Lounging in his chair, Kiluron tried without success to juggle a handful of odd, thick-skinned fruits from Nycheril.  They were long, slim, and greenish-yellow in color, with firm flesh that was starchy with almost no sweetness to it.  According to Doil, they were called ‘plantains.’  Whatever they were, Kiluron had no more success juggling them than he’d had last autumn when he’d tried to get some of the guardsmen to teach him how to do it with much more familiar apples, and he reluctantly uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, refocusing on the interview. 

Ostensibly, he was the one conducting the interview, since these were supposed to be his advisors, but in reality, he just let Doil do the talking, and followed his recommendations.  It seemed less likely that he would mess up and get someone killed that way.

               “How would you handle the political relationship between Merolate and Rovis?” Doil was asking.  Apparently, the fellow across the table being interviewed was interested in the position of Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands.  Until Doil had told him, Kiluron hadn’t know the position existed, but apparently the man currently interviewing had been the minister for Prime Wezzix, back before…Kiluron pushed that thought away.  It turned out that there were a lot more people involved in Merolate’s government than he had realized.  Before, it had always just seemed that it was up to Wezzix, Borivat, and Vere to decide whatever needed to be done.

               “Merolate suffered the most from the Heart War, so we should expect Rovis to be unusually aggressive, and deploy additional troops to the border to compensate.  However, they were affected, as well, so a moderate force ought to be sufficient.  It is of more concern that we continue to deter them from pursuing exploration and exploitation of Nycheril.” 

The man’s answer certainly sounded confident; Kiluron wished he could share in it.  It seemed wrong somehow to be worried about Rovis when the Union was still in shambles from the Guardian’s attacks, which were being referred to as the Heart War.  Most people either didn’t know, or weren’t prepared to accept, the reality of an ancient demon attempting to wreak vengeance and secure dominion over the entire continent of Lufilna.

               Doil, however, seemed to find the man’s answers adequate, and made approving noises before dismissing him.  When the interviewee had gone, he turned to Kiluron, who had turned to making a concerted effort at studying a thick stack of papers Vere had handed him.  He had made it through the first page – instead of being about something exciting, like strategy or small team tactics, they were about the castle guard finances.  That seemed a dirty trick.  Especially since included in the finances were the settlements owed to the families of guardsmen who had died during the battle at Heart City. 

“You know, you could at least pretend to pay attention and contribute during these interviews,” Doil huffed.  “These people will form an important part of your governing team.”

               “My governing team?” Kiluron repeated, looking up from the page, which he hadn’t really been reading so much as staring blankly at without comprehension.  “Doil, my first decisions as just the acting-Prime led to the death of Prime Wezzix, along with dozens of guardsmen and Blood Priests.  Not to mention the number of people who died from the sickness and corruption that the Guardian exuded.”

               “My lord, your decisions saved thousands of lives.  Arguably, you saved the Union.  If you hadn’t been willing to act decisively and in a way that no one else would have dared or even considered, reaching out to the Isle of Blood for help and pushing them to take a bold risk that paid off, the Guardian may well have prevailed.”  Doil sighed, probably in frustration.  “Regardless, you’re Prime now.  You’re going to need a governing team.”

               “Like anyone’s going to listen to me,” Kiluron retorted.  “I’ve been listening, actually; all of these people are just hoping that I’ll let them continue to operate as they did under Wezzix.  It’s not like I have any real power to change anything.”

               Doil threw up his hands.  “If you want something different, you have to do something about it, my lord!  You’ve given me almost nothing to go on, so I’ve been falling back on Prime Wezzix’s team and policies.  Tell me you want something different, take an active role in this, and you can change things.”

               For a moment, Kiluron glared at Doil, and then he slumped back in his chair.  “Better if I don’t, really.  Everyone would prefer that Prime Wezzix had survived.”

               Rubbing his forehead, Doil blew out a breath.  “Of course everyone would prefer that Prime Wezzix survived.”  He met Kiluron’s eyes.  “But that doesn’t mean that they won’t obey and respect you as the new Prime.”  He hesitated.  “Speaking of which, we really need to discuss arrangements for the formal investment ceremony…”

               Kiluron groaned.  “You know, you were almost managing to reassure me a bit there, before you went off on that particular topic.  I still say it’s wrong to have a big celebration the same day we formally cremate Prime Wezzix.”

               “The investment ceremony is an important part of the functioning of the Merolate Union,” Doil recited.  “It formally recognizes the transfer of power from one Prime to the next, and gives the governors of each province an opportunity to reaffirm their allegiance to both the Union and the new Prime.  It simply makes sense to have it at the same time as the cremation ceremony, since the governors will want to be able to attend both, and they can’t afford to leave their provinces for too long or too often while their still trying to recover.”

               “Then can’t we at least make it less of a celebration?” Kiluron asked.  “Just the formal ceremony and forgo all of the fancy feasts and so forth.  That seems a bit more respectful to Prime Wezzix’s legacy.”

               Doil hesitated.  “I – that’s actually a good idea.  Why didn’t you suggest it before?”

               “No need to act so surprised,” Kiluron muttered.  “I didn’t suggest it before because I didn’t think of it before.  So we can do that?  Just have the ceremonies, and not an entire festival while the Union is still trying to recover from the Guardian’s attacks?”

               Nodding, Doil was already scribbling away.  “Yes, we can do it that way.  I’ll see to it that appropriate invitations are sent to all of the governors, and of course the nobility.”

               Somehow, that made Kiluron feel better about himself.  It probably shouldn’t have, but he decided to seize the feeling while it was there.  “Alright.  Now, the governing team.  Tell me again why I can’t just have you advise me on everything?”

               Sitting down again, Doil looked relieved as he pulled another stack of papers over and began shuffling through them.  “My training with Borivat is designed not so much to make me an expert in any one thing, as to make me extremely conversant in a wide array of subjects and fields.  There are people who will devote their entire lives to any tiny subset of the subjects in which I’ve been tutored.  Mostly, we need a governing team to help filter information and provide suggestions, serving as experts in various fields: alien affairs, economics, agriculture and industry, health and sanitation, defense, and law and policy.  They will each assemble their own teams of even more specific experts.  Then, that information is made available to you, either directly or through me.  Prime Wezzix preferred to have his ministers brief Borivat, and to then consult almost exclusively with him.  You can choose to do the same with me, or to hear from the full council of ministers on a more direct basis.”

               “Alright.  What are my options?” Kiluron asked.  “I’ll figure out how much I want to deal with them myself later.  You’ve been busily interviewing people while I’ve been wallowing – which I’m probably not done with, but I’m trying for the moment – so who have you been interviewing, and how are we picking?”

               Doil consulted his notes.  “For the most part, I’ve been interviewing Prime Wezzix’s ministers.  Most have expressed interest in retaining their roles, save the minister of law and policy, who was planning to retire this summer, anyway.  But they all serve at your pleasure.  It would be unusual, but not unprecedented, for you to take on an entirely new council of ministers, although I wouldn’t recommend it at the current juncture.  Let things settle down a bit first…”

               “Alright.”  Kiluron took a deep breath.  “Please tell me if you think any of this seems completely crazy, but here’s what I’m thinking.  Keep the economics, agriculture and industry, and health and sanitation ministers the same.  Make Vere defense minister, and Borivat alien affairs minister.  Not sure about law and policy, though.  Who would be good for that?”

               “Vere won’t take the position.”  Doil sounded surprised.  “He never talked to you about it?  He’s refused every offer of any command other than the Merolate Guard.  If we were to call up an actual army, he wouldn’t even be in its command structure.  Also, I’m not sure about putting Borivat in a ministerial position.  Usually, advisors to the Prime are expected to retire with their Prime.”

               “You don’t mean…” Kiluron interrupted.

               “No, nothing so barbaric,” Doil assured him.  “But giving him an official position within the government could be…awkward.”

               Kiluron sighed.  “I’m not sure that I care.  That other guy you were interviewing seemed slimy to me, and I know Borivat.  He’d do a good job.”

               “Well, I suppose it would serve to assuage some of the usual turnover concerns…” Doil mused.  “I think we should conduct a few more interviews, but it’s at least worth considering.”  He paused.  “All of this begs the question, though, of what you intend your governing style to be.  What is your policy vision?  We should try to tap ministers who share a similar vision and will work to support the outcomes you desire.”

               Scrubbing his face with his palms, Kiluron looked at Doil through his fingers.  “That’s an awfully big question to spring on a person like that.  How am I supposed to know?  I figured it was going to be at least another ten years before I needed to worry about that kind of thing.”

               Doil folded his hands in his lap and contemplated Kiluron.  “Well, I know you’ve expressed that you thought Prime Wezzix’s governing style was too inflexible and rigid at times.  Maybe that’s a place to start?  Wezzix saw the law as an instantiation of philosophy and almost a morality of its own.  Your governing philosophy could be based in an idea of the law as a secular entity separate from morality.”

               Kiluron blinked.  “I understood what some of those words meant.”

               “Sorry.”  Doil blushed.  “It’s one of the big debates within the legal community: is an illegal action necessarily moral?  Is morality dependent on a system of laws, or is there some absolute moral code that we as humans simply don’t yet understand, like we don’t yet understand the precise ways in which the world works?”  He paused.  “All of which is somewhat tangential to whether you would like to make the idea of greater flexibility within the legal structure a mark of your governing philosophy.”

               “Maybe?”  Kiluron shook his head.  “I just don’t know.  It was a lot easier to disagree and have my own opinions about the best way of doing things when it wasn’t up to me to make all of the decisions and be responsible for so many people’s lives.”

               Doil nodded.  “I understand, my lord.  But I know that you’ll do what is best.  We don’t need to come up with the answers right now, but we should plan to have the ministers selected and a basic governing thesis published by the time of the investment ceremony.  Especially since you’ll want to know what that is for your speech.”

               “My speech?”  Kiluron looked up sharply.  “You didn’t say anything about a speech.”

               “Didn’t I?”  Doil hesitated.  “Well, yes.  You’ll need to deliver two speeches.  One for Prime Wezzix’s cremation ceremony, and one for your investment ceremony.  I can write them for you, if you wish, though you’ll probably want to go over them to make them sound more like you and less like me.”

               “Oh.  Well, that’s alright then,” Kiluron said.  “As long as you tell me what I’m supposed to say, I can’t mess it up too badly.  It’s not the giving speeches that I have a problem with – it’s the knowing what to say.”  He sat back and thought for a moment.  “Is there anything else we need to go over?”

               “No, I don’t believe so,” Doil said after a moment’s thought.  “At least, not at the moment.”

               “Good,” Kiluron declared.  “I feel a need to go swing a sword at something, clear my head.  All of this sitting inside with papers all day is making me twitchy.”

               He leapt to his feet then and hurried from the chamber before Doil could come up with something else that he needed to do.  Honestly, he didn’t understand how Doil could bear to spend so long couped up inside, pouring over dusty tomes and piles of paper with cramped, tiny, nearly illegible script upon them.  After less than a morning of it, Kiluron was inevitably ready to scream from the tedium.  That the feeling only made him feel even more inadequate for his position as Merolate’s Prime only made it more intense, so while going down to the practice yard to vent his frustrations might help the former feeling, it only made him more guilty.

               Hurrying from the conference room with a stack of papers so high he could barely see over it to navigate Merolate’s corridors, Doil didn’t bother trying to see in front of him.  He kept his head down, watching his steps go by, and concentrated on going through the list of tasks he had to complete in the remainder of the day.  From the position of the sun, the morning was more than halfway gone already, and he could barely fathom where the time had gone.  When was the last time he had slept?  That thought seemed to come from nowhere, and he shoved it aside as a distraction he could ill afford.  Around him, servants, guards, and the castle’s other residents parted before him; even after just a short time as advisor to the Prime, they knew it was best to give Doil space.  Otherwise, it was liable that nothing would ever get done.

               He had really hoped that Kiluron would manage to write his own speeches, but he hadn’t had the heart to tell Kiluron that he didn’t have the time to do the job for him.  This was his role as advisor to the Prime, and he didn’t think it appropriate to start off by admitting that he couldn’t fulfill all of his responsibilities, even if he had no idea how he was ever going to get everything done.  He had made a list just to keep track of the different lists of things to do that he had made.  At his less charitable moments, usually late at night, he would look up at the window and wonder how it seemed that he was holding the entire Union together by his pen.  Then he would reprimand himself for delusions of grandeur, and more for wasting too much time, and get back to work.

               There were some tasks he could delegate, but he was working with a skeletal staff, and he knew too well how thinly stretched everyone else was; it seemed wrong to make his own life easier by delegating to people who were also busy trying to keep Merolate running.  Doil had gotten an order signed by Kiluron to reinstate most of the castle staff, which would normally have been a routine action during a transition between Primes, but which had been lost in the confusion around the status of an acting-Prime.  For almost a week, there had been no one formally employed by the Merolate government; Doil counted himself and the country fortunate that there were a majority of people who had continued working without pay or true authorization until he could make their roles official again.

               Several times in the past few days, Borivat had tried to schedule additional mentorship sessions with him, and Doil had been studiously finding excuses to avoid them.  He would have welcomed Borivat’s help, but his mentor seemed oddly lost and out of place now that he was no longer Prime Wezzix’s advisor, and instead of offering to help Doil with any of the hundreds of tasks he had to complete, Borivat kept trying to treat their relationship as if nothing had changed.  Doil felt guilty about it, but that seemed a problem to solve later.  Sometime when he managed to catch more than a wink of sleep every day or two.

               His own study had become the unofficial center of Merolate governance, and was suitably decorated with papers tacked over parchments clipped over scrolls and pasted atop packets.  It was impossible to see out the window any longer for the amount of paper that had been affixed to that surface, and his desk, once a monument to barebones organization and minimalism, was now a jungle of books , reports, and letters.  Try as he might to deny it, the truth was that he knew how he was presently operating was unsustainable, but knowing that did not imply that he also knew of a solution.

               That wasn’t strictly true: he did know of a solution.  He needed Kiluron to start making decisions and taking on the duties and responsibilities that went along with the title of Prime, but the ordinarily impulsive and energetic man had become broody and indecisive since being made acting-Prime, and confirmation of Prime Wezzix’s death at the hands of the Guardian had only made the matter worse.  He was personally blaming himself for that death, along with all of the others that had occurred in the Heart War.  Though Doil tried to help and support Kiluron as best he could, there was only so much he could do, and it was becoming more and more difficult to find the patience for it.  For a time during their conversation after the morning’s interviews, he had thought he might be getting through, and had seen a glimmer of the old Kiluron, but then it had faded away again, and he had gone off to waste time with the guardsmen.

               Settling down in his chair and tucking himself into his desk, Doil paused a moment and stared out the window, or rather tried to; all he could see were, of course, the lists he had posted there.  Then he took out a fresh piece of paper, readied his pen, and started writing.  The note prepared, he copied it several more times, sealed all of the copies, and hurried down the hall to the castle steward’s office, where he delivered the notes along with instructions that they be sent out to all of the governors and nobility immediately.  He also instructed the man to prepare for the cremation ceremony and the investment ceremony, but that there would be no associated feasts.  It was difficult to tell if the steward was more relieved by the lesser amount of work that would be required, or traumatized by the digression from standard protocol.

               That finished, he returned to his own office, where he wished that he could sit down and begin working on Kiluron’s speeches, but instead he turned his attention to more pressing concerns.  If he could at least arrange for a full staff of ministers, it would make his job more manageable.  There was one step to take immediately, though for some reason Doil dreaded accomplishing it.  He delayed by penning rejection letters to the morning’s interviewees and sending out additional invitations for interviews to some accomplished Merolate academics whose papers he had read.  Then, unable to explain away his delaying tactics to himself any longer, he pushed up from his desk again and set off to find Borivat.

               Not surprisingly, he found Borivat in one of the castle’s studies, two books propped open on either side of him, and a half-filled sheet of paper laid out on the desk in front of him.  It was often Borivat’s habit to write essays while he was reading; he claimed it allowed him to reach a fuller and more detailed understanding of the texts.  Having tried it, Doil found that he didn’t derive those same benefits, though he had spent plenty of time writing just such essays at Borivat’s insistence.  Hesitantly, he knocked on the door.

               “Ah, Doil,” Borivat said, glancing up from his studies, “I wondered when you might find a few moments free to come see me.  Just because you’re the full advisor to the Prime now doesn’t mean that your education is finished.”

               Looking down, Doil nodded.  “Of course not.  I would never presume…”

               Borivat interrupted him.  “No matter.  Given the circumstances, I think that it is appropriate that we begin a thorough study of political successions throughout history, especially since Unification.”

               In that moment, Doil would have rather been having any other conversation.  “I’m sure that would be very valuable, but…”

               “Excellent.  You’ll doubtless want to start with Elferas’s Treatise on the Rise and Fall of Sankt.”  Borivat gestured at a thick tome sitting on one of the study’s side tables.  “Let me know when you’ve finished the first six theses, and we can discuss its applicability to the current situation.”

               “I – that’s not why I’m here.”  Doil took a deep breath and swallowed against his nervousness.  Then he forced himself to stand straighter; he wasn’t just a pupil skipping out on his lessons.  He had real responsibilities, even if Borivat seemed insistent on denying that reality.  “I don’t have time for Elferas’s Treatise right now.  I came to ask if you would be willing to serve as Kiluron’s Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands.”

               For some reason, Borivat froze at this, and Doil thought he saw a flash of fear in the older man’s eyes.  “That is a…most irregular request.”

               “I know, I know, there’s no precedent for it,” Doil admitted.  “And if you would prefer to retire or to pursue some other course, of course we’d understand, but this whole situation is somewhat unprecedented.  I don’t think it would raise too many eyebrows under the circumstances, and might even settle a few worried about the transition and Kiluron’s relative youth.”

               Borivat nodded.  “Yes, I can see a certain logic to the request.  Was this your idea, or his?”

               “His.”  Doil hesitated.  “Why?”

               Borivat nodded again.  “I thought so.  It smacks of his disregard for precedent and history in general.”  It sounded like a criticism, but Doil restrained himself from arguing.

               Doil clasped his hands behind his back to keep them steady.  He was finding this conversation even more frustrating and fraught than he had anticipated.  “If you don’t want the post, I’ll find someone else to do the job.  But Kiluron trusts you, and we need to put together a government quickly.”

               “I’m glad to hear Kiluron trusts me.”  Borivat still hadn’t stood up from his desk.  “Do you trust me, Doil?”

               “I – what?  What does that have to do with anything?” Doil took a deep breath to steady himself.  It seemed completely unfair that Borivat should be giving him a hard time, too, after all of his struggles with Kiluron.  It felt like everyone was simply wallowing in their feelings while Doil had to try to keep everything running smoothly.  “Look, if you don’t want the job, just say so.  I have enough other things to deal with that I don’t have time for this sparring.”  With that, he whirled around and stalked out of the study.

               “Doil…” he heard Borivat’s voice trail him out the door, but he ignored it, instead hurrying back to his own office, his expression grim.  He managed a perfunctory nod at the few people he passed in the corridors, but none stopped him; the look on his face must have brooked no interruption, or else they would surely have hounded him about a dozen other things he was supposed to be doing.

               Throwing himself down into his desk chair again, Doil blew out a long breath and lay his head on his desk, feeling the subtle grain of the warm wood on his forehead.  Then he sat up abruptly, seized his pen, and began scribbling furiously at another piece of paper, trying to carve out a few lines at least of one of Kiluron’s speeches, but he found that his pen was trembling too much for him to create clean letters, and then he accidentally tore the paper. 

Flinging the pen down, he opened up one of the reports on the desk and began to read it, but he found himself just going over and over the same lines again and again.  So he tossed the report back into the pile from whence he had taken it, sat back in his chair, and gripped his head in his hands, pressing on his temples as if he could compel his brain to comply through brute force.  He didn’t have time for this self-indulgent emotion; he needed to concentrate and accomplish things.

               Thinking it, unfortunately, didn’t make it so, but he managed to take a deep breath and steady himself enough to pull out a fresh sheet of paper, repair his pen, and begin anew to write.  This time, he chose to write a few lines of Kiluron’s investment speech, because he thought it might put him in a more positive, future-focused mood, the better to dispel the negativity he had trailed from his meeting with Borivat.  Two paragraphs in, he found himself feeling, while not precisely better, at least calmer and more prepared to struggle through the rest of the day.  And the night, of course, since he wasn’t likely to be getting much sleep yet again.

               With a shout, Kiluron brought his sword flashing down in an overhand blow that wedged it deep into the practice dummy; a puff of sawdust exploded when he wrenched the blade free again, only to be dispelled by the wind of his swing as he brought the sword back around and stabbed through the dummy’s stomach, feeling the shock travel through his wrist and up his arm.  He would have preferred to be practicing with a real person, but all of the guardsmen seemed to be busy, or at least there had been none around on the practice grounds when Kiluron had arrived that morning.  Or had it been afternoon, by the time he dragged himself out of bed?

He wasn’t sure, but he was glad that he had finally decided to get up today.  Being out in the sun, feeling the fresh air wash over the thin sheen of sweat on his face and swell his lungs, had improved his mood markedly.  It was almost enough for him to forget the work he was ignoring inside the castle.  No doubt he would get another lecture from Doil about his responsibilities.

               His mood fell again at that thought, and he frowned.  He didn’t blame Doil; he was just doing his job, and Kiluron was honest enough with himself to admit that he wasn’t making Doil’s job any easier, and that he had probably already received more sympathy from him than he deserved.  Glancing up towards the castle, Kiluron sighed.  Once, not even that long ago, he had been excited at the prospect of being Prime; he could remember arguing with Wezzix about decisions the other man had made that Kiluron thought were wrong.  Yet now, he couldn’t bring himself to confront even the decisions of selecting a governing staff.

               Sand crunched to the side, and Kiluron turned to see Vere striding onto the practice grounds and hefting a blunted sword, giving it a few experimental swings.  He noticed Kiluron watching him and gave a look as if surprised.  “I hear you keep trying to beat up my guardsmen,” he remarked.

               Deliberately turning his back, not wanting to get into a discussion, Kiluron hacked again at the practice dummy.  “Just trying to get some practice in.”

               Even with his back turned, Kiluron could hear Vere’s practice sword whistling through the air as he went through a warmup sequence.  “Funny, I don’t remember Prime Wezzix spending a lot of time practicing his swordsmanship,” Vere remarked.

               Kiluron grunted.  “I’m not Wezzix.  I’ll practice if I want to.”

               The whistling of Vere’s practice sword seemed to be getting closer, and Kiluron turned in the sand in time to bring his sword up to block an experimental jab at his shoulder.  Vere cocked an eyebrow, just barely visible beneath a leather helm.  “Well, if you’re going to be swinging that thing around anyway, perhaps you’d like to spar.”

               “Not going to tell me that I ought to be doing something more productive?” Kiluron asked.

               Vere shook his.  “It’s not my job to tell a Prime what he should or should not be doing.  Besides, I don’t want you bruising up my men, so maybe this will cure you of that inclination.”

               Kiluron hesitated: he had no illusions about his abilities compared to Vere’s, and wasn’t certain that he felt like losing quite so soundly.  Still, a real partner would be nice, and he wouldn’t need to hold back with someone as skilled as Vere.  He shrugged.  “Fine.  I’ll spar with you.”

               “Excellent.”  Vere snapped his sword up, and Kiluron did likewise.  They began to circle each other, eyes darting, each standing light on their toes and bouncing slightly.  Kiluron felt his breath quicken in his chest, and he embraced the feeling.

               In the past when sparring with Vere, Kiluron was almost never the first to move.  Vere was so fast that he could typically dart in and strike before any opponent, and he didn’t hold with ideas of waiting for an opponent to strike first to gauge their abilities.  After all, as he would say, a dead opponent’s abilities were quite clear.  This time, though, Vere kept circling long after he would normally have attacked, so Kiluron frowned, watching him.  It seemed like a trap of some kind.

               If it was, he was unlikely to out-wait Vere, so Kiluron leapt forward, staying up on his toes, and slashed with his sword.  Vere blocked, of course, but Kiluron hadn’t expected the blow to land; he was already twisting around the other man, and jabbed his left elbow at Vere’s side whilst trying to trap the man’s leg with his own.  Stilling moving to maintain momentum, Kiluron thought for a moment that he was going to succeed in toppling Vere as they both began to overbalance, with Vere on the bottom, when Kiluron felt blunted metal press against the back of his neck.  While he did manage to land on top of Vere, it would have done him little good in a real fight.

               “A fine move, but you would have needed to make sure that I couldn’t bring my sword back into play or reach a dagger,” Vere observed, climbing to his feet and dusting himself off.  He held up his sword in another ready stance.  “Shall we have another round?”

               Kiluron grumbled, but nodded and settled into his stance.  This time, Vere didn’t wait; he leapt forward two steps, balanced on his toes, and struck thrice at Kiluron – once to the face, and twice to the chest.  Kiluron swayed aside from the first, knocked aside the second, and barely stepped away from the third.  He struck at Vere’s exposed side, but Vere whirled and actually slapped the flat of Kiluron’s practice blade with the palm of his hand to deflect it.  Then he rushed inside Kiluron’s guard, slamming his shoulder into him hard enough to toss Kiluron back.

               Somehow managing to stay on his feet, Kiluron looked up just in time for Vere to place the tip of his blunted sword at Kiluron’s throat.  Kiluron swallowed and held his hands out to the sides.  “You win again.”

               Pulling his blade away, Vere shook his head.  “No.  You lost.”

               “What?”  Kiluron hesitated.  “That’s the same thing.”

               “A mathematician would agree with you,” Vere said.  “But I’ve never been very fond of mathematics.  So cold, so dry.  There is a clear difference between me winning and you losing.”

               Kiluron sighed.  “I thought you wanted to spar, not lecture.”

               “I am sparring,” Vere argued.  “Verbally.”

               “Bah.  I can’t handle your wordplay today, Vere.”  Kiluron stepped away and stabbed his practice sword back onto the rack.

               “The difference between me winning and you losing,” Vere continued as if Kiluron hadn’t said anything, “is that one is affirmative, and one is negative.  If we were both striving to win, then I would have won.  But instead, you were striving not to lose.  That’s why I didn’t win – you lost.”

               Kiluron turned back to Vere, flabbergasted.  “Trying not to lose?  I fought as best I could.  You know I’ve never been able to beat you, Vere.  There’s maybe one person in this entire city who could stand a chance against you in a fair swordfight.”

               “Entirely beside the point,” Vere dismissed the argument.

               “So, what’s today’s moral, then?” Kiluron demanded.  “That I’m defeating myself by expecting not to win?  And that’s what I’m doing in life, too, by coming out here?  I’m playing to not lose, instead of playing to win?”

               Vere shrugged.  “I don’t hand out morals or lessons,” he said.  “That’s not the poetic way.  In poetry, there is only so much to a poem as is seen by the reader.  So too in my words.”

               Kiluron rolled his eyes.  “Look, I get it.  You think I should be embracing my role as Prime.  You think that I’m so afraid of making a mistake, of losing, that I’m not wiling to take the risks necessary to succeed, to win.  Is that it?”

               Vere shrugged again.  “If it helps you to think of it that way, then yes.  Otherwise, no.”

               “You’re impossible,” Kiluron snapped.  “You want to help me?  Become my minister of defense.”

               “I am not impossible, for I exist and am standing before you,” Vere countered.  “Unless, of course, you consider me and everyone and everything else that is not you to be merely a figment of your imagination, and that your entire existence occurs exclusively in your own head.  As for becoming to Defensive and Military Affairs Minister, I am afraid I must decline your generous offer.  I will be of the most help to you and to this Union by remaining in my position commanding the Merolate guard.”

               “So, you turn down responsibility, but you expect me to embrace it?” Kiluron asked.  “Seems like something of a double standard, to me.”

               Placing his own practice sword on the rack, Vere shook his head.  “On the contrary.  I know my talents, and I know what role is best for me.  I can serve you best where I am now, and not as Defensive and Military Affairs Minister.  Just as you can best serve the Union by embracing your role as Prime.  This is for what you have trained; now you must put that training into action.”

               “But I’m not ready!” Kiluron protested.  “I’m going to make mistakes.  People will suffer because of those mistakes.  I should have had years more to learn from Wezzix before I needed to take over.  It’s not fair to expect me to be able to just jump into this role.”

               Pausing at the entrance to the practice grounds, Vere looked back at Kiluron and nodded.  “Yes.  All of those statements are true.  It is also true that you are Prime.  Now, you have only to choose what manner of Prime you intend to become.”

               Without waiting for any reply, or saying anything further, Vere left.  Kiluron stared after him with folded arms, grumbling to himself.  He picked a practice sword back up from the rack and turned back to the practice dummy, but his swings lacked conviction, and he soon returned the sword to the rack.  Glancing up at the castle, he heaved another sigh, and headed inside.  What Vere had said was true: he was Prime, whether he liked it or not.  Even not making decisions was in and of itself a decision on what kind of Prime he was going to be.  At the very least he could be active in making mistakes and trying to improve the state of the Union.

               It took several days for all of the province governors and other nobility to reach the city, and those days seemed by turns to rush by in a whirlwind of tasks and disasters and catastrophes and problems that only Doil could possibly address, and also so slowly that he thought they would never end.  That was probably because of how long they were; Doil was routinely going to bed well after the sun had set and getting up long before it rose again.  He thought in his more negative moments that he was probably going to end up using up the entire city’s supply of lamp oil just to get all of his work done.

               His workload should have lessened somewhat after most of the ministers were selected, but he still hadn’t heard back from Borivat on the alien affairs position, and there were so many additional tasks to be completed to prepare for the cremation ceremony for Prime Wezzix, and then Prime Kiluron’s investment ceremony, that it simply reduced his list of things to do from completely unmanageable to somewhat unmanageable.  Under normal circumstances, he would have tried to compare notes with Borivat and see if this was what it had been like in the early days of Prime Wezzix’s reign, but he hadn’t spoken to Borivat since their argument in the study.

               Somehow, the lack of feasts had turned into even more of a logistical nightmare than having them would have been, since they now had to work through the logistics of somehow feeding in adequate comfort and style, but without a full banquet setup, all of the Union’s most important personages.  The castle’s head chef seemed ready to beat someone over the head with a wooden spoon, although he offered Doil a sympathetic grimace before turning back to his mammoth ovens and bellowing a most creative string of expletives to bring his staff back into line.

               Ever since the declining days of the Blood Empire, it had become traditional for anyone who could afford it to ensure they were cremated upon death, so that the Blood Priests wouldn’t be able to use their corpse for some obscene ritual.  Doil knew this to be superstition, since the Blood Priests required a living person to serve as a sacrifice, and would gain about as much magical benefit from a corpse as they would from a boulder, but the practice had become a tradition, and as far as traditions went it was innocent and simple enough, with even the poorest household mostly able to afford a basic cremation.  A Prime, however, was seen as needing something special, and so when the first Merolate Prime had died, a special furnace had been created that was said to get so hot that even a person’s bones would be turned to ash.  The ashes were then sprinkled over the roots of a tree in the center of the city.

               A flame was always kept burning in that furnace, but immense amounts of fuel and effort were needed to bring it up to the appropriate temperature, with servants manning the bellows for days while charcoal was shoveled into the structure.  Doil had to arrange for a special collection to be made of the city, because after a long winter there was little extra charcoal to be found.  It would have been a terrible faux pau to not get the furnace sufficiently hot to completely incinerate Prime Wezzix’s body.  He also had to find at least one other body, with which to test the furnace’s temperature.  In what he thought was an unusual burst of creativity and insight, he had arranged for all of the soldiers who had died during the Heart War to be incinerated in the same furnace as the Prime during the week leading up to Prime Wezzix’s cremation.

               Then, of course, there was the matter of Kiluron’s speeches, which Doil spent far too much time agonizing over at all hours of the day and night, massaging and manipulating and revising to try to strike the right tone and style that would fit Kiluron and communicate the right messages.  The process wasn’t helped by the fact that Doil still didn’t know what the “right” messages were that Kiluron would want to convey. 

He had seen little of Kiluron aside from the interviews, but at least he had seemed to be taking a more active interest in those.  When they had interviewed two candidates for the position of Minister of Law, Justice, and Policy, Kiluron had actually asked several pointed questions about the role of second chances and incarceration and how they affected recidivism, and how morality played into the law.  Not that he had used those words, but that was to what the questions had amounted.  It had actually been rather exciting, until Kiluron had disappeared again immediately after the interviews were concluded.

               By some dint of titanic effort and sheer willpower, Doil completed the speeches and arrangements in time for the cremation ceremony.  He made political small talk with the governors and various nobles who had come in from all parts of the Union to pay their respects to Prime Wezzix and to affirm their allegiance to Merolate and the new Prime Kiluron, while trying to answer the dozens of questions with which the castle staff continuously came to him in attempts to keep the whole event proceeding smoothly.  Throughout it all he worried that someone would observe and note the somewhat frantic, perhaps almost manic way in which he was responding to them, but no one commented, and Welate’s governor even complimented him on how well the event was turning out, which was enough to make Doil almost sag with relief.

               It was even more of a relief when he was able to find a quiet corner without too many people around from which to watch the actual cremation ceremony.  Prime Wezzix’s body was brought forward, wrapped in a shroud with Merolate’s symbol emblazoned upon it, and a Merolate banner folded in his arms, and was then passed carefully into the furnace, which blazed white-hot at the center of the chamber in which the nobles and governors had gathered.  Lower-class attendees were gathered around the perimeter and outside, where criers would repeat the words that were said within the chamber itself.  Kiluron then stepped forward, and Doil watched nervously as he fumbled in his pocket, doubtless for a copy of the speech Doil had written for him.  Doil hoped he had at least bothered to practice it once or twice beforehand.

               From his corner, Doil watched Kiluron.  He looked nervous, swallowing as he looked out over the crowd, but Doil suspected that he simply knew Kiluron well enough to see signs that were not obvious to others.  Whatever his internal thoughts, he managed to square his shoulders, and when he spoke his words were clear and practiced, familiar to Doil from his efforts at writing them over the past few days.

               “Like many of you here today, I thought of Prime Wezzix as something more than merely human.  His name was nearly impossible to dissociate from his title, after so many years serving this Union as Prime.  In that time, he never faced a crisis that he could not resolve with firmness, diplomacy, and adherence to the rule of law.  The law of this land was everything to him.  He was never interested in the adoration of the people or being praised for his benevolence – he cared far more about being just.  To him, justice was the law, and the law was justice.  That emphasis helped keep the Union together during challenging times, despite the efforts of enemies both internal and external.”  Doil was proud of this introduction; he thought it did a good job of capturing in a few words exactly for what Prime Wezzix had always wanted to be remembered.

               Kiluron continued the speech, Doil mouthing the words along with him.  It would have been better if Kiluron’s delivery sounded a little less wooden and a little more natural, but he would be forgiven.  Others would probably just assume that he was fighting with intense emotions.  In a way, Doil supposed that was true.  “Despite my position as sub-Prime, I never really internalized that someday Prime Wezzix would be gone.  Like the Union that he has helped preserve, I thought he would last forever.  No matter what crises came, I thought he would always be able to handle them, because that was what he had always done.  And no matter how bad things looked, he would always stay true to his principles.  When disaster struck this spring, I couldn’t bring myself to panic.  Prime Wezzix would know what to do.  From the letters that came in at the time, and that I’ve read since, I was not the only one who placed my trust in Prime Wezzix to see us through such dark times.”  That had been a more personal part of the speech, and it had made Doil somewhat uncomfortable to write it without consulting more directly with Kiluron, but apparently the new Prime had approved of the verbiage.  Or he hadn’t practiced beforehand and was simply doing a good job of pretending.

               “True to form, Prime Wezzix confronted the horrors of the Heart War with determination, justice, and principle.  He refused to compromise his positions, his laws, or his morals, convinced that only in adhering to them could he see the Union preserved not just from the threat of the Heart War, but from all threats to its lasting integrity.  When the situation looked bleak, he maintained his faith, and he set out to negotiate an end to the Heart War.  He refused to allow anyone else to accompany him, believing that the risk was his alone to take, determined to preserve his people and his country.  In the end, he gave his life for his country.

               “You might think of this as a failure – negotiation did not end the Heart War – but I do not think Prime Wezzix’s last action was a failure.  Nor do I want you all to remember his last decision as a failure, for in truth he succeeded.  He succeeded in maintaining his principles, and in preserving the Union.  Indeed, we are all here today to reaffirm the strength of this Union we have created.  Even in death, he brings us closer together.  So let this be not a day only of mourning, but also of gratitude for the life and efforts of a man who gave everything, including his life, for the success and preservation of the Merolate Union.”  Kiluron stepped back, and Doil caught his eye and nodded.  Kiluron returned the nod, but then got a strange look on his face, and disappeared into the crowd.  Frowning, Doil tried to return to concentrating on the ceremony, but found that his attention kept wandering.  Still, at least Kiluron had done well with the speech for the cremation ceremony; he hoped he would do at least as well for the investment ceremony.

               As soon as the cremation ceremony concluded, Doil made for a backdoor exit.  He hoped he wouldn’t seem too rude, but he was far more concerned about making sure that all of the arrangements were made, and all of the necessary actions taken to ensure that the investment ceremony, which was going to occur almost immediately following the cremation ceremony, would run smoothly.  It wouldn’t do for Prime Kiluron’s first official event to go poorly; that would not reflect well on his coming reign.  Even the slightest of mistakes could be seen as a sign of cracks in the Union, and the governors would seek to widen those cracks if perceived.  It had not been so long since Unification that there were not still some elements in each of the provinces that believed they would be better off not paying homage to a central Prime in Merolate.

               One of the castle’s great halls had been commandeered for the purpose of hosting the investment ceremony, and it was already appropriately decorated; Doil had ensured that much before attending the cremation ceremony.  Now, it was mostly a matter of ensuring that the servants and stewards remembered the appropriate processes and procedures, and that everything went off at the right times, and…Doil took a deep breath, admitting that he was fussing.  Punching his right fist into his left palm, he blew out another breath, and tried to calm down.  He had made a thousand preparations to lead up to this event, and now that it was here there really wasn’t anything more that he could or should be doing.  The staff was well-trained and knew their jobs.  Somehow, not having anything specific to do to help ensure that the investment ceremony went smoothly was worse than if he had a list as tall as he was that needed to happen before the guests arrived in the hall.

               Standing in an alcove to overlook the decorations one last time, to ensure that nothing was missing or out of place, but really to be above the hustle and bustle and have a moment to think, Doil was interrupted by a rustling of robes as someone else joined him in the alcove.

               “Do you have a moment?” Borivat asked, leaning next to Doil with a soft sigh and a crackling of joints.

               Startled, Doil glanced at him, and winced.  He did not have time or inclination for another argument right then.  “Not really…”

               Borivat nodded.  “I understand.”  He was quiet for a moment.  “I just wanted to apologize.”

               “To…apologize?” Doil asked.  This was not what he had expected.

               Borivat nodded again, and then he sighed.  He looked suddenly older to Doil.  “I – have not been taking this transition as well as I should have.  It took us all by surprise, but it seems that you are the only one who managed to adapt to it.  Well, you and Vere, I suppose, but nothing really changed for him.”

               At this, Doil gave a short, high laugh.  “Adapted?  You think I’ve adapted to this?  I feel like I’m drowning in a hurricane.  Every time I think I’ve found a moment to get a gasp of air, a giant wave of foamy seawater crashes over me.”

               “It’s funny: I’ve been preparing you and Prime Kiluron for most of your lives for this very moment, and yet I never bothered to prepare myself.  I guess a part of me never really acknowledged that there was a chance I’d outlive Prime Wezzix.”  Borivat spoke as if Doil hadn’t said anything.  “And it happened so suddenly, so now I must admit that I have not been handling his death very well.  I ought to have been more of a help to you.”  He took Doil’s hands, and Doil was shocked to see that his eyes were bright with a faint film of tears.  “I just – I want you to understand – I felt that I was stepping on toes while Kiluron was acting-Prime, and I knew that I would need to step aside, but I did not know how to do it.  And I wanted you to need me, and knew that you would still need me, but I didn’t want to acknowledge that things wouldn’t be the same as they were…before.”

               Hesitantly, Doil nodded.  “It’s not your fault,” he replied automatically.  “I should have made more time to continue my lessons.  I know that I don’t know enough, but there’s just so much to do…”

               “Doil.”  Borivat’s voice was gentle, but he drew Doil’s attention and held it.  Now, Doil really processed what he was saying.  “I am trying to apologize.  I know that I have not done as well as I could have to support you during these past few days, when you needed support more than ever.  Despite that, you have done an amazing job.  Yes, there is still more for you to learn, but that will come, in time.  You have proven that you have learned the most important lessons.”  He paused.  “Although we do still need to work on you delegation skills…”

               Against his will, Doil felt his own eyes misting, too.  “I – thank you.”  He wasn’t certain what else he could say.  Fortunately, Borivat seemed to understand.

               He patted Doil’s hands and stood to go.  “Oh, by the way,” he said, looking back at Doil in the alcove, “if your offer of the position of alien affairs minister is still open, I would be honored to accept the post.”

               At this, Doil managed a smile, and nodded once, somewhat unsteadily.  Borivat nodded back, and then disappeared around the corner, leaving Doil alone in the alcove again.  He took another deep breath and let it out.  This time, it actually managed to calm him.

               Perhaps the best thing about deciding to cancel the feasts, Kiluron reflected, was that there would be less time for politicking with the various governors and nobility who had come to witness Prime Wezzix’s cremation ceremony and to reaffirm their allegiance to Merolate and to the new Prime during Kiluron’s own investment ceremony.  As much as he had a reluctant fondness for such machinations, they were not something with which he wanted to have to deal on the day of his investment ceremony.  This way, he would be able to get by with a few pleasantries, and of course his speeches.

               The first speech hadn’t been too bad.  Doil had done a good job with it, even if the prose was a little more florid than Kiluron would typically employ, but then, that seemed appropriate for a formal speech.  He had read over it briefly before standing up and presenting it during the cremation ceremony.  Now, he was pacing in an antechamber as a crier in the great hall announced the start of the formal investment ceremony and began reciting the entire Merolate charter, preparing for his investment speech, about which he was far more nervous.  He had Doil’s copy of that speech tucked into his pocket, and he had read over that one, too.  Unfortunately, that wouldn’t help him much, because he didn’t intend to give the speech that Doil had prepared for him.

               In an unusual display of scholarship that had made his head ache and taken him far longer than it ought to have, he had spent much of the last few days pouring over old speeches from Merolate’s other Primes, especially their respective investment speeches.  There weren’t many from which to choose, but they were all carefully recorded word for word, along with annotations and emphases that attempted to convey the nuances of each Prime’s speaking style.  It was at least a place from which he could start crafting a speech.  He doubted it would be a fancy speech, but he intended it to be an honest one.

               Ever since his fight with Vere the other day, he had been struggling with himself.  Not because he doubted that Vere had a point, but because he instinctively recoiled from that point, or more precisely, from the decision it entailed.  Doil had prompted him to reflect on what he wanted his government philosophy to be, and Kiluron had struggled with that question.  He simply wasn’t the kind of person to think in terms of government philosophies and question of legal scholarship.  That would work for Doil, but Kiluron needed a different approach.  Yet he was afraid to commit, regardless of the approach used.  The whole investment ceremony felt like a precipice from which there was no retreat.

               Fundamentally, he didn’t yet think of himself as Prime.  That was going to take time to change, but it didn’t mean that he couldn’t make decisions in the meantime.  He had managed alright as acting-Prime until he learned that Prime Wezzix had been killed, and that he was going to be responsible for preserving the Union.  Though he couldn’t, and shouldn’t, go back to thinking of his role as if the ultimate responsibility didn’t rest with him, he needed to think of it in terms of doing the best he could.  What more could he do?  He wasn’t the kind of Prime to stand up and give haughty speeches about law and order.  Prime Wezzix had been good at that sort of thing, the kind of Prime who people looked at and saw nothing but the office which he occupied.  Somehow, Kiluron couldn’t see himself that way.  But he thought that, just maybe, he could be a kind of Prime that people could see as one of their own.

               Trying his best to keep that thought in mind, Kiluron stepped out into the great hall, and surveyed the assembled governors and noblemen.  Then, he looked beyond them, to where Merolate’s citizens were thronging around, waiting for the criers to repeat the words Kiluron was about to utter.  Taking a deep breath, he caught Doil’s eye.  Doil gave him an encouraging smile, and Kiluron winked at him.  He rifled in his pocket, pulled out the copy of the speech Doil had written for him, and held it up in front of everyone.

               “Doil wrote this speech for me,” he admitted, his voice quiet, so that even those close to him had to strain to hear.  It brought a hush over the entire hall.  “I think he did a pretty good job with it – he does a pretty good job at most things.  It talks about how I’m going to preserve the rule of law and ensure the prosperity of the Union.  Good sentiments, and I agree with them.  Now, I hope that Doil doesn’t have an apoplectic fit at this next statement, but this isn’t the speech I’m going to give.”

               He folded the written-out speech back up and returned it to his pocket.  “We just said our goodbyes to Prime Wezzix, and I think all of us can agree that it was too soon.  None of us wanted this to happen, and none of us really wants to be standing here right now.  None of us really knows what the future holds now, myself included.  In fact, I might have even less of an idea about what’s going to happen next than many of you do.  And that uncertainty is frightening.

               “I’m not going to reassure you that I’m going to continue just as Prime Wezzix would have, because I’m not Prime Wezzix.  I don’t always know what he would have done, and even when I do know, I may not do the same thing.  But that’s a good thing – that dynamism – thanks to Doil for including that word in your speech, so that I could steal it here – is what helps make our Union strong.  What I will promise you is this: I will be a Prime for all of you – every province, every governor, every merchant, every single citizen of this Merolate Union.  I will always put the safety and wellbeing of the Merolate Union first.  And I will always do the best that I can for each and every one of you, every single day.”  Kiluron paused, feeling slightly out of breath, and realizing that there were disadvantages to not having written out his speech ahead of time; he had run out of things to say already.

               Still, he needed to end it somehow, and he had come this far on his possibly rash and impulsive decision to completely improvise his investment speech.  “Together, we will take this Union, our Union, into the future.”

               It was a good speech, he thought.  Not great, but good.  It conveyed everything that he had wanted it to, and he had done the best he could.  As he stepped down from the dais from which he had been speaking, he caught Doil’s eye again, and Doil nodded at him approvingly.  That was good enough for him.  They still needed to go through the official reaffirmation process, with everyone kneeling and swearing an oath to him and to the Union, but the speech was done, and he hadn’t driven Doil into an apoplectic fit with his most recent antics.  For today, that would be good enough.  Tomorrow, on his first full day as the true, fully invested Prime of Merolate, he would do better.  Surely that was all that anyone could ask of him.

The end of Blood Magic S2:E1: Flailing in the Dark. 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 in season two will go live on February 28th, 2021.

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