Dry heat, like from a hot forge suddenly opened to the air, washed over Darphon as he descended the rough stone corridor.  It was dark, oppressively dark, and the corridor was vast, so that in truth he was not even certain how high it might go, although he had walked back and forth between the walls to determined how wide it was.  The hot air billowing up from the depths smelled of age, a sort of oddly spicey, dusty tone that sparkled in his nostrils; to him, it smelled a little bit like home.  His soft rabbit skin shoes were nearly silent as he strode, but the slightest of sounds echoed hugely in the deep, underground space that led all the way to the very heart of the mountain.

               In places the way became steep and treacherous, and though the space was still large he would himself be clinging to only a narrow shelf or lip of rock, threading his way down roughly carven stairways that twisted back and forth through great slots within the mountain’s structure.  Always it went down, down, deeper and deeper.  Though he was surrounded entirely by rock and knew of no other living things that dared to dwell in that place, Darphon could not entirely suppress the overbearing, timeless sense of the halls he walked.  There was a heaviness, a temporal heaviness that had little to do with the huge monument of stone that towered far above him and all around him.  Through it all, the summons thrummed in his mind.

               As far as he knew, he was the only human to ever trod in those places; the steps and stairways that he used had been created for him, summoned straight from the stone by powers greater and more ancient than he could fathom.  It seemed more than he deserved, but Darphon had no illusions about personal merit entering into the considerations of his guardians.  Whatever had prompted them to succor him when he had been a toddler, lost and wandering alone on the frigid mountain slopes with a storm closing in, he would likely never understand; even after so many years, his guardians’ motivations and reasons were inscrutable.  They simply did not think in the same ways he did.

               Regardless, they had sheltered him from the storm, and raised him, teaching him the ways of the mountains and in the process a little of their own identities and histories.  A little it had to be, for one of the few things of which he was certain was that his guardians were profoundly, unimaginably old.  Older, perhaps, than the very existence of humans, on Lufilna or otherwise.  Nor were they old in the sense that their species was old; they were themselves that many centuries and millennia old.  They had no spoken language, for they communicated telepathically, but they had translated as best they could their name for themselves into terms Darphon could understand: Gruordvwrold.  It meant roughly “world-guardians,” but even that was a gross approximation.  In some way, the Gruordvwrold were the world.

               Deeper and deeper beneath the mountains Darphon travelled along, feeling the expanding presence of the Gruordvwrold in his mind.  His furs, perfectly suited for the cold mountaintops and piney slopes, became stifling, and the leather thong that held his knife against his thigh chafed from his sweat.  The knife was a beautiful piece, given to him by the Gruordvwrold when they had taught him a little of the ways of Balance; though it felt and looked like stone, it cut better than steel, and needed no sharpening nor honing.  It was a relief when the passage at last leveled out, for that meant that Darphon grew close to the end of his pilgrimage, his journey to the very hearts of the mountains, where dwelt the Gruordvwrold.

               At the end of the passage was a huge opening that leaned out over an enormous chasm that shot in infinite darkness apparently straight down to the center of the world, though the Gruordvwrold insisted that it did not; Darphon himself had never seen the bottom, nor, for that matter, had he ever seen a Gruordvwrold.  Only rarely had he been summoned within the mountains to stand on this stony perch high above where, somewhere in the infinite darkness below, the Gruordvwrold were nestled.  The darkness was so complete that he knew where to stand only by their direction, and he thought at times that he could sense the void around him, and especially gaping below him, like a visceral substance.  He had never heard a fallen stone crack against the bottom.

               “Be not afraid, Manling,”spoke a voice from out of that depth into Darphon’s mind.  “Think thee after we succored thee, that we would allow thee to come to harm here in our own home?

               “No, no, of course not,” Darphon stammered.  He dropped to his knees.  “I’m deeply sorry for my foolishness.”

               A rumbling, perhaps the Gruordvwrold version of a good-natured chuckled, seemed to arise from the chasm.  “Apologies are not necessary, Manling.  But now, take heed.  There is much to consider.

               Darphon nodded, not even considering that the motion would almost certainly be invisible in the darkness.  There seemed an odd hesitation before the Gruordvwrold spoke again.  “There is a task which completed must be.  Only after great consideration do we ask of thee if thou will aid us in this matter, but the danger becomes ever greater.  Our old enemies exist, the Ipemavs, and they seek again our subjugation, but weaker we yet are than of old we were.

               “I don’t understand,” Darphon replied, his voice trembling.  There had been a note of fear in the Gruordvwrold’s voice, and that alone was enough to nearly set him to panicking; he could not imagine what could frighten such powerful beings.  “But I’ll help however I can.”

               “Danger there will be unto thee: beware.  Beyond these mountains we can little aid thee.  And far beyond these mountains must thou travel if thou would render this aid unto us.  Unto the city of Merolate must thou go, into the very heart of the castle that the manlings have there erected, wherein there is a vault.  From this vault thou must take and return unto us the Heliblode.”  Here an image of a large, globe-like object, jet black and shot through with streaks of red, as if the black shell were around a molten core straining to escape, was projected into Darphon’s mind, and he marveled.  “Only with the strength of the Heliblode might we parry again the strength of the Ipemavs.

               Only slowly did the implications of this request work through Darphon’s brain, but he was no less incredulous and overwhelmed for the process when he finally understood.  “You want me to steal something from the Merolate vault?” he asked.  “But…but that’s one of the most heavily guarded places in the world!  And it’s many many days’ journey from here.  And…and I don’t even know the way!”

               Sadness and concern came from the Gruordvwrold, but also comfort.  “We will help thee in this task as far as we may, and indeed compared to the manlings we are yet strong in might and wisdom.  And know that we would not ask it of thee of another option there were.  Yet even in this extremity of our danger, we will not force this duty upon thee; it must be freely undertaken, as is our way.  Wilt thou aid us, Manling Darphon?

               There were far more reasons to decline than to accept, and Darphon could easily list many without even turning his thoughts too closely to the task, but he found himself nodding in agreement.  “Yes, I will help you however I can,” Darphon promised.  The idea of something being a threat to the Gruordvwrold, who he had thought at times might be some kind of gods come down to Lufilna, was enough to convince him that the risks were justified, if it would give these magnificent beings a fighting chance against whatever incredible danger it was that they faced.  Besides, his life was theirs, anyway, ever since they had saved him from certain death.

               “This is good.  If thou succeeds in this endeavor we of the Gruordvwrold will be in thine debt.” A satisfied rumble rose from the chasm.  “Preparations as may be needful thou shall make for an imminent departure, but first let us tell thee of the plans we have made to enable thine journey and thine ultimate success.  Thou shall journey from these, the Uir Mountains, unto the south and the east, until thou comest to that land which manlings name Merolate, but be wary on the path, and go not near the city of the Ipemavs.  Thou shall come unto the city named Merolate with the coming of the dying of the year, when the ways of Balance are most potent, at which time a great feast is held in the castle of the manling rulers.  Poison shall we prepare that thou may administer in the kitchen, that all present at the castle may be induced to slumber whilst thou accomplishes thine retrieval.  Administer poison also to the bread, that the officers of the guard may be affected, and a greater concentration to the one called Vere, for he hast resistance to many poisons beyond that of other manlings.  With the teachings we have granted unto thee of the ways of balance, thou shalt not have difficulties accessing the vault.  With thee in thy journey shall we be, until thou reach the city of Merolate, for there are adjacent to it manlings trained in the ways of Balance, to whom we at this time care not to reveal our existence, lest they be made slaves to the Ipemavs.

               Further details poured forth into Darphon’s mind, so that it seemed in flash of lightning he had gained knowledge and understanding far beyond what any manling had ever approached; then the presence of the Gruordvwrold receded, and his mind was his own once again.  He bowed several times to the chasm, despite what the Gruordvwrold thought of the gesture’s utility, and then hurried back along the passage down which he had come to return to the sweet, fresh, open air of the mountaintops.  No matter what the Gruordvwrold offered as reassurance, he found in his heart that he did not believe he would ever return to again look upon the beauty of his home.

               Most people complained about the long, cold, damp, rainy autumns in Merolate, and considered the coming of winter to be something of a relief, since it was at least finally dry, a state which seemed at times almost forgotten in the dreary autumn even ensconced in Merolate’s great stone castle, but not Doil; he thought the dreary weather, combined with the shorter days, was perfect for extensive time curled up in a cozy study with at least two thick books for company.  This year, when the solstice finally came, it was still humid, misty, and dropping semi-frozen water from the sky in unpleasant emphasis to every muttered imprecation against the dismal environment, and Doil savored the climate and wished only to tuck himself away and read.

               Unfortunately, he had responsibilities, and he was not the kind of person to shirk them, even if this was rather inauspicious weather in which to hold a ball.  Ironically, the continuing dreariness seemed to have made most people even more excited about the upcoming festivities: roaring fires, well-kept ballrooms, everyone nicely snug inside, decked out in fancy clothes, celebrating the coming of another winter, and keeping out the darkness of the longest nights of the year with their gaiety.  Of course, that assumed a fondness for balls that Doil lacked, but his obligations were inescapable; Kiluron would never survive one of these events without Doil there to whisper names and brief biographies into his ear.

               It seemed interesting to Doil that their celebrations and holidays were still based upon the reckoning of the Blood Empire, though of course the Blood Empire’s holidays had existed long before its rise; they were tied to what the Balancers claimed were the holy days of the year: the two equinoxes, when the entire cosmos was most in balance, and the two solstices, which together formed a balance with each other.  Then again, for all he knew people had been celebrating those dates long before the Balancer religion had even existed; it was a funny thing how cultures seemed to borrow and adapt from each other, or develop along completely disparate lines and still come to the same place.

               Under the Union, each of the four holidays was still celebrated, though few now remembered the religious significance that the days held to the Balancers, but only the winter solstice was celebrated with a great festival of sorts.  Feasts were held all around the city, lamps burned from dark on the night of the solstice until dawn three days hence, and nearly the entire nobility of the Union converged upon the city for an event that was officially designated a ball, but was in reality more of an extended exhibition, primarily of the nobility’s youth.  Sons would duel or compose poems, daughters would paint or dance, and generally a lot of posturing would go on that Doil found vaguely amusing, especially given the nature of Merolate’s nobility.

               Borivat had taught him that in the kingdom of Rovis, and in the old kingdoms that have become the Merolate provinces, the nobility were those individuals that had been granted lands in return for the loyalty they swore to the king.  Those nobles had great power and influence, and jockeyed continually for positions of influence to increase their fortunes and their ability to access the king, and thereby presumably further their own political ends.  Yet in the modern Merolate Union, the noble houses were more of a holdover, since the provinces and all of their lands were controlled by the governors, who were more or less loyal to the Prime, and neither the governorships nor the role of Prime was an hereditary one.  Nobility in modern Merolate, therefore, was composed of those who had been landed nobles before the advent of the Union, and had retained titles, along with significant wealth, despite no longer having positions of any formal political power.

               The whole system seemed rather odd to Doil, and he had been forced to write several essays on the subject before Borivat was satisfied with his understanding.  In his final essay on the topic, Doil had hypothesized that the ancestral nobility would eventually be replaced by the rising merchant class, which would probably make for a very different kind of Winter Ball; Borivat had answered him in an essay of his own, which concluded that the old advisor to the Prime hoped not to live to see the day that those ‘uncivilized upstarts’ were considered to be of a type with the traditional nobility.

               Regardless, it was still expected that the Prime, and by extension the Sub-Prime, know the names and histories of all the nobility who would be in attendance at the annual Winter Ball, which was why Doil was sitting in a dimly lit room with lists and genealogical tables laid out before him.  Kiluron was sitting there too, but he was paying very little attention to the stack of family trees before him, and instead was gazing distantly out the window, into the dreary damp.

               “Why can’t we just have some crisp, snowy weather?” he asked, breaking the silence that had stretched almost since they had come to start studying.  “I could really go for a ride in the snow right now, with my breath steaming up in front of me like I’m a dragon or something…”

               Though he tried to keep his expression patient, Doil could not entirely stifle an exasperated sigh.  “My lord, is this really the time to be day-dreaming?  There are a lot of nobles to study yet, and many of them are here already; everyone will be here by tomorrow.  And I was the one who answered almost all of Borivat’s questions this morning.

               “Which is exactly why I have you,” Kiluron replied, sticking his boots up on the table and reclining with his hands clasped over his head.  “You can just whisper in my ear who I’m supposed to be talking to, and everything will be fine.  Seriously, you worry too much.  Why are you even still studying?  You could probably name all of these dead guys in your sleep.”

               “I’m fairly comfortable with the current primarily nobility, and their spouses,” Doil agreed, “but I’m woefully behind when it comes to their children, their cousins, and all of the various side-houses, not to mention who is allied with whom, and why, and which ones are sympathetic to the Prime, and which ones are sympathetic to which governors, and…”

               Kiluron interrupted him.  “Alright, alright.  Go ahead and keep studying then, if you think it’s so important.  I’m going to go find something productive to do.”

               Feeling his face tighten, Doil forced himself to take a deep breath.  “My lord, the Winter Ball starts tomorrow.  The most important thing you can be doing right now is preparing for it.”

               “And I will be preparing for,” Kiluron retorted.  “I’ll be preparing for it by finding ways to avoid it.  You know I don’t go in for politics.”

               It was a patently ridiculous statement, but Doil just sighed, and resigned himself to his work, while Kiluron left yet again to go galivanting about the castle.  Despite sometimes being oblivious, Doil knew that Kiluron really was quite skilled at politics; that was why he could get away with not studying the noble houses and still be seen as personable and capable.  He probably wouldn’t even need Doil to be feeding him all of this information that Doil was working so hard to memorize during the ball.  None of that stopped Doil from continuing to read, and trying not to resent Kiluron’s negligent attitude.  He was not entirely successful.

               Honestly, Kiluron wasn’t exactly certain why he was so dreading the annual Winter Ball.  As much as he would never admit it to anyone else, he actually enjoyed formal events like the Ball; there was something about everyone being dressed up in formal attire, in an elegant setting, and the interplay of conversations, double-meanings, hints and asides, the undertext of every conversation, the subtle tugs and pushes and tells, the way people bubbled up and interacted like some kind of alchemical reaction – all of it came together and normally excited him.  Yet this year, he felt restless, superfluous, out-of-place.  It was like all of a sudden he had become an imposter, not fit to talk in the same circles as the real leaders and nobility of the Union.  Maybe it was just the weather – he hated being cooped up inside for too long – but he could not stop feeling unsettled.

               Despite his discomfort, he carefully dressed himself in his most polished clothes, with the sigil of the Sub-Prime discretely but elegantly emblazoned upon his breast, his boots polished nearly as well as his ceremonial saber and the pins holding tucked his cuffs.  Doil and Borivat and even Prime Wezzix could think of him what they wanted; he wasn’t negligent about his duties.  Well, maybe he sometimes was, but he always came through when it mattered.  Checking himself in the mirror one last time, he adjusted his saber at his hip, slipped on his white gloves, the ones he had insisted be made textured on the palms and fingers so that he could still grip his sword if need be, nodded to himself, and strode from his chambers.

               Like him, the floors of the castle had been swept and watered and, where appropriate, polished.  The chandeliers, statues, and portraits had been dusted, the tapestries and rugs had been washed, tables and chairs in abundance had been set out, and the larder had been stocked to bursting.  With some of those tasks Kiluron had contributed his own labor, much to the discomfiture of the servants, who seemed oddly dismayed that the Sub-Prime himself would help with their work.  There had especially been one servant in the kitchens when Kiluron had been helping there who had seemed convinced that Kiluron would somehow poison all of the food with his “help.”  That didn’t make sense to Kiluron; it seemed to him that the servants were the ones doing all the real work to make the event happen, and that the most useful thing he could be doing was helping them.  Vere’s palace guard had scoured the entire castle and its many rooms for whatever threats their leader imagined could be hiding in an unused turret; Kiluron had helped with that, too.

               Each guest who was staying at the castle, which was most of them since most came from outside the city, had been designated a room, and the guest list had been checked and rechecked a dozen times at least to ensure that everyone who was anyone had been given due diligence; it wouldn’t do to offer slight by accidentally leaving someone off of the invitation list to Merolate’s most significant annual event.  In those matters, Kiluron had been less active; he would spend plenty of time with the guests during the Ball, and felt no need to do so beforehand.  The guest lists of nobility and governors alone was probably longer than a hundred people.

               Before entering the ballroom, Kiluron collected Doil, who was standing in a corner where he seemed to be attempting to blend in with the decorative plants, looking like he would have preferred to be anywhere else.  His expression was noticeably relieved when he noticed Kiluron heading towards him, which Kiluron couldn’t be sure if it was because Doil had thought he might not show up, or if he was just glad to have Kiluron to do most of the talking for the evening.  For reasons Kiluron could never understand, Doil would have preferred to miss out on all of the festivities and hide somewhere with a good book, though he looked affronted whenever Kiluron tried to encourage him to find a corner to do just that.

               “Ready?” Kiluron preempted Doil, puffing out his chest and fiddling once more with his cuffs.  He felt ready, energetic; that feeling, at least, hadn’t left along with his usual enthusiasm for this event.

               “As ready as I’m going to be,” Doil replied, his mouth working as if he were resisting the urge to chew on his lip, or perhaps had bitten into a sour grape.

               With Doil a half step behind him and to the left, as was proper, Kiluron strolled to the ballroom doors, where he winked at the Merolate guardsman in full dress uniform, who gave him a salute before opening the doors to the ballroom and announcing him in proper fashion, which of course everyone who was inside mostly ignored.  Kiluron gave the man another nod, and then plunged into the waiting alchemical reaction of human beings.

               “Now, we need to make sure that we greet all of the province governors, as well as Lady Persh, Lord Flid…” Doil began to whisper, but Kiluron interrupted him.

               “Doil, I know who I need to talk to,” he said.  “Can’t you just relax?  It’s supposed to be a festival, not a military interrogation.”

               Though he still appeared uncomfortable, Doil subsided, and Kiluron guided them around the room, making a line straight towards the center before turning to the left to go around the inner perimeter, where the most important personages would likely be congregated.  Then they were in the thick of greetings.

               “Ah, Governor Brut, a pleasure that you could join us.  How is your wife this year?  Pregnant again?  Hasn’t that been every year since as long as I can remember?”

               “Governor Swix, how did your olive crop fare this year?  I know you were concerned about it when you visited early this past summer.”

               “Lord Flid!  No, I don’t think there are going to be any more dragon attacks.  How can I be so sure?  Well, let’s just say I had a hand in defeating the beasts myself.”

               Doil tugged on his sleeve after that one.  “If I recall, you lay against a wall after getting blasted by magic.  And they weren’t actually dragons, they were demons summoned through a perversion of the opthamalogical balance…”

               Kiluron sighed.  “Well, I don’t see any Blood Priests around to contradict me, so I think I deserve some credit.  Besides, it’ll do Lord Flid good to know that his Sub-Prime is out there boldly defending the land against all kinds of dangers.”

               With a sigh, Doil provided the next name, and around the room they went again.

               “Lady Persh, what a pleasant surprise.  I haven’t seen you here for years.  What brings you so far from your quiet estate?”

               “Lord Licus, what did you do to your hair?  You look like Doil here did after we fought the dragons!”

               “Lady Fela, so glad you could come.  I would love to hear more about your ideas for importing horses from Nycheril to improve our own lines.”  He did not add that he found it disturbing that she bred her own family members as coldly as she bred her horses.  It wasn’t really something the others chose to acknowledge, so long as she continued to provide Merolate with the best horses south of the Unclaimed Territories.

               “Governor Klippi, I do hope you appreciated the additional ships.  Have you had any further problems with pirates since they arrived?  No?  Convenient, that, very convenient.  Nasty business, pirates.  Would have loved to have come myself to lend my sword.  Maybe next time.  Not that I’m hoping there’s a next time.”

               Kiluron turned around and almost ran into Governor Parl.  “Ah, Governor Parl, I didn’t see you there,” Kiluron said, swallowing his tongue before he made a glib comment.  He could get away with that with most of the nobles, and even with some of the other governors, but not Parl.  He was far too much of a stickler.  “I’m so glad you were able to join us this year.”

               “An unfortunate necessity, I suppose,” Parl agreed.  “I would prefer to focus on more…practical matters, but unfortunately my position demands that I cannot entirely ignore national politics.”

               Maybe Kiluron would have felt more sympathetic, if not for the sour way in which Parl was looking at him.  Still, he managed a suitably conspiratorial grimace.  “I understand.  Felt the same way myself, going into this.”  Or at least, he had not felt entirely comfortable with the festivities.  Close enough for politics.

               Parl looked at him curiously.  “Intriguing.  Perhaps I judged you too soon.”  He raised his glass.  “Good day, Sub-Prime Kiluron.”

               “And you, General,” Kiluron replied in kind.  When Parl had disappeared into the crowd, he turned to Doil.  “Did I just make amends with Parl, of all people?  That man is famous for holding a grudge.”

               “I believe you did, my lord,” Doil agreed.

               On and on it went as Kiluron swirled through the room, and his initial feelings of discomfort mostly dissipated, or were at least submerged beneath the constant press of conversation.  There really was something enjoyable about juggling a dozen different conversations and histories as he moved from person to person in a room and tried to make every one of them end the conversation convinced that they were the most important person that Kiluron would talk to that evening, that Kiluron was the best possible person to be serving as Sub-Prime, and that loyalty to Prime Wezzix was the best thing for all involved.  Even so, he found himself hoping that Wezzix would formally welcome everyone soon, so that he would have a chance to finally sit down and eat dinner.

               “You know, you don’t have to act like this is horrible for you, just because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do,” Doil remarked.  “This seems like the sort of thing you’d enjoy.”

               “It’s politics,” Kiluron replied.  “What are you talking about?  You know I hate politics.”  Politics was such a poor word, with unpleasant implications.  Kiluron preferred to think of what he was doing as simply building relationships.

               Doil sighed.  “You say you hate politics, but you love talking to people, and you love finding ways to talk them into doing what you want.  Which is basically politics.”

               “No it’s not.  It’s just talking,” Kiluron replied.  He wasn’t about to admit that Doil might have a point, although he probably did.  With a sigh, Kiluron returned to greeting another round of lords and ladies.

               After even more time spent circulating the room, a reprieve at last arrived in the form of Prime Wezzix ascending to the head of the room and calling for everyone’s attention.  Kiluron turned to face him, just as everyone else had, but he was covertly watching the faces of those around him for their reactions.  Doubtless everyone else was doing the same.

               “Governors, Lords and Ladies, citizens of Merolate,” Prime Wezzix began.  His voice, while strong for oratory, was more suited to handing out verdicts than it was to making speeches at a party.  He sounded like he was about to make some legal declaration, not greet everyone at a festival.  “Welcome to the annual Winter Ball.  My Sub-Prime and I are pleased and honored to welcome so many distinguished persons into our home with whom to share these festivities.  We have, truly, accomplished a great deal this year, and I have every confidence that we will continue to accomplish much in the year to come.  A united Merolate is a strong Merolate, and a strong Merolate is a prosperous Merolate, for all of us.  So as you are joined here, eating, and drinking, and dancing, I hope that you will renew old ties and make new ones.  It is the people that makes our nation work, and this truly is all about the people.”  He paused.  “Now, being the only barrier between you and dinner, it hardly seems to be the most opportune time for me to wax eloquent in some grandiose speech, so I will conclude.  I hope that I will have a chance to speak with each and every one of you over the next four days.  Let the festivities commence.”

               Doil nodded.  “Well spoken, as always,” he observed.

               “Yes, well, only Wezzix could manage to make ‘let the festivities commence’ sound like the reading of some new decree about taxes or trade routes.”  Kiluron guided them towards a table on the edge of the room, where they would have a good view on most of the other tables and happenings in the great hall.  “When I’m Prime, I’ll make sure there’s a clear difference between a decree and a party.”

               Doil waited for Kiluron to sit before seating himself; he was allowed to eat with the Sub-Prime at this event, just as he would be able to once he was an advisor.  “I thought you didn’t like this event, anyway.”

               “I – it’s complicated,” Kiluron admitted.  “But part of that is because of the way it’s a party, but not a party.  Who wants to have a party where important things are going to happen?  Takes all the fun out of it.”

               “My lord, there are very sound, practical reasons for accomplishing business in tandem with pleasure, or at least in a more personable, relaxed atmosphere,” Doil explained.  “When people are more relaxed, they tend to be more amicable, and more amenable to suggestion and cooperation.  That’s why merchants are so fond of conducting their negotiations over a meal.  It lowers the barriers and makes everything go more smoothly.  Think of the Ball as the extended version of a business lunch.”

               “Doil?” Kiluron said around a mouthful of bread.

               “Yes, my lord?”

               “I think you managed to make the Ball sound even more boring and dry than Wezzix did.  And I didn’t think that was possible.” Kiluron looked up as someone else approached the table.

               “Sub-Prime Kiluron, would you mind if we join you?  The other tables are filling up quite rapidly, and I would hate to miss out on the scrumptious dinner I’m sure will soon appear.”  The voice belonged to a middle-aged lord, who was leaning on a cane and was accompanied by his wife, and another, younger woman who appeared to be their daughter.

               Kiluron rose immediately, although protocol did not technically require him to do so, and gestured expansively at the open seats.  “Please, sit.  Doil and I would be pleased to share your company.”

               When everyone had seated themselves, Kiluron glanced meaningfully at Doil, who managed to somehow convey an impression of rolling his eyes, without actually rolling them, before scribbling a quick note and passing it to Kiluron beneath the table.  The note said “Lord Cirkos and Lady Deluni, with their daughter Lady Fetrina.”  The name seemed familiar, but Kiluron couldn’t place it.  So did the cane, for that matter.

               “So, Lord Cirkos, how has the year treated you?” Kiluron asked.  The servers were arriving with the first course.  “Well, I hope?”

               “Well enough, I suppose,” Cirkos agreed.  “This wet weather makes my leg ache something fierce, of course, but that’s nothing new.  The mines have been productive, as usual.  Nothing spectacular, but none of the important numbers are down, and that’s good enough for me.”  He looked around.  “Is Guardcaptain Vere around?  I was hoping I might snag him for a few moments, before he slipped away.  I know he loves to lurk around the shadows of these events.  Makes him feel important.”

               “Guardcaptain Vere?” Kiluron asked.  “I haven’t seen him, although that’s not surprising, if he doesn’t want to be seen.  He’s been training me in the sword, recently.”

               Cirkos snorted.  “Clever of him, trying to make his own job easier down the road.”

               “How do you know Vere?” Kiluron asked.  “I mean, it seems like everyone knows of Vere, but you act like you know him personally.”

               “That’s because I do,” Cirkos agreed.  “I served with him years ago.  Border skirmishes with Rovis and the tribes in the Unclaimed Territories.  I was a captain when Vere joined up.  Seemed to appear out of nowhere, already more skilled than veterans who had served a half a dozen tours.  I convinced him to sign up for an expeditionary detachment with me, heading to the unexplored territories in Nycheril.  The trip wound up being a disaster.  Most of the detachment was killed, and that’s where I hurt my leg.  Minor wound, really, clean break, but it got infected something fierce and never healed right.  Vere got me and a few others of us out of there, somehow.  A lot of the coastal tribes are fairly peaceful, fisher types, but not when you get into the interior.  Those people are savages responding to a savage environment.”  His wife gave him a look, and he grimaced.  “Sorry.  That was a rather long-winded answer to your question.  You probably don’t care about an old veteran’s war stories.”

               “I think it’s fascinating,” Kiluron said.

               “That’s because you’ve never seen war,” a voice said from behind Kiluron.  “I think it left out the most colorful bits, like the time I single-handedly fought off a giant serpent.  Single-handed, because the natives insisted that for the ritual I had to have one hand tied behind my back.  And be blindfolded.”

               Cirkos was rising to his feet, grinning, before Kiluron had finished spinning his head around to find Vere looming over him.  “Vere, you rascal.  I still say you made that whole story up.”

               “And I say you were delirious at the time, so really, whose word is more reliable here?” Vere countered.  “I’m not the one who claimed to have escaped a Rovis prison using a rusty spoon.”

               “Care for a drink?” Cirkos offered, not evening bothering to refute or assert a thing about his supposed spoon-related escape efforts.

               Vere shook his head and gestured to his sword.  “Some of us are actually working.  Speaking of which…” he trailed off, and when Kiluron looked around to see what he was about to finish saying, Vere was nowhere in sight.

               “A spoon?” Kiluron asked, when Cirkos has finished laughing.

               Cirkos waved that away.  “Long story.  And not nearly as exciting as Vere made it sound.  Also, not really appropriate for the dinner table, I’m afraid.”

               “Alright,” Kiluron agreed, “but I hope I’ll have a chance to hear it someday, or at least to hear the short version.”

               “Fair enough.”  Cirkos glanced backwards towards the center of the room.  In the course of their conversations, dinner had finished, and the orchestra had begun to play; couples were now whirling about the dance floor.  “Lord Kiluron, would you object if I left the pleasure of your company for the pleasure of a dance or three with my wife?”

               “Not at all,” Kiluron assured him, the awkward sense he had felt before the ball returning in full force.  Usually, he could forget that his station put him higher than even a lord like Cirkos, despite the other man’s significantly greater age and experience.

               Cirkos and Deluni whirled off to the dance floor that had been cleared in the center of the room, leaving Kiluron at the table with Doil and their daughter, Fetrina.  She watched them go for a few moments, then rummaged with something beneath the table, eventually producing a book, which she began to read.

               Kiluron glanced from the book, to Doil, and back to the book.  “Doil, is that a poetry book?”

               Doil raised an eyebrow.  “No, my lord, it is not a book of poetry,” he whispered in kind.

               “Reading anything interesting?” Kiluron asked Fetrina.

               Fetrina looked at him over the top of her book.  “Yes, actually.  It’s called Wreret’s Treatise on An Evidence-Based Approach to Natural Philosophy.  I had to look for ages before I found a copy.”  She paused in mid-thought.  “Are you actually interested, or were you just asking to be polite?”

               “Er, please, go on,” Kiluron said, resisting the urge to share a look with Doil, who was probably laughing hysterically with his eyes at the neat little trap he had laid for Kiluron.

               “Really?  Okay.”  Fetrina took a deep breath.  “Well, it’s part of this new rational philosophy movement.  I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, but basically it’s the idea that we don’t need superstition or religion or magic or anything like that to explain the world around us.  Instead, it posits that everything around us acts according to certain principles that are unchanging and universal, and that it is possible to understand those principles by performing experiments, that is, by gathering evidence in a repeatable fashion about how things actually work.”

               Kiluron hesitated.  He could converse with governors all evening long, but now in conversation with one young woman he found himself completely at a loss for something diplomatic to say.  “Um, I hate to burst your bubble, because you’re clearly very excited about this, but I have definitely encountered magic.”

               Fetrina shook her head.  “No you haven’t.”

               “No, I definitely have,” Kiluron insisted, though he suspected that he ought to just let the topic go.  “Lots of glowing lights and energy getting thrown around and Doil would probably want me to say something about optham something.”

               “Opthamalogical balance,” Doil supplied helpfully.

               “Right, that,” Kiluron continued.  “Also demons.  They were very real.  Killed an acquaintance of mine, actually.  Doesn’t get much more real than that.”

               Fetrina held up a finger.  “Doesn’t mean it’s magic.  What you’re calling magic is just a manifestation of a principle or principles of natural philosophy that haven’t yet been adequately explained through experimentation.”

               Kiluron held up his hand, opened his mouth, and closed it again, lowering his hand.  He glanced at Doil.  “Uh, any help here?”

               Doil flushed slightly.  “Actually, my lord, I happen to agree with Lady Fetrina.  I’m not entirely convinced that everything can be explained, universally, using the new rational philosophy ideas, but I do believe the philosophy has a lot of potential to demystify our world.”

               “You’re familiar with rational philosophy?” Fetrina asked, turning to Doil.  “Who have you read?”

               “Well, I haven’t read any of the newer ‘rational philosophers’, if that’s what you mean,” Doil admitted.  “But rational philosophy’s concepts are nothing new, really.  They just haven’t been organized into a coherent philosophy before.  The basic principles of investigative explanation and experimental evidence have been tenets of many scholarly fields for well over a century, although scholars have historically applied them with, shall we say, mixed standards and results.”

               Fetrina was shaking her head.  “You should read some of the real rational philosophers.  It’s more than just a recasting of old ideas.  It’s a new way of approaching an understanding of the world.  Previous efforts in similar veins have never gone far enough.”

               “I will look into it,” Doil agreed diplomatically.

               Fetrina returned to her book, and Doil and Kiluron shared a look.  Then Kiluron looked around, and narrowed his eyes.  He tapped Doil on the shoulder.

               “Doil, does it seem like there are more castle guards around than there normally would be?” he asked.

               Doil glanced around.  “Possibly?  You pay more attention to those sorts of things than I do.”

               Kiluron continued talking as if Doil had affirmed his point completely.  “Something doesn’t feel right.  The guards look more alert than they should.”

               “Isn’t that a good thing?” Doil asked.  “Guards are typically supposed to be alert while on duty.”

               Kiluron rolled his eyes.  “Yes, but bored guards keeping watch for nobles getting too drunk and out of hand don’t scan the room continuously as if a pack of assassins were going to burst out of the crystal chandeliers at any moment.”

               “Perhaps not,” Doil admitted.  “So what are you saying?  That a pack of assassins is going to burst out of the chandeliers?  That seems unlikely.”

               Kiluron wished that he had a real sword on, instead of a decorative saber.  He put his hand on it as a comfort, anyway.  “I’m going to see if I can find Vere, ask him what’s going on.  Can you go find Borivat and see if he and Wezzix have noticed anything?”

               Pushing away from the table as Kiluron got up, Doil hesitated.  “You’re sure you’re not just jumping at shadows?”

               Kiluron continued scanning the room, eyes restless and fingers drumming on his sword hilt.  Fetrina was looking at both of them curiously.  “No, I’m not.  But I’m sure enough that I’d rather be jumping at shadows and wrong than not jump when I should have and get people hurt.”

               Swallowing, Doil nodded.  “Fair enough.  I’ll go find Borivat.”

               Fetrina had stood up, too, and as Doil walked away she snagged Kilruon’s arm.  “Mind telling me what’s going on?”

               “Hopefully nothing, Lady Fetrina,” Kiluron said.  “I’m just feeling a little twitchy, and I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

               “You know, acting on a hunch is hardly scientific,” Fetrina observed.

               “Nope,” Kiluron agreed.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me?”

               Fetrina let go of his arm, but kept pace with him as he began to circle the perimeter of the room.  “I’m coming with you.  This seems a fine time to prove the value of rational philosophy to establish the accuracy of human ‘intuition.’”

               “Whatever.”  The problem with trying to find Vere was that the man could practically become invisible when he didn’t want to be found, and he had been lurking even when something hadn’t felt amiss.  Kiluron assumed that Vere sensed the same wrongness that he had; it was probably Vere who had increased the guards and told them to be on high alert.  He was somewhat surprised Vere hadn’t let him know what was going on yet; the fact that he hadn’t only heighted Kiluron’s conviction that there was something even more wrong than his instincts were telling him.

               A few nobles around the edges of the room were passed out, apparently drunk, but most had moved towards the center of the room, dancing and talking animatedly at the closer tables.  A man in fairly unadorned clothes that almost looked like a uniform stood up as Kiluron and Fetrina approached, and Kiluron recognized General Parl.

               “You look like a man on a mission,” Parl remarked.  “Is something amiss?”

               Kiluron looked around restlessly.  “I hope not.  Have you noticed anything, General?”  Even in that moment, he managed to use the title that he knew would elicit the most help from the man.

               “Extra guards, all of them a lot more alert than they were when the evening started.  Perhaps a few more nobles passed out than I would expect for this early in the evening.  And Prime Wezzix and his advisor are missing.”  Parl rattled the information off, clearly having already catalogued it in his head before he had seen Kiluron approaching.

               “Wezzix and Borivat are missing?” Kiluron peered up at the dais where they had been sitting, and saw that Parl was correct.  “I couldn’t tell that from where I was sitting.  I guess I sent Doil on a futile mission.  Have you seen Vere, the Guardcaptain?”

               Parl shook his head.  “But I assume he’s responsible for the increased guard presence.  I wonder what he’s expecting?”

               “Or he’s just sensed something wrong the same way we have,” Kiluron suggested.  “Although I’m assuming it was him who got Wezzix and Borivat out, which means he must be pretty sure something is going on.”

               Fetrina hmphed.  “You know, you all should really stop just going on about hunches and feelings.  Where’s the rationality in that?”

               General Parl eyed her.  “My instincts have helped keep me alive for more than forty years.  That seems like enough hard evidence to me.  Were you trying to find the Guardcaptain?” he asked Kiluron.

               “Yes,” Kiluron affirmed.  “Although now I’m wondering if I should go get Doil and find out where Wezzix and Borivat are.”

               “I’ll try to find the Guardcaptain,” Parl suggested.  “You go after the Prime.”

               Kiluron nodded.  “Try to meet back here before midnight.”

               Parl nodded sharply, and headed off into the room.  Taking a deep breath, Kiluron pushed on towards the dais, where he could see Doil about to turn back towards their old table.  Fetrina followed him, and almost knocked him down when she stumbled.

               “Sorry,” she mumbled.  “I’m feeling a bit dizzy…” she slumped to the ground.

               Kiluron knelt down, feeling at her neck for a pulse, which he found, but nothing he did roused her, and he knew that she hadn’t been drinking heavily – he didn’t think she had even touched her wine.  Trying to calm the pounding in his own head, he stood up, looking around, fighting his own wave of dizziness.  Perhaps there was something wrong with the wine?  No…his thoughts were moving too slowly.  Around the room, he saw more people stumbling and beginning to fall, in little groups and pockets, slumping against each other on the dance floor.  Kiluron realized that he had fallen to the floor, and tried to force his eyes to stay open, but he blinked, and his eyes didn’t open again.  He lost consciousness.

               If not for some particularly memorable experiences in Nycheril’s jungles of which Vere had no recollection at all and which had done some very interesting things to his ability to metabolize poisons and toxins, he suspected he would have been in an unconscious stupor on the floor along with everyone else; whoever had managed to slip poison into the feast had been thorough, even lacing the bread rolls with which Vere and his lieutenants sometimes gambled.  Poison, of all the nerve, and after all the precautions he had taken…Vere forced his mind with difficulty back onto more productive paths of thought.  At least the poison wasn’t deadly.  Why wasn’t the poison deadly?  Had it simply been stretched too thinly?  No, someone who knew his logistics well enough to poison the entire banquet would not have miscalculated the dosages.

               This was a new experience, and that was always dangerous.  Well, being poisoned was dangerous even if it was an old experience, but new experiences were especially dangerous, because…because…the thought slipped away.  In his time as guardcaptain Vere had been responsible for security for everything from foreign dignitaries to treaty signings, and he knew the annual Ball was a nightmare for security, but he had never had a problem before – it was usual more about some drunk nobleman deciding that his honor had been offended by some other drunk nobleman, and that they ought to draw swords and have it out right in the middle of the feast, and by in the middle of the feast of course was meant that they would try to mount onto the tables and place their oily boots in the pudding.  Wow, were his thoughts chaotic.  He sought again to reign them in and focus.

               Though he had taken bright-eyed guards from the city walls to come supplement his now mostly unconscious castle guard, and roused those who had been off-duty for the night, though that was few because of the feast, Vere still felt like he was terribly disorganized; he didn’t know from what kind of threat he ought to be guarding.  The Prime and Borivat at least had been seen to their chambers when Vere realized something was amiss, so they were now peacefully unconscious behind heavy guard.  Everyone else he left where they fell in the ballroom, so that he could more easily guard them.

               At first, he had thought it was a poisoning attempt, but then why use a non-lethal poison?  That implied that the poison was a distraction, that something else was the main event.  Someone wanted access to the castle, and did not want to be interrupted in the process.  A spy?  No, that didn’t line up.  Perhaps a visit to the source might provide insight.  This thought took full possession of Vere’s scattered consciousness, and he mustered his strength and forced himself to walk in a mostly straight line to the kitchens.

               There he found that the servants had also been affected, and were slumped over their dice games or in the corners where they had been resting, or in some cases even over cutting boards and large rolls of dough.  After moving aside a few knives to avoid anyone injuring themselves, Vere prowled about, or at least that’s what he thought he was doing – the reality was probably more of a comically stumbling shuffle – looking for signs of what poison had been used, where it had been administered, and who might have administered it.  He was just about to give up his investigations in the kitchens as fruitless – a thought that had him laughing hysterically for several moments before he could recover his composure – when he noticed that one of the dice games had a spot for a fourth player that was empty.

               The other three players were slumped in place, but the fourth was missing.  It was a tiny detail, and it could have implied any number of things, but it was the first piece of information that Vere had found that pointed to a potential suspect, and it was reasonably assumed that whoever had administered the poison had infiltrated the kitchen staff.  Even more fortunately, he noticed that the nearest exit from the kitchens was slightly ajar.  Drawing his sword, though he wasn’t certain how well he’d be able to wield it in his present state, and it felt awkward and heavy in his poison-weakened hand, Vere slipped through the door and padded down the corridor.

               Stone floor was a poor substance for following tracks, but on the thin and well-worn rug leading away from the kitchens he thought he could make out a set of footprints that looked a little more recent than the others.  He followed these until the rug ran out, which unfortunately coincided with where the corridor branched off, one direction leading to the other servant corridors that flanked the main castle passages, and the other descending down a steep flight of stairs behind a locked door into the castle’s lower level.  Vere was just about to turn towards the servant corridors when he noticed an odd reflection, as of candlelight off of metal, coming off of the locked door.  Bending down to investigate it, he brushed the door, which swung open, revealing that the simple latching lock mechanism had been cut.

               Moving with as much stealth as he could stumble through, Vere pushed open the door the rest of the way, and began to make his way down the narrow, winding stairs.  The castle’s lower level was a maze of damp passages, most of which predated Merolate, some of which predated the Blood Empire, and many of which were completely unused in modern times.  Those chambers nearest the stairs down which Vere descended were used for storage of things that no one really wanted, but no one really wanted to throw away, either.  Some of those further in were used as dungeons, but the city of Merolate had its own prisons, so those were only rarely used in modern times, and there was no one down there now, so this wasn’t a rescue attempt.  The only other thing down there of which Vere was aware was…the vault.

               Disregarding for the moment the strangeness of this scheme to access Merolate’s vault, if indeed that was the motive, Vere started counting corridors, making his way towards the vault.  As he rounded a corner where the stone casing had crumbled to expose the native strata beneath, he saw a light glimmering faintly ahead, and slowed his pace, going more cautiously.  It occurred to him that there was probably more than one person involved in this heist, and that he was in no condition to fight, but those thoughts seemed fleeting and small in his mind; it took all of his concentration just to focus on his efforts to solve the poisoning mystery, and not on his near-overwhelming desire to curl up in a corner and sleep.

               When he reached it, Vere found the door to the vault open; its massive bar locks appeared to have been cut through as easily as had the smaller latch on the stairwell door.  A lantern was set on a bare patch of floor within, and the back of a single man was visible in the lantern light.  He was hunched over, muttering to himself, and dressed all in furs and untanned animal skins, as if he had come straight out of the wilds of the Unclaimed Territories or some other savage land.  This was not at all what Vere had expected to find, and there did not appear to be anyone else with the man.  He held an odd knife in one hand, but it was not a reversed grip for fighting, and there was no sign of how he could have cut so cleanly through the enormous metal bars that normally held shut the vault.

               “Where is it?  It has to be here, must be here somewhere,” Vere heard the man muttering as he crept closer, passing through the vault’s door.  “They promised me it would be here.  Where is it?  Help me, help me, why won’t they answer?”

               The man’s voice grew more and more desperate as he spoke, but Vere did not let him continue speaking.  Clearly, there was something wrong with the man’s mind.  Somewhere in Vere’s poison-addled mind it occurred to him that this lone crazy man could not have managed to poison the entire castle without help, but the thought escaped before Vere could seize it.  He put his sword on the man’s neck, letting him feel the cold steel.

               “In the name of the Prime, turn around, thief.  Slowly,” Vere ordered.  At least, he thought that was what he said; it probably came out a bit slurred.  Fortunately, the sword point conveyed most of his point, and again Vere had to struggle not to break into hysterics at his own thoughts.

               Turning slowly around, eyes wide and darting, the thief held his hands out; one of the hands was bleeding.  “No, no, please, you don’t understand,” he begged.  “I’m Darphon, the Gruordvwrold sent me for the Heliblode, it’s vitally important, you must understand, you must let me go, must help me find the Heliblode…”

               Vere ignored the man’s ravings.  “Put down the knife,” he ordered.  It was a very strange knife, especially in the hands of someone like Darphon, who seemed like he would have been better suited with a lump of flint.

               Darphon’s face contorted, and be raised his bleeding hand.  For half a moment it seemed that some kind of force was gathering around that outstretched palm as his face grew more and more pale, the veins standing out vivid blue in a ghastly spiderweb.  Then Vere’s sword stabbed through his throat, and the moment passed, Darphon’s skin returned to normal, and he collapsed to the ground, dead.

               Four days later, the lords and ladies of Merolate made their farewells and began making their way back to their respective homes and provinces.  Most were still blinking and rubbing their heads and squinting.  Everyone had awoken by the morning after the poison had been administered, but the aftereffects lingered on for most, like a particularly pernicious hangover.  Fetrina offered Kiluron a curtsey and winced as she did so.

               “If this is what a hangover feels like, I don’t believe I shall ever be drunk,” she declared.

               Kiluron frowned.  “That’s not very rational philosophy of you.  Shouldn’t you do some experiments or something?  Repeat it a bunch of times?”

               Fetrina eyed him.  “I think that perhaps, in this case, I shall go with my instincts.  Which, like yours, are apparently a bit too late to help me.”

               “But I was right,” Kiluron remarked.  “You have to admit that I was right.”

               Fetrina smiled archly, and stepped into her carriage without answering.  Kiluron turned to Doil after watching her ride away.  “Right?  I was right?”

               Doil shrugged noncommittedly.  “I think it is deeply ironic that you ended up spending so much of the Ball, or at least the parts for which we were conscious, trying to talk to a girl who was busy reading a book on philosophy.”

               “Hey, it’s not like she was reading poetry,” Kiluron protested.  “So I’m still at least a little consistent.  No poetry.  It’s really too bad I missed all the excitement with the madman and Vere, though.  Apparently he ran through the castle after leaving the vault singing some ballad or something.”

               “Oh, you didn’t know?” Doil asked.  “Wreret’s Treatise on An Evidence-Based Approach to Natural Philosophy is all written in verse.”

               “No it’s not,” Kiluron said.  “You’re just messing with me.”

               “Guess you’ll have to find a copy and read it to find out,” Doil observed.

               “Now that’s just cruel and unusual.”  Kiluron sighed.  “Come on.  Let’s go see if Vere is awake yet.  I definitely want to know how much he remembers of running up and down the castle corridors singing some ancient ballad in a language that even you barely speak.”

               Deep in the Uir Mountains, the Gruordvwrold noted the passing of Darphon, and mourned him in the manner of their kind.  They had known he might perish, that failure could occur, and the risk had been deemed necessary.  It was far more terrible to them that the Heliblode had not been found.  A watch was set, and councils were undertaken.  A new plan would need to be made if their kind were going to survive.

The end of Blood Magic S1:E4: All Cooped Up and No Place To Go. 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 May 31st, 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