they went away.  When they had gone, I went to try to find help in the village, but when I returned you were gone.  At first I thought you had wondered off, and I looked all over for you, but I couldn’t find you.  But now you’re here, and I’m here, and we’re together again…it’s almost too much to believe, I don’t quite know how to feel.”

               “Neither do I,” Doil agreed.  “It doesn’t seem real.”

               It wasn’t real, in truth, but Naleen fought the urge to peer too closely at Doil; she still couldn’t separate how much of what he was doing and saying was truth and honest, and how much might be an act.  How much did he know?  Was he manipulating her?  There was no way of knowing.  This uncertainty: it was the part of spy-work that she hated the most.  Both of them were silent for a long pause.  When it began to become uncomfortably long, Naleen cleared her throat.  “Well, I had better, ah, let you get back to work.  I’m sure there will be plenty of time to reminisce once this festival is over.  Is it really going to go on for five whole days?”

               Looking relieved, Doil nodded, and stood to depart.  “Yes, I had better return to my duties.  It’s considered appropriate to have such a large array of festivities to show our appreciation and friendship towards our allies from Ebereen.”  He hesitated at the door, and added “I’ll try to come by later today to take you around the castle; I know it can be a maze if you’re not familiar with it, and I wouldn’t want to wander around too much, if I were you.”  Then he was gone.

               For a long moment, Naleen stared after him, her pulse pounding in her throat.  Surely if someone had seen her they would have been able to see the beating of her blood against her pale skin just above her dress’s collar.  That last statement had struck her a little too closely; it could be read too easily as a subtle warning that he knew her true purpose in the castle.  Yet she thought she had played everything else right, or at least as well as she could have expected.  And if he really knew, he had given no sign of it…Naleen shook her head; these debates with herself weren’t helping her, and they weren’t productive.  She waited for a time until she was certain that Doil was well away from her rooms, and then she slipped outside.  Whether she had been discovered or not, she had only a limited time to learn as much as she could before her mistress would begin negotiations.

               Sighting along the length of the blunted sword, Kiluron weighed it in his hand, deliberately not looking behind him at the Ebereen lord he was to duel.  It was an exhibition round, one of dozens that would be held over the next week in honor of the Ebereen delegation’s visit, with events ranging from sword duels to archery to stunt riding.  It was called a festival of sorts, but it was really just a way for a bunch of lords to show off their limited martial prowess.  In his conversations with the guards, Kiluron had found that they scoffed at the idea, and looked down at nobles of any sort attempting to imitate their profession; the better guardsmen would make short work of all but the most talented nobles on the battlefield.  Not that there had been a true battlefield in the Merolate Union in a long time, unless one counted border skirmishes with the barbarians in the Unclaimed Territories, or Rovis border patrols.

               Learning that had soured Kiluron’s enjoyment of these exhibitions, but it had also made him work harder at his swordsmanship, so that he was now slightly eager to put on a show with this Ebereen lord.  He would have to be careful not to embarrass him too badly, of course, as that wouldn’t be good for relations, but he also wanted the real swordsmen in the audience, who were actually the elite castle guards keep watch over the proceedings, to appreciate his talent.  It wasn’t showing off, per se – he had worked hard for his ability, such as it was.

               A bell rang, and Kiluron spun to face the Ebereen lord just as the man turned to face him – he thought they had said the man’s name was Loron.  Or was it Lirn?  Loron, Lirn, whoever it was launched a quick stabbing attack, from which Kiluron simply stepped away, maintaining his sword at the ready.  The stab was followed by a slashing attack, aimed at his sword rather than himself – a common mistake amongst duelists, from what Kiluron had been told – but again  Kiluron simply stepped back, avoiding the blow entirely.  Their blades were covered in chalk dust, to show a hit on their painted leather armor; a judge would declare what was considered a lethal hit or not.  Still not moving his sword from ready, Kiluron circled his opponent, who was now in the center of the sand-filled dueling circle.

               Loron lashed out again in a stabbing blow, and this time Kiluron met blade with blade, driving in hard through a thin cloud of chalk dust to lock hilts with the man, twisting their blades together, and then, while the man was off-balance, unleashed a quick slash directly across his breastplate.  The bell rang again, and Kiluron stepped back, letting Loron catch his breath.

               “Match goes to Sub-Prime Kiluron of Merolate,” the judge pronounced.

               Saluting his opponent, Kiluron handed off his blunted sword, and headed over to Merolate’s preparation tent, where servants helped divest him of his armor and provided him with clean clothes more befitting a noble spectator than a sweaty participant.  Properly dressed again, he headed quickly to the pavilion where Prime Wezzix and Borivat were sitting with Princess Ihona and Ambassador Reveen.  Prime Wezzix nodded to him in what might have been close to approval, but otherwise said nothing.  Princess Ihona, though, began talking excitedly almost before Kiluron had even sat down.

               “That was so impressive!  I’ve never seen a duel like that.  You made it look so easy and fast!”  She fluttered her eyelashes at him.

               Kiluron blinked – had the princess really just fluttered her eyelashes at him?  “Er, thank you.  I practice with some of the guards.  Try to stay sharp, you know.  Strong right hand of Merolate and all that.”  He trailed off.  Guardcaptain Vere would be smiling that little smile of his by now, if he were around, barely more than a twitch of his lips, the one that said he was amused but considered that laughing might disrupt his image.

               Princess Ihona nodded along as if this were the most fascinating insight.  “Clearly it has benefited you.”

               Clearing his throat, Kiluron nodded in what he hoped was a suitably dignified fashion.  “Thank you, Princess.”

               “Oh, please, call me Ihona.  If I may call you Kiluron?”  She extended her hand, and Kiluron took it gingerly.  He supposed he was probably supposed to kiss it or something, but he settled for a firm clasp.  Ihona’s expression was inscrutable, perhaps slightly curious.

               “Er, of course,” Kiluron replied.  “So, ah, what’s Ebereen like?  Is it much like Merolate?”

               Ihona smiled, an expression she seemed to indulge frequently, although there was something about it that made Kiluron slightly uncomfortable.  It didn’t seem like she was smiling so much because of something she felt, as much as that it was something which she thought she ought to be doing.  “Parts of it, I suppose, in the southern parts.  But I spend most of my time in the capital, which is so far north it’s practically Rockland.  There’s nothing but scraggly pine trees.  Trees, and tundra, and endless rivers that freeze by mid-autumn into natural highways.  It’s harsher in the winter, but we actually do most of our trade then.  It’s just easier to get around.  The rest of the year, it’s far too muddy.”

               “You make it sound rather bleak,” Kiluron remarked, before considering that he probably shouldn’t be insulting their guests’ homeland.  Failing to think of a diplomatic cover-up, he opted to wait and see how badly he had fumbled.

               “I suppose it is a bit, at times.  Not like here.”  Ihona drew in a deep breath.  “It’s so warm and sunny here.  And your city is beautiful.”

               Some information not fully processed by his brain informed Kiluron that there was a subtext to this conversation, but he hadn’t the slightest idea what it might be.  It was probably politics, and Kiluron made a point of being poor at politics, because he secretly enjoyed the game when the circumstances were right.  He would have to try to explain it to Doil later, and see if he had any insight.  Doubtless Doil was off doing some more important task at the moment, since Kiluron hadn’t expected to need an advisor during a festival.  He hadn’t figured that he needed Doil’s help to talk to a girl, even if the girl in question was a foreign princess.  In fact, Kiluron had figured he’d probably do better without his would-be advisor there to offer untimely advice.  “I would be more likely to call it cold and damp,” he said.  “Not to mention that when the wind blows the wrong way, it smells like the docks, and that’s never a pleasant smell.  Better now than the height of summer, but still not pleasant.”

               Laughing, Ihona took another deep breath.  “I think it’s lovely.”

               They spoke further, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they exchanged further inanities; Kiluron was relieved when Prime Wezzix finally stood from his rather more substantial conversation with the Ebereen ambassador and announced that they had to retreat to the castle to make preparations for dinner.  As he strode away, Kiluron glanced once behind him, and caught Ihona staring at him fixedly, her eyes intent as if weighing him for something.  Hoping she hadn’t noticed him catch her, Kiluron looked away and hurried after the Prime and Borivat.

               Leaning a rickety old stool in the corner of the Merolate castle larder back on two legs, Naleen contemplated her affairs.  As far as such things went, she could hardly have been more successful.  Through Doil, or perhaps more accurately through Kiluron, she had gained basically unfettered, unattended access to the entire Merolate castle.  From their brief interaction, Kiluron was clearly entirely taken with her hard-luck story of being separated from her baby brother, and struggling through all manner of torments to find him again.  That was good, but given her current disguise, it was far more important that Doil believe her, and she could tell from their conversation that morning that he remained suspicious, if not outright doubtful.  He was courteous enough, and said nothing openly disbelieving, but he remained guarded with her.  Still, if he harbored suspicions, he had yet to act upon them, and that had allowed her to spend most of the afternoon looking through old scout reports and resource inventories, neatly filed away in archive rooms below the castle.

                For now, she was glad that she wasn’t playing a noblewoman, besides being relieved to be out of the dust of the archives.  Before she had lost her eye, she had often posed as Ihona’s aide, attending all manner of interminable official functions with her.  Now, she got to enjoy the quiet of the castle while everyone else enjoyed a feast in the dining hall, and she found it rather freeing.  There were few times as peaceful in a bustling castle as when everyone important was off stuffing their faces with food intended to impress with its bounty, assuming you weren’t a servant helping to enable the feast.  Across from the larder, in a drafty corner of the kitchen, a couple of servants were throwing dice, the five wooden sides clattering against the stones.  It didn’t look like a complicated game, but the young kitchen servants appeared to be enjoying it, so Naleen turned her attention elsewhere.

               Circumstances in Ebereen were more desperate than the apparent gaiety of their delegation would suggest.  The nomadic tribes that roamed the Unclaimed Territories, irrespective of national boundaries, had been an icicle dripping on their heads since time immemorial, but recently they had become more aggressive, making their way deep into Ebereen territory, and attacking increasingly substantial targets.  Queen Ornian had instructed Ihona that she was to form a military alliance with Merolate at almost any cost, such was their situation.  That was assuming, of course, that Merolate had the ability to help them, and it was for that reason that Naleen was there.  Once, the Merolate Union had seemed poised to dominate the continent, but they had stopped without conquering either Rovis or Crebart, though Crebart was now more or less part of their Union.  It had been decades since they had exerted any kind of substantial force beyond their borders.

               Distantly, bells chimed, and Naleen stood up from her stool.  The servants playing dice in the corner ignored her as she slipped out through the servant door and made her way towards the squat building on the castle grounds that housed the guards.  Most would be on duty watching over the feast, but there was almost certain to be a handful there, and there were few people as willing to answer well-worded questions as bored, off-duty guards.  Talking to them would give Naleen at least as much information as she had gleaned from dry reports and inventories.  It was slightly chilly outside of the castle, or maybe that was just the contrast with the kitchens’ heat, and a mist curling up from the ground, so Naleen had a convenient excuse to have her hood pulled up over her face when she knocked on the door.

               Chairs were pushed back, and a lean man with eyes that were almost yellow and a hatchet-like face opened the door, looking over Naleen.  “Is there a problem, Miss?”

               Naleen lowered her hood and gave the man a disarming smile that she knew from experienced helped alleviate the effect of her missing eye.  “No problem, Sir,” she replied, assuming him an officer.  “I’ve spent most of my life around fighting men, and found I missed the company.  Figured I’d come by and see if there was a seat for me.”

               The guardsman grunted, his eyes never settling in one place.  “You’re the woman claiming to be Doil’s sister.”  It wasn’t a question, but Naleen nodded.  “Come join us,” he said after a long pause.  He didn’t sound particularly inviting, but he stepped aside and gestured Naleen inside, shutting the door behind her.

               Fighting the urge to glance nervously behind herself at the closed door, Naleen took in her surroundings as her eyes adjusted to the dim light.  There were three other men besides the one who had opened the door sitting around a low, makeshift table formed from some boards set atop a barrel, and a cheap, battered deck of cards dealt out in hands before each chair.  All of the men wore swords and belt knives, their grey-blue Merolate capes clasped at their throats.  These were men who were never truly off duty.  All of them appeared to be officers, and Naleen wondered why they were all here, rather than overseeing the guardsmen at the feast.

               “Deal the lady in,” the guardcaptain instructed, and a thickly muscled, mustached man did as instructed, tossing a handful of cards at Naleen.  “I’m Guardcaptain Vere.  These are some of my lieutenants: Oilon, Perfut, and Bruk.  The game is five pips down, and the ante is one bread roll.”

               Naleen blinked.  “Bread roll?  I’m afraid I didn’t bring any bread with me.”

               “Eh, there’s a basket over there.”  Bruk jerked his thumb behind his head at a shelf on the wall.  “We always order extra bread with the victuals to get us going.”

               “You gamble with bread?” Naleen asked.

               Oilon smirked.  “We engage in a friendly wager with each other over bread.  We most certainly don’t gamble.  That would be gambling on duty, and that’s not allowed.”

               From another group of guards, it would have been a sign of incompetence and poor discipline, but that was not at all the impression she received from this group.  Naleen wondered if the whole Merolate military was as competent as this as she pushed her donated bread roll to the center of the table and picked up her cards.  It wasn’t a great hand, but she played it well, and waited for one of the other men to break the silence, but none did.  “So how exactly does your guard relate to Merolate’s military?”

               Guardcaptain Vere looked up at her sharply from counting his bread rolls, and Bruk stopped halfway through chewing on his winnings.  “That the best you can do?”  Oilon was grinning.

               Naleen hesitated, her hand drifting closer to her belt knife, but the men didn’t seem to be menacing, at least not specifically.  There was a sense of danger to them, but it was the ordinary sense of danger that all skilled fighting men had.  Perfut looked somewhat disappointed.  “Should’ve known better than to take that bet,” he muttered, pressing another roll of bread into Bruk’s meaty palm.  Naleen wondered if she should get up and try to escape, but none of the men had even bothered to stand up.  As if reading her mind, Vere waved her down.  “It was only a question of whether you were an assassin or a spy.  The former, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.  The latter?  Everybody spies on everybody, so there’s really no reason to getting worked up about it.  ‘A King a Shield/A Prince a Sword/do not a nation’s safety make/naked may the state be/when cloak and dagger don’t go free,’ as they say, and by they, I mean Wendrive, the only known political philosopher to write all of his works in poems.”

               “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Naleen said, slowly moving her hand away from her knife.

               “Of course not,” Vere agreed knowingly, tipping his stool back and lacing his fingers behind his head.  Even in that relaxed posture, he looked like a snake poised to strike at the slightest threat, especially with his almost yellow eyes.  “And I’m sure that you would never admit to being a covert part of the Ebereen delegation, not being at all related to our servant Doil, nor the fact that you’ve been the princess’s bodyguard for almost as long as she’s been alive.”

               Pressing her lips together, Naleen shook her head.  “You’re delusional.”

               Vere cocked his head to the side.  “Am I?  Do you remember a certain mercenary who happened to be staying at the castle Rovis, last time the Ebereen were there?  Tall fellow, spoke with a weird accent, kept trying to flirt with you?”

               “Bloodletters!” Naleen cursed.  “That was you?”

               Vere nodded.  “By the way, I like the eye.  It suits you.  Very dramatic.  So what do you say we sit down and talk like civilized barbarians?”

               “We’re already sitting down,” Bruk observed.

               Oilon shushed him.  “It’s an idiom,” he whispered.  “Or at least I think it’s an idiom.  It might be a metaphor.  Or a figure of speech?  I’m pretty sure it’s not an axiom.”  He seemed inclined to continue, but Perfut smacked the back of his head, and they all three quieted as their captain focused on Naleen, who shifted uncomfortably.

               “You’re not going to toss me in the dungeon?” Naleen asked.

               Perfut grimaced.  “What do you take us for?  We didn’t sit in here waiting for you to show up just so we could toss you into prison.”

               Naleen started to protest, then stopped, the words registering in her mind.  “This was a setup?”  Oilon nodded, and she cursed.  “I’m an idiot.  You must all think I’m a blithering incompetent.”

               Rolling his shoulders, Oilon looked at her with narrowed eyes.  “I wouldn’t feel too bad, if I was you.  Vere was the only one who managed to put it all together, with young Doil’s help, and he decided to set this up so we could give you a hand.”

               “Yeah, apparently he thinks that this alliance thing is going to happen, is supposed to make sure that you know how best to advise your mistress,” Perfut added.  “Personally, I suspect he just wants more trade in that potato alcohol stuff you people make, but I can’t prove anything.”

               “Provich?” Naleen asked.

               “That stuff,” Perfut agreed.  “It’s like drinking straight fire with ice in it.  Great stuff.”

               “Personally, I prefer wine,” Vere interrupted.  “Regardless, Naleen, I do believe an alliance would be beneficial to both of our peoples, and Prime Wezzix has expressed that actions I take to further such a conclusion would be viewed favorably.    Tell your princess not to ask for troops.  We don’t have troops.  The city guard is all there is.  The other provinces have their own militias or guards, but nothing sizable.  If we needed it, we would call upon the populace to defend ourselves.  Instead, ask for equipment and support personnel.  I’ve a group of officers ready to deploy to your country to offer advice and support on how to secure your frontier borders.”

               Naleen frowned.  “What’s in it for you?”

               “Honestly?” Vere asked.  “I suspect that Prime Wezzix sees this is a way to deal with two potential threats at once.  Get your people firmly on our side, defend against the nomads, and Merolate effectively secures all of Lufilna, save Rovis.”

               “But what about you, personally?” Naleen asked.  “Why help me?”

               All four of the officers glanced at each other.  Perfut tossed her a bread roll.  “We’ve all been where you’ve been before.  Somebody helped us out once upon a time.  That’s just how this business works.  Guards have to be suspicious all the time, so the only people that really understand them are other people who do the same thing.  One day, maybe you’ll be in a position to do us a favor.”

               “Pips?” Bruk asked.

               Vere nodded, as if this had been an arranged signal, and they all settled back almost imperceptibly on their stools.  More slowly, Naleen relaxed her guard slightly, as the cards spun and bread changed hands.

               There had been four Primes before Wezzix, although only the last three had presided over Merolate in its current form.  Despite that, the great hall in which the occasional banquets and similar events were held reflected Prime Wezzix’s preference for controlled dignity, and avoidance of ostentation; it had never been an extravagant nation.  Blown glass lanterns illuminated the hall with their steady, oil-fed light, and a heavy table almost as old as Merolate itself dominated the floor.  Fresh sawdust had been strewn in a thick layer across the floor, and a fire blazing in the hearth on one side helped keep the damp, autumn chill away.

               Cutlery clinked against dishes, but it was almost inaudible over the rush of conversation suffusing the hall.  Not that it was a rowdy, raucous kind of noise; it was merely the noise of people enjoying good food, good drink, and at least halfway decent company.  Kiluron might not have been even that generous if wine, and several swallows of an Ebereen drink Ihona called provich, had not inured him to the worst of the conversation.  Prime Wezzix was deep in discussion with Ambassador Reveen, and had been for most of the evening; apparently, the two had known each other through more than one of these state functions.  After their lengthy, tedious conversation during the exhibition, Kiluron had expected Princess Ihona to again try to monopolize his attention, but after exchanging a few pleasantries with him, almost all of her time had been spent conversing with Doil.  Kiluron didn’t quite know why that miffed him, but he was definitely annoyed.

               “…and surely you’ve seen a production of your own Vornun’s Le Delevit don Qontun?” Doil asked.  “We have a copy of the text in our library, but I’m afraid our actors don’t read Ebereen.”

               Kiluron thought that Ihona might have glanced briefly at him, but he couldn’t be sure, and then she was answering Doil.  “I’m afraid I could never quite get into her work.  A little too out there, for my taste.  All those ghosts and ghouls and magic seems like cheating.  I prefer your own Dervin.”

               “Dervin?” Doil repeated.  “I mean, his writing is excellent, but I’ve always found it somewhat too polemic.”

               That was how most of the conversation seemed to go; both of them kept using words that Kiluron didn’t know.  He couldn’t blame Doil, as much as he wanted to; he had several times tried to direct the conversation back towards Kiluron, though without the slightest success.  Unfortunately, the wine was doing little to increase his enjoyment of a discussion on literature about which he knew nothing.  He thought he vaguely remembered hearing Doil mention Vornun before, but that could have been his imagination.

               It was some relief when the dinner finally ended, and the guests began to trickle away to their guest quarters in other parts of the castle.  Kiluron rose to go, and Ihona and Doil did the same.

               “Well, thank you for a lovely conversation,” Doil said, backing towards Kiluron and offering Princess Ihona a bow.  “Your knowledge of world literature is truly impressive.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must take my leave.”

               “Oh, but must you go?” Ihona protested.

               “I’m afraid that I must,” Doil affirmed, sharing the briefest of looks with Kiluron.  “However, I am certain that my lord Kiluron will be happy to see to your needs for the evening.”  He bowed again, and then slipped through a servant’s exit and disappeared.

               Kiluron resisted the urge to mutter aloud about his servant’s good fortune.  Instead, he smiled at Princess Ihona, and offered a court bow.  “Of course, Princess.  Shall I walk you back to your rooms?”

               “Yes, thank you,” she replied.  She looked about warily.  “Is he really gone?”

               Kiluron furrowed his brow.  “Doil?  Yes.  Why?”

               “Oh, thank goodness,” Princess Ihona said, appeared relieved.  “If I had to make up one more thing about dead playwrights, I think I might have gone insane.”

               “Doil does get rather enthusiastic at times,” Kiluron agreed.  He wondered what Ihona’s game was.  He knew that Doil would not have kept talking without her encouraging him; perhaps she didn’t understand just how well he knew Doil.  Yet he could not imagine what purpose it would serve for her to intentionally ignore him for the entire dinner, and then pretend that she hadn’t been doing so at all.  “I’m afraid I’m not much for literary conversation, either.”

               Looking sideways at him, Ihona smiled slyly.  “What do you like to talk about?”

               “Nothing you’d care to hear about, I suspect,” Kiluron admitted.  “Swords, mostly.  Soldiering.  If I weren’t Sub-Prime, I would have tried to join the castle guard.  If Guardcaptain Vere would have had me.”

               They walked then in silence, with Ihona stealing occasional glances in Kiluron’s direction.  For his part, he walked stiffly, with his hands clasped behind him, and tried not to feel awkward.  There was something unnatural about Ihona.  Well, not unnatural, exactly.  Artificial, perhaps.  Everything she said seemed like it was part of an agenda, quite hidden from Kiluron.  Perhaps Doil would have some insight; he would have to find him after he dropped Ihona at her rooms.  Kiluron was relieved when they finally reached them.

               “Here you are,” he said, gesturing gallantly at the door.  “I hope that you had a lovely evening.  I shall see you in the morning?”

               “I greatly look forward to it,” Ihona answered, offering a curtsey.  She held out her hand expectantly.

               Awkwardly, Kiluron kissed it, as was expected.  Ihona flushed slightly, and then hurriedly disappeared into her rooms, leaving Kiluron to go see if Doil had any better understanding of what was going on than he did.

               He found Doil right where he had expected to find him, quietly reading in Kiluron’s study.  It was only Kiluron’s in name; he tried to avoid studying whenever possible.  After all, he had Doil for such things.

               “So,” Kiluron said, leaning against the doorframe.

               Doil looked up from his book.  “So?” he asked.  Shadows danced in the room from the soft lantern light.

               Kiluron nodded.  “So.  That was a thing.”

               Gently, Doil laid a ribbon across the page of his book, and closed it, setting it gently on the desk.  “I take it that Princess Ihona was not nearly so enthralled by our literary conversation as she wished us to believe?”

               “How did you know?” Kiluron asked.

               “Le Delevit don Qontun isn’t a play.  It’s Vornun’s only known novel, out of a folio of plays,” Doil explained.  “So what does she want?”

               “I was hoping you could tell me.”  Kiluron sighed.  “I hate politics.”  Even if he was genuinely intrigued now.  That was a bother.

               “Considering that you are, by definition, a politician, that’s perhaps not the best perspective,” Doil observed.  “However, if I had to guess, she wants to marry you.”

               Kiluron coughed.  He had been halfway across the room to the pitcher, and was glad that he hadn’t taken a drink yet.  “Excuse me?”

               Fighting a smile at Kiluron’s reaction, Doil nodded.  “It makes sense.  Ebereen needs a solid alliance with Merolate, and the most historically consistent and reliable way of accomplishing that is a marriage between heirs.”

               Frowning, Kiluron held up a hand.  “But there’s a flaw in your logic.  Why would she have spent the whole dinner ignoring me if she wanted to marry me?  That hardly seems like the way to woo someone.  Shouldn’t she be paying attention to me?”

               “Jealous?” Doil asked.  “Seems to me like it’s working exactly how she intended it to.”

               Kiluron grimaced.  “Point taken.”  He paused.  “How do I get her to stop?  I don’t want to marry her.”  When Doil just smiled, Kiluron sank into a chair.  “Seriously, Doil.  Help?”

               “Have you talked to Guardcaptain Vere recently?” Doil asked.

               Kiluron blinked.  “Um, this morning?”

               “Apparently, my ‘sister’ went and had a little conversation with him this evening, while we were at dinner,” Doil explained.  “Turns out my suspicions were correct.”

               “Suspicions?  What suspicions?  What does your sister have to do with any of this?” Kiluron asked.

               “Well, namely that she’s not actually my sister,” Doil remarked.  “She’s Princess Ihona’s personal bodyguard and an Ebereen spy.  Guardcaptain Vere will be having a conversation with Prime Wezzix tomorrow morning, and I suspect that afterwards there won’t be any need for you to marry Princess Ihona.”

               “We’re going to throw them out?” Kiluron asked.  That would be exciting.  There were few opportunities to actually throw a diplomatic delegation out of the castle.

               Doil shook his head.  “No, I suspect that we’re going to make an alliance with them. Just without them needing to give up their princess in marriage.  Which was likely a backup plan for them all along, anyway.”

               “Oh.”  Kiluron settled back in a chair, grinned at Doil’s grimace when he put his feet up on the desk, and sighed.  “Whatever would I do without you, Doil?”

               Doil smirked.  “I suspect you’d do the same thing you do with me.  Which would be a problem, without me.”

               “Ha.  Well, thanks.”  Kiluron rose from the chair, and with some relief retired for the night.

               A week later, the Ebereen delegation left Merolate, along with a dozen of Guardcaptain Vere’s best officers, as well as a handful of smiths to share the most advanced metallurgy techniques available.  This time, at least, Kiluron was on time, and he stood beside Doil at Merolate’s gates, watching the delegation prepare to depart.  Ironically enough, after Ihona had stopped trying to arrange a union for herself with Kiluron, she had actually become quite personable, and Kilruon was somewhat sorry to see her go.

               “I’m glad to have met you, Kiluron,” Princess Ihona said, leaving her delegation to its preparations to approach where he and Doil were standing.  She hesitated a moment, then gave him a warm hug, which he awkwardly returned.  “Knowing that you’ll be ruler of Merolate one day, when I’m ruling Ebereen, makes me feel a lot better about the world I’ll have to deal with.  At least I know I’ll have at least one friend out there.”

               “That’ll be the day,’ Kiluron agreed.  “Take care.”

               “You too,” Ihona said, and returned to her delegation.

               “You know, I like her a lot more when she’s not trying to make me like her,” Kiluron observed to Doil, crossing his arms and watching her being to ride through the gate.

               Doil chuckled.  “Funny how that works.  Regretting that you’re not marrying her, after all?”

               “No!” Kiluron exclaimed, but quickly quieted when Borivat looked at him curiously.  “No.  That’s not what I meant at all.”

               “Of course, my lord,” Doil agreed.

               “Say, what about that woman who claimed to be your sister?  Shouldn’t she be leaving, too?” Kiluron asked.

               Doil shook his head.  “She’ll doubtless join them later.  It wouldn’t be considered polite for her to join them now.”

               “Oh, of course not.  Even though we all know who she is and why she’s here.”  Kiluron shook his head.  “I hate politics.”  In this instance, he actually meant it.  That kind of posturing seemed terribly silly.

               “Whatever you say, my lord,” Doil said.  He paused.  “You know, I’ve heard it said that violence is just politics by other means.”

               “Bah,” Kiluron exclaimed, and together they rode back to the castle.

The end of Blood Magic S1:E3: Thicker Than Blood. 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 April 30th, 2020.

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