After the long, cold, damp, rainy autumn, winter in Merolate became something a relief.  If nothing else, it was finally dry, which was a state that seemed at times almost forgotten in the autumn, even ensconced in a great, stone castle like Merolate’s.  At least, that was supposed to be the case.  Instead, when the solstice came, it was still humid, misty, and dropping semi-frozen water from the sky in unpleasant emphasis to each utter imprecation against the dismal environment.  It was inauspicious weather in which to hold a ball, but if anything it made the prospect of the coming festivities even more attractive.  A roaring fire, a dry, well-kept ballroom, people nicely snug inside, decked out in their fanciest 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 Kiluron decidedly lacked.  “You’re quite certain that I can’t join you on the rounds?  I’m sure you could use another sword at this time of year,” he asked Vere.

                Guardcaptain Vere chuckled.  “Even I do not get to escape entirely unscathed from these events.  As Sub-Prime, I fear that you are consigned entirely to the dangers and tribulations of the Winter Ball.”

                Kiluron kicked at the stiff, semi-frozen mud idly with the toe of his boot.  “How do you expect me to survive four days of dancing, eating, talking, eating, talking, dancing, talking, and eating?”

                “If you had any sense of poetry, you would have repeated that one more time,” Vere remarked.  “Would you like a book of poetry?  Few people dare approach a man engrossed in poetry.  I’m sure that Doil could provide a recommendation if you don’t like mine.”

                Kiluron shuddered.  “That sounds far, far worse than the Ball.”

                Guardcaptain Vere shrugged.  “Then I wouldn’t complain too much, if I were you.”

                “Point taken.”  Kiluron sighed.  “A bunch of stuffy nobles stuck in a giant hall together, and roaming my castle together, for four days.  At least there will be alcohol.”

                Pausing with his whetstone midway down his gleaming blade, Vere frowned.  “A dangerous combination, if ever I heard one.  I suggest you keep your wits about you.  Politics is a far, far more dangerous game than those I choose to play.”

                “Somehow, you manage to make it sound more dangerous without sounding any more exciting,” Kiluron grumbled.  Pushing himself up from the low wall against which he had been leaning, he tossed a sloppy salute at Vere.  “Well, have fun gambling with bread.  Borivat wants to go over all the governors with me again, so I guess I shouldn’t keep him waiting forever.”

                “You think he’d wait for you?” Vere asked.  “He’d just let Doil fill you in later.”

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                The floors 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 had been laid out, and the larder had been stocked to bursting.  Vere’s palace guard had finally finished scouring every last inch of the palace and its many rooms for whatever threats they imagined could be hiding in a soaring turret.  Rooms had been designated for each guest, and of course the guest list had been checked and rechecked a dozen times to ensure that everyone who was anyone had been given due diligence.  It wouldn’t do to offer slight by accidentally leaving someone off the invitation to Merolate’s largest annual event.

                All of the governors from all of the provinces would be there: Merolate, Welate, Dervate, Corbulate, and Tirate.  Most brought their wives, as well as a half dozen nobles from their own provinces.  Merolate City itself boasted a collection of aristocrats who would never be seen to miss a major gathering like the Winter Ball.  Including everyone’s disparate guests, associates, wives, husbands, and entourages of various sizes, there would be well over a hundred additional nobles alone staying in the castle for the four days of festivities, not counting their less well-blooded companions.  They arrived in carriages and on horseback and in caravans, and a few more local visitors simply walked up to the gates and presented themselves.

                Somewhere, Kiluron knew, Vere was doubtless watching each guest come in with a wary, paranoid eye, but he was quite discrete, and Kiluron never figured out where he was hiding.  Instead, he put thoughts of swords and soldiering from his mind, and focused on making his welcoming rounds with Doil faithfully at his side, occasionally prompting Kiluron with a name as they approached someone whose identity Kiluron had quite forgotten.  Kiluron was quite happy to allow Doil to steer him around, telling him who precisely it was he was welcoming in each turn.

                “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 on the continent.

                “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.”

                It was almost the same thing that Vere had told Kiluron before the Ball, and it almost made up for the sour way Parl was looking at him.  “I understand.  Felt the same way myself, going into this.”

                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.  His clothes were hot and itched, and his head hurt from trying to keep up with the information Doil kept feeding him on the nobles they encountered, and with what he had said to whom and when he had said it and who he had already seen and who he still needed to see; he was part of the host family, after all, and as such it would be considered a terrible slight if he didn’t greet everyone who had come.  At least there would be a reprieve when Wezzix formally welcomed everyone and invited them all to dinner.  Then he could finally sit down.

                “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.”

                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.  “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 don’t,” Kiluron agreed.  “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 descending 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 northern 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, feeling awkward.  Usually, he could forget that his station put him higher than even a high-placed, well-off, experienced lord like Cirkos.

                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.  “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 said.  “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 to 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?”

                “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.  Trying to calm the pounding in his own head, he stood up, looking around, fighting his own wave of dizziness.  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.

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                Guardcaptain Vere had seen a lot of events.  He had been responsible for castle security for everything from foreign dignitaries visiting, to coronations, to the signing of new treaties.  The annual ball was always a security nightmare, but what threats there were usually came from the inside.  His main concern was usually that Noble A would try to assassinate Noble B, or that someone would try to take out a bunch of Merolate’s leadership in one swoop with some kind of poison.  This, though, was different.  The food had been poisoned, despite his team’s efforts, which meant someone on the inside had known their exact processes.  But the poison wasn’t deadly.  Whoever it was had even known enough lace the bread rolls with which he and his officers gambled.

                Evidently, they had not counted on Vere’s ability to fight off most poisons, or he would have been slumped on the floor somewhere along with the nobility and most of his guards.  And they weren’t after the nobility.  Vere had thought that was what it was about, at first, but he no longer thought that was the case.  He had bright-eyed guards brought in from the city watch, dressed up to look like his elite castle guard, keeping an eye on the great hall, and nothing had stirred.  The poison, he now suspected, had been a distraction.  This wasn’t about the nobility at all.  This was about making sure that no one was anywhere else.

                It wasn’t a spy; a spy would have been far more subtle.  This smacked of a robbery, someone after the contents of the Merolate vault, and someone audacious enough to try to pull off a heist during the Winter Ball.  It didn’t make any sense, but it was the only thing Vere had been able to come up with; how he wished that his mind were functioning at full capacity.  His time in the Nycheril jungles had included some encounters that had done interesting things to his ability to metabolize poisons, but he wasn’t completely immune.  Instead of being unconscious on the floor, he simply felt like he was deeply, thoroughly drunk.  It wasn’t an ideal situation in which to be stumbling his way down the deep, damp corridors running beneath the castle towards the vault, alone.  That hadn’t been his brightest idea, coming alone, but it had seemed best to leave as many able bodied men as possible to guard the unconscious nobility.

                There was light up ahead, and Vere slowed, gathering the scattered tatters of his wits with a firm grip and trying to hold them all together.  It was like trying to hold a palm-full of water without letting any of the water seep out.  Slipping his sword from its sheath, Vere walked in what he thought was a straight line around the corner to find half a dozen men in black clothing busily filling crates with gold bars, and bags full of jewels.  He wasn’t sure how they had gotten the vault open, but they all looked very surprised to see him standing at the end of the hallway, blocking their only exit.  They also appeared to be sideways.  No, that was because he was looking at them a little tilted.  Vere stood himself up straight and went through his wit-gathering exercise again.

                “In the name of the Prime, put down the prize,” he ordered.  He didn’t think his voice was slurring too badly.

                The leader, with a handsome, chiseled face, had exchanged a sack full of jewels for a saber, and was regarding Vere amusedly.  “Guardcaptain Vere.  I don’t know whether to be impressed or distressed.  We specifically made sure you got enough of the sleeping agent to leave a man of your stature unconscious for a week.”

                “No, it wasn’t a rhyme,” Vere asserted.  “But it did have assonance.  Or is it consonance?  I always get those two confused.”

                “Please, stand aside,” the leader said, approaching with sword outstretched.  “There’s no need for you to get hurt.”

                Vere slapped himself.  “When the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient euthanized upon a table.”  He slapped himself again.  “Oyster bars!”

                The black-clad leader lunged forward, and Vere’s sword snapped out, trapping the man’s blade and sending it spinning against the stone wall with a clang.  The thin saber shattered, and Vere’s blade slid cleanly through the man’s heart.  “In a minute there is time for a hundred indecisions and decisions which a minute shall reverse.”  He paused, and slapped himself again.  “Except that one,” he observed, regarding the dead man at his feet.  “I’m afraid that will be quite irreversible.”

                “I call it luck,” one of the remaining, black-clad men declared.  “It’s one drunk man against five of us.  And then we’re away with the loot.”

                “Woot woot,” Vere agreed.  He beckoned with his saber, and slapped himself again.  “Peaches.  Comes if you dares.”

                “Oh, I dare,” another black-clad man declared, and rushed forward, sword raised.  The other black-clad men were only a step behind him.

                Which was why all four were able to see their fifth companion die with three feet of steel thrust neatly through his chest.  Then they were dueling for their lives against one drunk man, and earning cut after burning cut for their troubles.  Vere laughed madly occasionally, and sometime he would dance away and slap himself a few times, before engaging again in a blur of steel that seemed far more coordinated than his movements should have appeared.  He was like a professional dancer, moving here and there, leading his black-clad dates about the stone floor, foot, foot, shuffle, twirl, leaving them permanently breathless on the ground.  Each time his blade struck, he would spout some random, disjointed bit of poetry.  When the last black-clad man had slumped to the ground, Vere did a full leaping spin, sheathed his sword, and simply turned around and began weaving his way back up the corridor, his fingers tracing the wall and doing a decidedly poor job of it.  All the while, he sang The Ballad of Olde Aprina as loud as he could, and was perfectly on key, although only half the words were intelligible.

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                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 about a day 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.  Did you hear that Vere was apparently spouting some kind of drivel that was supposed to be poetry?”

                “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.”

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*Special thanks to TS Eliot and his poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, which served as inspiration for some of the poetry Vere spouted. Although of course the poem doesn’t exist in the world of Blood Magic, the ideas of poetry span all worlds

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

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