“Do you really think anyone is sailing in this weather?” Feber, one of the watchmen, asked his companion.  “They’d founder on the ice long before they got to our bay.”

               His companion, Jolk, blew a steaming cloud of breath into the air, and winced when he had to take in another one.  At least Vere had put them on quarter shifts, so that they wouldn’t be out on the docks for too long without a chance to warm themselves before burning braziers.  “I sure wouldn’t want to be sailing in this.  I had a winter sailing once.  Thought I was never going to make it back.  You wouldn’t think it, but a bit of ice breaks off from these larger sheets can do a whole lot of damage to a ship’s hull.”

               “You mean like that ship?” Feber asked, pointing sharply out to sea.

               Jolk followed the outstretched arm, and cursed.  “How the blood are they doing that?”

               Just becoming visible in the dazzling sunlight reflecting off of everyone snow and ice encrusted surface, a narrow ship was approaching the edge of the ice that now rimmed Merolate’s bay.  A single, tall mast towered into the brilliant sky, gray sails hanging limp from it, and there was no sign of oars, but the ship was moving fast enough to leave a significant, foamy wake behind, back out towards the open ocean.  As the prow of the ship reached the ice, a distant crunching noise filtered towards the two watchmen, who watched in shock as the ship slowly pulled itself out of the water and onto the ice, and continued moving, gliding as if on skates across the ice towards the docks, its hull bare and dark, balancing on a double keel.  Bits of ice and snow skittered to either side as if seeking to flee the approaching vessel as it came slowly onward, apparently dwarfing the other vessels still tied up at the docks, though in truth it was likely smaller.

               Jolk yanked on Feber’s arm.  “Don’t just stand there gawking!  Go alert the dock master.  We’ve got a ship inbound!”

               Training broke though the shock of watching a ship apparently skid across ice, and muscle memory guided Feber to begin the docking procedures, more sailors rushing out to assist with the preparations for the incoming ship, although their work was punctuated by long, uncertain stares at the incoming vessel.  It was flying a flag, but it was not a banner with which any of them were familiar.  Whoever sailed that vessel, they weren’t from Lufilna.

               Still moving under no visible form of propulsion, the unknown ship came up alongside the prepared dock, swinging about and coming to a stop with hardly a shudder, just bumping against Merolate’s docks.  A ladder was lowered from the ship’s deck, spiked feet crunching through the layer of snow and ice on the dock to thud into the wood below, and a moment later a figure appeared at the top, nothing but a vaguely human dark smudge against the pale sky.  The figure began to descend the ladder, and two others followed.  Reaching the dock, the leader stepped off the ladder and turned around to face the sailors and city watchmen who had gathered.

               He was dressed in thick furs, with a helmet decorated by massive antlers, though they were broader than any antlers of a creature that would roam Merolate’s forests, and his beard was thick and blond.  A black-shafted weapon hung at his belt: one side was a broad-bladed axe, the other a sort of pick.  The man lowered a fur-lined hood with fur-lined gloved hands, and looked around with eyes as pale as the sky, set in skin that looked almost grey.  Not the grey of someone who hadn’t seen the sun, but truly, deeply grey, even beneath the surface of the skin, where it was visible through his thick facial hair.

               “I am Captain Lorick’qu, of iceship Rofthox.”  His language was broken, and his pronunciation was terrible, but he was at least speaking a recognizable tongue.  “If you no mind my asking, where am we?”

               Fidgeting nervously with his cuffs, Kiluron tried to emulate Wezzix’s aplomb, but the man was simply imperturbable, unlike Kiluron, who was currently very perturbed.  Not in a negative way, just very disturbed from any kind of an equilibrium state.  He had thought that being encouraged to wear his sword to this meeting would have helped assuage that, but somehow the digression from standard protocol only made him more nervous.  He wasn’t even entirely certain what he was nervous about; their odd visitors had given no sign of being hostile, although they had refused to allow anyone to inspect their ship, but that was hardly unusual.  Ships were typically considered an extension of sovereign territory.

               “Relax,” Wezzix suggested, glancing at Kiluron.  “This is just a standard welcome.  We’ll offer them sanctuary for a time in Merolate, until they can complete whatever their business is and set sail again.”

               Kiluron blew out a breath.  “I know.  They’re just…odd.  They stand out in the cold like it’s a balmy spring day.”

               Perhaps Wezzix shivered slightly, but Kiluron wouldn’t have bet on it.  “Perhaps this is a balmy spring day to them, wherever they come from.”  He nodded to Borivat and Doil as they approached.  “Find anything, Borivat?”

               Smoothing his formal robes, Borivat shook his head.  “I’m afraid not, my lord.  Their banner suggests they hail from the Hiblanicho Islands, in the far north, but if that is in fact the case, it helps us little.  Almost nothing is known about the people who inhabit those islands.  They could be, well, anyone, quite honestly.”

               Wezzix nodded.  “At least we have a name for them.  Come, let us welcome our foreign guests.”

               The four of them opened the door and entered the audience chamber, where Captain Lorick’qu and two of his men were waiting.  They rose when Prime Wezzix entered, and he gestured for them to sit.

               “Welcome to Merolate,” Wezzix announced, nodding to each of the visitors in turn.  “I am Prime Wezzix.  This is my advisor, Borivat, my Sub-Prime, Kiluron, and his servant, Doil.”

               Captain Lorick’qu smacked his fist against his chest.  There was sweat at his temples.  “Captain Lorick’qu, of iceship Rofthox.  My men, Commander Welif’qa and Commander Coriv’qa.  We come, as you call it, the Hiblanicho Islands.  Thank you for allow us to land.’

               Wezzix nodded.  “We do not make it a habit to turn away those in need of our help.  If there is any assistance we can render while you are here, we will do our best to provide.  If I may ask, what brings you so far from your shores?”

               Captain Lorick’qu seemed to consider this question for a long time, although Kiluron reminded himself that the man wasn’t completely fluent in their language.  “We am…lookers?  We look for things.  New lands, new places.”

               “Explorers,” Borivat provided.

               Captain Lorick’qu smacked the table with one hand and pointed at Borivat triumphantly.  “Yes!  We am explorers.”  He paused, and his voice was less enthusiastic when he spoke again.  “My crew, my ship…we am blown out of our plan.  There am a very large storm.”

               “I assume that someone has taken the time to show you where you are now?” Wezzix inquired.

               “Yes, thank you,” Captain Lorick’qu nodded.  “You and your people am very…friend.  We am grateful.  Is there anything we am able to offer to thank you?”

               “No thanks are necessary,” Wezzix assured him.  “Only speak well of us to your people when you return.  We are always grateful to make strong friendships between peoples.  It makes both of our lands stronger.”

               “I would love to learn more about your people,” Borivat added.  “With my Prime’s permission, of course.  I could learn about your language, your culture, the other places your voyage has taken you…”

               Captain Lorick’qu seemed to look curiously at Borivat, then he nodded.  “It am so.”  He thumped his fist against his chest again, and bowed his head deeply.  “We am very grateful to you.”

               Prime Wezzix nodded back, and rose.  The others did the same.  “If you need any supplies or resources, or help with repairs, just let the dock master know.  And since you are explorers, I hope you take the time to explore what we have to offer here in Merolate.”

               When the three foreign sailors had left, Wezzix sat down again, and gestured for the others to do the same, and Vere slipped in to join them.  Kiluron suspected he had been lurking nearby the whole time, watchful and wary of their Hiblanicho visitors.

               “I would like to cultivate this opportunity into the start of an alliance, if possible,” Wezzix declared, looking around at faces.  “These explorers clearly have a better grasp of seafaring and navigation than we do, and their sailing technology, particularly for sailing in harsh conditions, is obviously superior to ours.  Those facts alone would be enough to make them valuable allies.  That they are also explorers seems to speak well to them sharing at least some of our values.”

               “I will ensure that the resources of Merolate are made as readily available to them as possible,” Borivat replied.  “And I’ll learn as much as I can about their interactions with other nations.  From their position, they may have had dealing with Rovis, but clearly they are not so close as to share their enemies.”

               Wezzix nodded.  “Good.  Vere, keep an eye on them, just in case.  I don’t want them to feel like they’re being kept under guard, but they should definitely be watched.  Discretely.  Best not to take any chances.”

               Vere gave no word of acknowledgement, but he did incline his head, which was enough.  “Excellent,” Wezzix declared.  “You’re all dismissed.”

               Kiluron hesitated.  “What about me?”

               Wezzix looked at him curiously.  “What about you?”

               “You didn’t give me a job with the foreign sailors,” Kiluron elaborated.  “Shouldn’t I be showing them around the city or making friends with their officers or something?”

               Wezzix frowned.  “That hardly seems necessary to me.  You have enough to do getting ready for your upcoming supply runs.”

               “Supply runs.”  Kiluron sighed.  “How very exciting.  I guess I’ll go find some sacks of flour to haul around.”  He gave Wezzix a sardonic salute, and left the room before anything else could be said.  Doil exchanged an uncomfortable look with Prime Wezzix, bowed, and hurried after Kiluron.

               “’Just get ready for your supply runs?’” Kiluron repeated, stalking down the corridor.  Doil hurried after him, jogging to keep up with Kiluron’s longer, angry strides.  “Shouldn’t I be learning valuable negotiation skills or something?  How to form good relationships with foreigners?  Anything but overseeing a bunch of perfectly capable soldiers who don’t want me getting in their way as they load up wagons and sleds?”

               The hallway was bright in strange places and at odd angles from the aggressively reflecting sunlight, making for an odd, fractal effect in Doil’s shadow as he moved along with Kiluron.  “The outposts count on these supply runs, and look forward to seeing the Sub-Prime out in the elements with them.”

               Kiluron huffed.  “That’s beside the point.  I’m fine with leading the runs.  I’m just completely superfluous when it comes to preparing for them.  And I was hoping to hear what wild stories of life at sea these foreign explorers surely have.”

               Doil smirked.  “I can tell you those stories.  Scurvy, frostbite, seasickness, massive ocean predators, and all kinds of other miserable impediments to a healthy lifestyle.”

               “See, if you hadn’t mentioned sea monsters, you might have almost been persuasive,” Kiluron noted, “although not quite.”  He continued to walk briskly down the corridor.  “But sea monsters are in fact exactly the sort of thing I want to hear about.  Why does everything get so much larger in the ocean, anyway?  Seems like it would be smaller, with less air.  Anyway, maybe I’ll go and have dinner with them or something after I finish ‘overseeing’ the loading process.  I mean, why should Borivat have all the fun?”

               Doil had stopped walking, and Kiluron turned back, quizzical.  “Something wrong, Doil?”

               “Uh, no, you just brought up a very interesting question, and I sort of possibly had trouble walking and thinking about it at the same time,” Doil admitted.  “Why do things grow to larger sizes in an aquatic environment?  I think that further research is necessary.  I wonder if the library has anything to say on the subject…”

               Kiluron laughed and waved Doil off.  “Go on, dig through books, if that’s what you want to be doing.  Doesn’t take both of us to load for a supply run.  Doesn’t even take one of us.  Might as well one of us do something interesting, even if your idea of interesting is questionable.”

               “Thank you, my lord,” Doil said, and hurried off down the corridor towards the library.

               Kiluron chuckled to himself, and continued in the opposite direction, whistling softly.  At least Doil’s enthusiasm had improved his mood slightly.  Even so, standing in the bitter cold, watching soldiers load supplies and trying to stand somewhere where the lieutenant organizing the operation wouldn’t feel the need to salute him every time he turned around, made for a spectacularly long morning, and it seemed to Kiluron it was likely to be nothing but a fantastically enduring afternoon.  He was, in fact, just pondering upon that reality over his bowl of stew when Vere slipped into the seat across from him.

               “Where does the crow’s eye spy?” he asked without preamble or, for that matter, context.

               Swallowing a hot gulp of stew, Kiluron frowned at Vere.  “Carrion.  Corpses.  All kinds of terrible, rotting unpleasantness that would be a so much more exciting excuse to do something active instead of standing around here.”

               “The answer,” Vere explained, picking at his fingernails, “is that the crow sees the coming of death.”

               “How…perceptive,” Kiluron replied.  “Aren’t you supposed to be guarding the foreigners or something?”

               Waving idly, Vere propped his boots up on the empty chair beside him.  “I have several capable officers of the elite castle guard assigned to the dockside where they’re staying.  Of course, I don’t know that it will really do much good if our exploratory friends decide to do something we don’t like, but that’s quite beside the point.”

               “What do you mean?”  Kiluron’s ears had perked at even this slight allusion to a potential threat.

               “Oh, our visitors are quite skilled.  I observed a few of them practicing a hand-to-hand fighting discipline with which I am completely unfamiliar, and they all go about armed.  At all times.  Not just belt knives, either: swords, axes, real weapons.  And I saw one fellow, fully armed, and I believe fully armored in whatever that odd armor they wear is, jump in the water they’ve hacked around the ship.  Ice they’ve hacked around the ship, away from the ship, down to the water, that is.  Anyhow, the woman backs up, dives headfirst into the water, and a few moments later she pops up on the other side of the ship.”  Vere said this as if it were proof beyond doubt of a person’s threat level.

               “Wait, there are women on their crew?” Kiluron stopped Vere.  “I thought the navy considered it bad luck or something to have a woman on the ship.”

               “Yes, well, I’ve always thought that seemed rather backwards, considering how they always act like women are a completely different species after returning from their long voyages,” Vere mused.  “Perhaps some captain came up with that idea as a way to keep his sailors from being distracted at sea.”

               Kiluron sighed.  “Just another reason why I would rather be learning more about the foreigners, instead of sticking my nose in the way where it doesn’t belong here.  Can you tell that lieutenant to stop saluting me every time he looks up?”

               Vere dropped his feet back to the floor.  “I believe that you’re missing the point of this particular exercise.”

               Kiluron frowned.  “What is there to miss?”

               “The point of overseeing the loading process isn’t for you to help with the loading.  It’s so that you have the opportunity to establish yourself with the soldiers who will be travelling with you,” Vere explained.

               “I know that,” Kiluron argued.  “I already know all of them, and they all know who I am.  I can list off their names, if that’s what you want.”

               “Still missing the point,” Vere replied.  “Like you did with the question about the crow.  What do you know about the grey timber wolf?”

               Rubbing his forehead, Kiluron grimaced.  “Who are you, Borivat?  Isn’t it just a wolf that lives up north somewhere?”

               “The grey timber wolf,” Vere continued, unphased, “usually hunts alone, taking small game and roaming the sparse northern forests.  In the winter, though, they band together into packs and are able to take down much larger game.  However, they only begin to hunt after spending at least three nights preparing the territory together.”

               “Your point?” Kiluron asked.

               “If you have to ask, then you won’t understand the answer.”  Standing up, Vere glanced around, then slunk off before Kiluron could question him further.

               “Bah.  At the very least I should be doing something productive here,” Kiluron muttered.  He stood up abruptly, drawing several sets of eyes from the other soldiers on their lunch break, but he ignored them, and stomped back out into the carnivorous cold.  He found the sergeant organizing the crew that was currently loading up, and got the man’s attention.

               “My lord,” the sergeant said, snapping a salute.  “Uh, what can I do for you?”

               “None of that ‘my lording’ business right now, thanks,” Kiluron replied.  “I want you to ignore, for the moment, that I am sub-prime.  I’m just a solider who needs some really hard physical labor to keep busy.  So where can I help?”

               For the twelfth time, Kiluron re-tied his robe to keep it from slipping open, and he looked blearily around at Wezzix, Borivat, Vere, and Doil.  They were in Wezzix’s parlor, and the servants had roused a fire from the embers in the hearth, but the room was still thick with the night’s chill, which seemed to invade through the walls the way ants are inclined to do.  Except that it was winter, and so there were no ants, only the pervasive cold.  Wezzix appeared only slightly bleary-eyed, and Vere appeared completely unperturbed, but Kiluron was relieved that at least Doil looked somewhat the worse for wear from being roused in the middle of the night.  It didn’t help that Kiluron’s muscles were sore from his afternoon’s labor.  Borivat, meanwhile, looked nothing but worried.

               “Alright, Borivat, we’re all here,” Wezzix was saying.  “What’s so urgent?”

               Borivat nodded.  “You recall how I mentioned this evening that the Hiblanicho had requested a large quantity of live animals, and I found it odd that given the weather they would not accept frozen meat?”

               With a frown, Wezzix nodded.  “Yes, yes, I suppose I do.  I trust that you didn’t awaken us to tell us that they have some strange cultural taboo against meat they didn’t prepare themselves?”

               “You’re not entirely wrong in that description,” Borivat grimaced, “but I’m afraid it’s more significant than that.  They needed those animals for sacrifices, to give their Blood Priest power.  At least one of them has those powers, and the others appear to be Blood Worshippers.”

               Running his hand through his hair, Wezzix sighed.  “Nothing can ever be simple, can it,” he muttered.  “You’re certain?”  Then he shook his head.  “No, of course you’re certain, or you wouldn’t have had me woken up over it.  Forgive me; that was a foolish question.”

               “Now, they were not aware of our prohibitions against Blood Magic, and I did not attempt to confront them after I found out,” Borivat admitted.  “They certainly were not intending to provoke an incident.  Perhaps, if we simply asked them not to practice actively while on our shores?”

               “Religion is rarely so reasonable,” Wezzix observed.  “I fear that even that would risk provoking an incident.”

               “I’ve seen what those Blood Priests can do,” Kiluron said.  “I would not want to fight one.”

               “They’re fighters, all of them,” Vere explained.  “You can see it in the way they move.  If it comes to violence, they will not go quietly, magic or no.  No offense, my lord, but you know that I would prefer not to sacrifice my people in your little ideological conflicts if there’s any way to avoid it.”

               Doil cleared his throat.  “Uh, it’s not like they’re practicing human sacrifice, at least not that we’ve observed.  Maybe it’s a slightly different version of the faith?  Maybe, as long as they keep it to animals, we could turn a blind eye until they leave?  They aren’t planning to stay any longer than it takes them to repair their ship, after all.”

               For some reason, this seemed to make Wezzix look older.  “For another Prime, perhaps, that would be an option.  But not for me.  I have based my entire system of governance on the sanctity of the rule of law and the objective arbitration and execution of justice; to turn a blind eye to this would run counter to the principles I hold to be most valuable to effective leadership.  We cannot simply let them continue as if there were nothing wrong.  No one is exempt from the law.  Besides…” he hesitated, as if debating with himself how much to say, before waving his hand to dismiss whatever he had been about to say.  “Suffice to say, there are very good reasons for the Blood Decrees, and they don’t all have to do with ancient history.”

               “But – “ Kiluron began, but Borivat interrupted him, shooting him a meaningful look.  Kiluron just wished he knew what the look meant.  “We could send them to the Isle of Blood.  I think we could, perhaps, do this diplomatically.  We could tell them that they will have people better suited to help them there.”  Whatever Wezzix had been about to say but thought better of, Borivat seemed to know.  It irked Kiluron that he wasn’t included.

               “That’s a possibility.”  Wezzix leaned back.  “Prepare a missive to the Isle of Blood.  You and Kiluron will deliver it first thing in the morning.  Vere, you’ll accompany them.  The only catch in this plan is getting the Blood Priests to agree, and there’s always a cost when doing business with them.”

               “If they refuse?” Doil asked.

               “If they refuse, we’ll have to come up with something else,” Wezzix answered.  “Let us rest for now, and we will see where asking takes us in the morning.”

               When morning came, Vere had horses saddled and waiting for Kiluron and Borivat, covered in thick blankets and stomping their hooves aggressively to try to ward off the piercing chill.  Kiluron shivered in his thick jackets and cloaks, the wind cutting through them easily as they set out across the open ice of the bay.  Although at the deepest points the ice was only a handspan thick, perhaps two, it was sufficiently stable for them to cross without worrying about it giving way beneath them.  In a few places, the ice was twisted up in strange patterns, like miniature rock formations, or even in elaborate, crystalline structures with no terrestrial simile.  Occasionally, it almost looked like the waves themselves had frozen instantly in mid-motion, and that they, when thawed, would resume their motion as if they had simply paused for a time.

               The sun indicated it was perhaps approaching midmorning when the Isle of Blood began to loom ahead of the riders.  Its rotten docks appeared even more spindly and liable to collapse surrounded by ice, but the structure was as solid as if it were carved from stone.  As the crunching of hooves on ice was replaced with the clicking of hooves on a rocky shore, Kiluron felt the wind abate to the barest of breezes.  On the Isle, it seemed, even the elements preferred not to challenge the Blood Priests.  It made Kiluron swallow and which he could itch beneath his many layers to where his skin was crawling.  His experience with their powers in conflict with the demon summoners was enough to know how far their powers stretched, and just how useless Vere, no matter how competent, would be if there were a conflict.  He had never been sent to the Isle on Wezzix’s behalf before, and found himself hoping that their conversation would not require the attention of the High Priest.  Any Priest would be more than sufficiently intimidating.

               Borivat seemed, to Kiluron’s eyes, oddly calm about the prospect of asking a favor of Blood Priests, but he missed the undercurrent of tension that was running in the way Borivat’s eyes looked around, watching the shadows, anticipatory.  Vere, of course, was as imperturbable as ever.  Neither of them seemed particularly inclined towards conversation, and there was a hushed quality to the air, with its muted wind, that made it difficult to begin speaking, though Kiluron increasingly longed for the sound of another human voice.  They had only been on the Isle itself for a few dozen paces, and yet it felt almost as long as the ride to get there.

               When they were still several paces away from the temple’s main gates, the gates swung open apparently unaided, creaking outward in daunting arcs to reveal a figure made small by her surroundings, despite the intimidating red robes.  Kiluron started to urge his horse forward, but reined in sharply when Borivat dismounted and approached on foot.  Kiluron followed suit, hurrying to catch up and walk beside the advisor, while Vere slunk along behind them.

               “Borivat,” the priestess said, inclining her head, and Borivat did the same.  “I did not expect to see you here again so soon.”

               “Nor did I expect to be here again,” Borivat agreed.  “I wish it were under better circumstances.”

               “You have come to ask another favor of me,” the priestess surmised.  “Would that you ever had another reason to visit us.”

               Borivat sighed sadly.  “Not I, and not of you, this time.  This is Sub-Prime Kiluron, bearing a message from Prime Wezzix.  It is a matter of some delicacy.  Kiluron, this is Priestess Marinae of the Isle of Blood.”

               “Hello,” Kiluron said, fidgeting with his gloves and wondering if there was something more that he ought to say.  There was probably something more that he ought to say.  He had the impression of there being a great deal more going on in this conversation than the basic words of which he was aware.  “A pleasure to meet you.”

               Priestess Marinae bowed.  “The pleasure is mine, Sub-Prime Kiluron.  It is not often that a leader of Merolate greets a Priestess of our order with kindness.”

               “Er, I’m sure that Prime Wezzix would never be impolite, at least not intentionally,” Kiluron remarked, at which Marinae laughed.

               “No, of course not.  But Prime Wezzix is always far too formal to be considered kind.  I think he prefers it that way; it makes the hard decisions of leadership easier for him if he remains detached.  What is this business on which he has sent you?”

               Kiluron hesitated.  It didn’t seem appropriate to deliver the full, formal missive under this context, so he settled for a summary.  “We have some visitors who we offered assistance to as they repair their ship, but we’ve discovered that at least some of their number can do the sorts of things you people can do.  So we’re wondering if perhaps we can help each other out in this.”

               “So Prime Wezzix is looking for us to help him out of a potential diplomatic disaster over his inflexible stance towards Blood Priests,” Marinae mused aloud.  She sighed.  “I suppose I can’t entirely blame him for his attitude about the Blood Decrees, considering.  Come inside, out of the cold.  I’ll find Priest Fel; he should be able to provide you with answers, even if they are not, perhaps, the ones you are seeking.”

               There was no time for Kiluron to wonder what Marinae was referencing about the Blood Decrees, because she was already leading them briskly through the gates.  It was warm inside the Isle’s various buildings, which seemed to be interconnected via passages, although Kiluron was careful not to allow himself to be separated from the rest of the group.  Marinae led them down corridors lined in black stone that seemed to radiate a subtle warmth from all sides, which, oddly, was mildly disorienting, a little like if the sun were shining from all sides at once.  An invisible sun that warmed everything to a precisely comfortable temperature.  Kiluron admitted that the simile was breaking down, and gave up trying to understand why the heat was disorienting him; he could always ask Doil later, and he needed to concentrate on the matter at hand.  Perhaps certain priests and priestess were always responsible for interacting with outsiders, because it otherwise seemed an odd coincidence that he would again be negotiating with Fel.  That made him think of Herlglut, and he hoped that Fel wouldn’t blame him for the surly priest’s death.

               Priestess Marinae led them to a small room, with a large, wooden table and simple chairs set around it.  Lanterns glowed gently in the corners, and a larger one with mirrors blazed at the table’s center.  Although the walls were of the same black stone that composed most of the temple buildings, and the rest of the Isle, there were tapestries alleviating their bleak aspect.  In all, it was a decidedly normal room.  Kiluron had more than half expected every room on the Isle to be host to all kinds of horrors illuminated by sourceless, magical lights, with similarly powered machines crawling all about, endeavoring to facilitate whatever it was that the priests did.  They were left alone, the three of them, for a brief time, before Priest Fel arrived.

               In his characteristic red robes, with his black sword, Fel looked mostly unchanged from when Kiluron had last encountered him in Corbulate, although perhaps there was a tightness about his eyes that had not been there before.  In any case, he nodded respectfully to Kiluron, Borivat, and Vere in turn, before taking a seat across the table from them.  “Welcome to the Isle of Blood, gentlemen.  I apologize for not having a more formal reception ordered, but we were not expecting visitors.”

               “We understand completely,” Kiluron assured him.  He was glad that they were working with Fel, and not some priest he had never met before.  He knew Fel was reasonable, and he didn’t have to deal with the tiny fear that always went along with Blood Priests, particularly strange ones.  “I’m glad you were able to meet with us on such short notice.”

               “Marinae mentioned something about a proposition?” Fel asked.  “I’m curious what this could be, considering the nature of the relationship between your Merolate and the Isle of Blood.”

               Shifting in his chair, Kiluron nodded, hoping that his nervousness would go unnoticed.  “Yes, yes, we are hoping that we can come to an agreement that will benefit both of us.  We have some visitors, you see, from the Hiblanicho Islands.  Their ship was damaged, so we offered them sanctuary.  Since, we have discovered that they are Blood Priests.”

               Although he gave no overt signs of interest, there had been a slight flick of Fel’s eyes when Kiluron mentioned Hiblanicho.  “You say they are from the Hiblanicho Islands?  You’re quite certain of this?”

               Borivat nodded.  “They fly the flag of those islands, and confirmed as much when we spoke with them.  From what little I know about that place, their story seems to align, as well.”

               “We have been aware of practitioners of a religion similar to our own living in that region for some time now,” Fel admitted.  “Others who are similarly careful and deliberate in their use of magic and maintenance of the world’s balance, just as we are.  It is unfortunate that they did not land here, first.”

               “Well, it just so happens that we were hoping that perhaps you could provide them with sanctuary until their ship is repaired.”  Kiluron feared that a reversal was inevitable, but for now, the negotiations could hardly have been going better.  “If you want to meet with them, as well, we’ll send them your way.”

               Fel laughed.  “I fear it is not so simple as that.  You see, you have come to us with a problem, to which we have the solution.  But solutions cost.  That is balance.  Though we both want the same thing, a payment must be had to ensure that the equilibrium is not disturbed.”

               “But if we’re both getting what we want…” Kiluron protested.

               “I’m afraid it is not so simple, not with our Faith,” Fel replied.  “A cost must be had.”

               Borivat sighed.  “I had feared this.  We cannot pay your price, not for this.  We will find another way.”

               Kiluron glanced at Borivat, and hastily nodded in agreement, although he wasn’t sure what Borivat was talking about; Fel hadn’t even named a price yet.

               “Payment in blood is only required when magic is involved,” Fel said.  “Are you so quick to avoid this deal, Borivat?  There is no magic in this.  More conventional payment is acceptable.  Yet you have not always had such qualms.”

               There was a subtext to this discussion that Kiluron did not understand, but he decided to press ahead.  It seemed like there was a great deal more between Borivat and the Blood Priests than he could readily grasp.  “Then we offer to pay for all of their needs, and support their repair efforts, for the duration of their stay on the Isle.”

               Fel shook his head.  “It is not payment in currency or resources that we seek.  The High Priest has asked me to request permission to create a temple of the Faith near Heart City.”

               Borivat narrowed his eyes.  “Why?  There is no one near Heart City.  Certainly no Blood Worshippers.  What possible desire could you have for a temple there?”

               “That is our business,” Fel replied, “and it is our payment.  Discuss with your Prime.  I will be awaiting your answer.”

               Kiluron and Borivat paused for a moment, and then Kiluron nodded stiffly.  “We’ll speak with Prime Wezzix.”  He rose with Borivat, bowed slightly, and they left the way they had come.

               The day had become a dingy gray in the time they were within the Isle of Blood, and the air had warmed slightly, but the wind had picked up, making for an even more unpleasant ride back to Merolate.  When they did arrive, Vere slipped away to check on his guards, and Borivat and Kiluron made their report to Prime Wezzix.

               “Unacceptable.”  Prime Wezzix paced his way across the chamber, and turned around sharply.  “And it doesn’t make any sense.  What possible purpose could they have for a Temple there?  Is this simply their way of denying our request, asking for something to which they know I will not acquiesce?”

               Borivat shook his head.  “I don’t know.  The negotiations seemed to be going well.  Kiluron presented our request well, and they were receptive.  They seemed genuinely interested in making an acquaintance with our northern visitors.”

               “There’s something else going on here,” Wezzix asserted, “but I don’t know what it is.  There must be some other reason that they want a Temple there.  They’ve never been dissatisfied with our position on this matter before, or at least have been content with it, so long as we did not interfere with those wishing to follow their Faith.  Why now?  And why there, or all places?”

               Kiluron cocked his head.  “Maybe it’s something about Heart City?  Some lingering danger from the demons that we fought there?”

               Prime Wezzix looked up sharply, staring at Kiluron for a moment, before sharing a look with Borivat.  “What?” Kiluron asked.  “What did I say?”

               “The Guardian?” Borivat asked.

               “The Guardian,” Wezzix agreed.  “The High Priest said it had been awoken, and that it could present a danger to all of us.”

               “It would make sense with their idea of balance,” Borivat mused.  “We asked for something of mutual benefit to both them and us, and in the name of balance, they asked for something they also consider to be mutually beneficial.  After all, the Guardian, if they are to be believed, would be a danger to us, as well.  They must think there is something that they can do about it, or at least that they can learn more about it.”

               “Let’s test this theory,” Wezzix decided.  “When you and Kiluron return, present this proposal: they may send a temporary delegation of priests to Heart City, with a contingent of our own personnel, to study the mysteries of the ancient city.  I would grant their priests full diplomatic immunity, and their temporary establishment there would have all the status of an embassy.”

               Kiluron held up his hands.  “Wait, what is this guardian you’re talking about?  Am I missing something?”

               Borivat turned to him.  “After you returned from Heart City, the High Priest came to the Prime and I, and warned us that the events there had awoken some kind of ancient Guardian that had once protected the city.  He feared that the Guardian could one day pose a threat to the entire world.”

               Kiluron blinked.  “And no one thought it might be a good idea to tell me this little bit of information?”

               Wezzix and Borivat shared a look.  “I wasn’t convinced that the threat was real, and the Priests refused to share any further information, nor did they mention it again.  It didn’t seem pertinent to set everyone to worrying about some nebulous threat if nothing ever came of it.”  Wezzix sighed.  “I still don’t know if anything is going to come of it – it might just be some figment of religious mythology.  But if playing on that will allow us to solve our current problem, and all it takes from us is to let some Blood Priests poke around in an ancient city that everyone else avoids, anyway, I’m willing to indulge the myth.”

               It still irked Kiluron, and he was about to open his mouth to say so, when a guard ran into the room.

               “Sirs, Prime Wezzix,” he said, panting.  “Guardcaptain Vere asked for you to come down to the docks right away.  The Hablanichos are threatening war.”

               Coming up alongside one of his lieutenants, who had been overseeing the Hablanichos, Vere watched them moving below them from the shelter of a nearby building.  It was only mildly chilly in the room, although the wood creaked from the force of the wind outside, and by no means kept it entirely out there.  “Report,” he ordered.  It was good to be back amongst the guards, and away from the Isle of Blood, which always made him feel like there was constantly a knife at his back.  Magic was the sort of thing that made any self-respecting soldier uncomfortable.  Best to let Kiluron and Borivat make their report to the Prime, and he could do his own job.

               “Guardcaptain, I’m glad you’re back.  Two of them are missing,” Lieutenant Havars reported.  “I had them tailed, but they shook the tails easily.  Not sure if they’re acting on their captain’s orders or not.”

               “Where’d they lose the tails?” Vere asked.

               “Just before they got to the east side of the city.”

               Vere frowned, already moving off.  “East side,” he muttered, “I wonder what they could want over there…”

               His cloak whirled around and mostly obscured his saber as he hurried down the streets, moving with the small crowds of people, though most people were staying inside if they had a choice in the matter.  That would make Vere’s job easier; without a lot of people, it would be a challenge for two grey-skinned foreigners who probably didn’t speak the native language well to go unnoticed for long in broad daylight.  He only had to talk to a few people on the east side before he’d picked up their trail, and within a few more blocks, he caught sight of them, making their way back towards the docks.  He stepped out of an alley directly in front of them, and smiled.

               “Restless, gentlemen?” he asked, in their own language.  He had been doing his best in his time amongst them to pick up the tongue, though he wouldn’t have been able to capture its poetry just yet.

               The two sailors, if they were sailors at all, which Vere doubted, shared a look.  “None of your business,” the taller one grunted.  Neither of them conformed to the archetype of the rest of their crew: they were lean and quick, instead of the burly strength and build of their fellows.

               “Actually, it is my business,” Vere replied.  “Everything that happens in this city is my business.  It’s in my job description, especially when it comes to foreign spies.”

               The shorter one did a remarkably good job of painting on an innocent expression.  “Spies?  What have we done?  We just wanted to go for a walk.”

               “Uh huh.  In the quarter where most of our metallurgists, smiths, and skilled artisans are?” Vere asked.  “Not a crime in and of itself, of course.  But you must admit, it’s quite suspicious.  Though not as suspicious as the fact that you slipped past my obvious guards, ditched the less obvious guards tailing you, and almost, but not quite, managed to evade me.”  Some flattery, true or not, never hurt in smoothing ruffled feathers.

               If the two hadn’t been professionals, this was the point at which they would have shared a look.  That look would have indicated clearly to Vere exactly what was going to happen next.  However, they were professionals, and they knew better than to telegraph their intentions with such a move.  They also knew their work well enough to know that there was only one viable course of action now.  Both foreigners moved to attack, the short one ducking in to Vere’s right, the tall one coming in from his left.

               But Vere was also a professional, and he suspected what their course of action would be before they moved.  He dodged between them, avoiding their daggers, and drew his sword in one hand and his dagger in the other.  Tall was faster to turn, and led with his dagger, engaging Vere’s saber, while Short was a step behind, with his knife being parried by Vere’s dagger.  All three whirled past each other again, and turned about immediately for the next round.

               Kicking up against the wall of a nearby building, Vere twisted, letting the wood take a blow meant for him, and rolled to his feet, scissoring his mismatched blades to trap Short’s knife and send it flying, almost taking off the man’s fingers in the process.  His own dagger would have pinned Short’s shoulder, but it encountered some kind of invisible barrier, and before he could follow up on his temporary advantage, he had to turn both of his blades toward Tall, who wove in with his dagger and had also drawn a hand axe.  The hand axe caught Vere’s dagger and sent it skittering away, leaving him with just his saber.  He engaged in an apparently reckless rush, distracting Tall, and allowing him to spin behind Tall just as a shard of ice exploded from Short’s fingertips and speared right through where Vere had been standing.  It would have speared Tall, instead, but simply splashed against the man’s chest.

               “That’s a neat trick,” Vere observed, facing both men and bowing slightly.  “You’re now under arrest for blatant use of Blood Magic within the Primedom of Merolate.”

               Tall chuckled.  “Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone knows about any of this, save for you, and you’re going to very soon be dead.”

               Twirling his saber around, Vere cocked his head.  “We’ll see.”

               Another ice spike flipped through the air, which Vere narrowly dodged, before barely deflecting the second one following closely with his saber.  Then he had closed the distance, but Short, still weaponless, grabbed his wrist as Tall deflected his saber.  Vere felt cold rushing through him from the touch, and struggled, keeping them focused on his thrashing, so that neither saw the knife he palmed with his other hand before he plunged it into Short’s shoulder.  Short released him with a gasp, grabbing at the knife in his shoulder, while Tall took a step back, barely avoiding Vere’s saber swipe.  It was a good thing he hadn’t tried to block, because Vere suspected the impact would have jarred his sword right out his numbed fingers.

               Short started to go for his dagger, so Vere kicked him in the face, sending him reeling to the ground, and turned the motion into a spin, flaring his cloak to distract Tall, whose next ice missile pinned the cloak instead of Vere’s head.  Vere shrugged out of the cloak, dropping the sword for half a moment before snatching it out of the air again and thrusting it through Tall’s thigh.  Yanking the saber away again, Vere followed up with another kick to the man’s face, before getting behind him and choking him to unconsciousness.  He did the same for Short, preceded by kick to the gut when he saw the man was preparing another spell.  Once they were tied up, he found his guards, had the two men carted off, and sent for the Prime.

               Kiluron had seen Prime Wezzix angry on occasion, but there was something more intimidating about this deliberate, channeled anger he was wielding as the Hablanicho captain was brought before him, with the two foreigners Vere had arrested kneeling to the side.

               “Captain Lorick’qu, is this how you repay our hospitality and aid?  With spies?” Wezzix demanded.

               “The men not am to follow my orders,” the burly captain protested, gesturing at the two prisoners.  “We am explorers, not spies.”

               Wezzix locked eyes with Lorick’qu.  “And I suppose they were simply wandering about my city, using Blood Magic, as a means of exploration?  Is that what you want me to believe?”

               “I am want you to believe the truth,” Captain Lorick’qu growled, his hand dropping to his broad axe.  “I am not to be to insult in any land nor sea without to answer.  The men am not to follow my orders.  They am to work for someone other.”

               Wezzix leaned forward.  “And just who would that someone else be?  Your government, perhaps?  The Rovis government?”

               “I am not knowing,” replied Captain Lorick’qu, still angry, but his hand had at least for the moment dropped away from his weapon.  “I am not the politician.  I am the captain.”

               “Then what do you wish done with these spies, who have broken our laws?” Wezzix demanded.  “Shall I have them tried and executed under our laws, as is my right, for espionage and the use of Blood Magic”

               “No.  They am in my command.  I am responsible, and I am to punish them.”  Lorick’qu cast a disgusted gaze towards them, and turned back to the Prime.  “I am to apologize for the incident.”

               “Fortunately, no lasting harm was done,” Wezzix replied.  “There is also another matter I would like to discuss, while you are here.”

               The guarded look, which had left Lorick’qu’s face momentarily, returned, and he fingered his belt knife nervously.  “Yes?”

               “Your use of Blood Magic,” Wezzix elaborated.  “We permit Blood Worship here in Merolate, but not the practice of Blood Magic.  We’re working on an accommodation with the nearby Isle of Blood, where you would be allowed to practice your arts.  Until then, could you refrain from the practice within our borders?”

               Captain Lorick’qu’s face grew red.  “I thought you welcome us.  Now, you am to turn us away and insult us?”  His words grew louder as he spoke, but they were still controlled.

               “You are still welcome with us, and we will provide whatever assistance we can.  However, our laws are very clear about the practice of Blood Magic, and were made for the protection of all of our citizens,” Wezzix explained.  “Perhaps it is superfluous and unnecessary in your case, but laws are laws, and the Blood Decrees predate the founding of our very Union.  Even I cannot go around simply making exceptions to the law, regardless of the circumstances.”

               That always irked Kiluron.  What was the point of having a Prime, if not to make exceptions to the laws based on the circumstances?  Knowing that there was no swaying Wezzix did not make it any easier to be a bystander to his arguments over the matter.  Granted, Kiluron was feeling much less sympathetic toward Captain Lorick’qu since his men had been caught spying.

               “Your generosity am very strange,” Captain Lorick’qu remarked.  “I to return to my ship.”  He bowed stiffly.  “Good day.”

               Wezzix rose, and bowed back, before watching Captain Lorick’qu stalk angrily from the hall.  He turned and looked at Borivat.  “That could have gone better,” he remarked.

               A day later, the Rofthox glided over the ice to the Isle of Blood, along with its crew.  A delegation of Blood Priests took its place, joining with an uncomfortable collection of Merolate’s own soldiers and scholars, led by one of Borivat’s trusted friends, Daribro, to make their way to Heart City.  Prime Wezzix stood with Borivat, watching the iceship fade into the distance.

               “Do you think that we’ll hear from the Hiblanicho again?” Wezzix asked.  “Is an alliance still possible?”

               “Anything is possible,” Borivat replied cautiously, looking away from where the iceship had gone.  “But in this case, I don’t think it’s particularly likely.   Clearly, their government is tied with the Rovis, even if this captain does not share those sentiments.  And the Rovis are in a better position to support and influence them than we are.”

               “Borivat, my friend, am I doing the right thing?” Wezzix sighed.  “Could it really be time to consider updating the Blood Decrees?”

               It was a long time before Borivat answered.  “I don’t know,” he admitted.  “You and I have both seen some of the horrors of unchecked magic.  We have both known the pain of its costs, even under its current limitations.  And if the world is truly becoming a more dangerous place, and a place of more magic, as it seems, I think we would be better off standing strong in our convictions, and keeping magic out, than in inviting it in.  Pitting magic against magic is only going to create a larger cataclysm.”

               Wezzix nodded.  “That is what I have always believed,” he agreed.  “Yet increasingly it seems to drive more people away than it unites.  When Kiluron is Prime, he will not take such a hardline approach, I think.  And it seems at times that there are dangers looming that only magic can solve.”

               “There is always another way,” Borivat said.  “And Kiluron might still come around.  He hasn’t yet seen just how easily magic can go wrong, not really.”

               “I hope you’re right,” Wezzix mused.  “I hope you’re right.”

The end of Blood Magic S1:E5: Far From Home. 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 June 30th, 2020.

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