It was not a dark and stormy night.  It was dark enough, as the sun had set and it was approaching midnight, but the sky was clear of any clouds and scattered only with a thick dusting of stars.  Guardsman Bult leaned on his spear and watched the empty plain, savoring the warm spring night.  It was a good night to be standing guard, the kind of night to remind him why he so often volunteered for the night shifts.  Even if Guardsman Trelish was not always the best of company.

               “Do you believe in witches?” Trelish asked, bending his head conspiratorially towards Bult.

               Bult sighed.  “No, I don’t believe in witches.  And you oughtn’t to, either.”  Trelish always had some new wild idea to share, whether it was witches, political conspiracies, or the latest cult.  He was trendy that way, and the other guards found him good for a laugh.  Bult preferred quiet.

               “They say that young Prime Kiluron was cursed by a witch, back when Prime Wezzix selected him as a child,” Trelish continued.  Encouragement or discouragement made little difference to his conversations.  “Of course, the Prime, the old Prime that is, Prime Wezzix, not young Prime Kiluron, had the woman executed, but that don’t always be enough to stop a curse.  Curses have a way of coming true no matter what you do.  They’re like prophecies, that way, they are.”

               “Superstitious nonsense,” Bult remarked.  “Must you bother me with your constant, inane blither-blathering?”

               “You wound me!” Trelish didn’t really sound offended.  Nor did he stop his inane blither-blathering.  “I’m just saying, it’s worth considering.  Our new Prime might still have a curse upon him, and you know who tends to suffer from such things?  People like us, that’s who.  Best be cautious, I say.  Witches are crafty, and the grave don’t have the hold on them that it ought to have on more ordinary mortals.”

               “Why in all the world would a curse on an individual affect us?” Bult asked, before remembering that he was better off not trying to make any sense of Trelish’s ramblings.

               Trelish smirked.  “That’s the ways curses work, yes it is,” he said.  “Just think, if there be nightmares abroad, how do you think they’d go about getting into the city to reach the young Prime?  They’d come a-nocking right at out gate, they would, that’s what I tell you.  That’s how the curses work, it is.”

               Bult shook his head and turned back to looking into the night.  “This is ridiculous.”

               An unfamiliar voice floated up from the gate below them, and both guardsmen froze, startled at this disruption to the night’s stillness.  “Hello?  Why does no one answer?  I’ve come a long way, and am so very tired…”

               “Did you hear that?” Trelish asked.  He looked pale.  “That’s just how a witch might come, sneaking up on the city like that in the dead of night, it is.”

               “Don’t be ridiculous.  If it weren’t for your incessant chatter, we would have noticed her coming up to the gate,” Bult snapped.  “Come on.  Let’s go see who it is.  We can at least offer her a place to rest in the guardhouse until morning comes.”  He began to make his way down towards the main gate, and Trelish followed.

               “I still don’t think this is such a good idea, this isn’t,” he grumbled.  “Could be witches out there.  And you know, don’t you know and remember the last time Guardsman Proid let some young woman into the city in the night, and she turned out to be a spy?  Guardcaptain Vere weren’t not none too happy about that, no he was not.”

               Stopping in the middle of the darkened stairway, Bult took a deep breath, and turned around.  “Please.  Be.  Quiet.”

               Finally, mercifully, Trelish was silent, at least temporarily.  Together, the two guardsmen continued down to the gatehouse, and opened the gate a crack to peer out into the night.  As they had heard from their watch post, a young woman wrapped in a dirty, forest green cloak waited there, with deep, dark circles under her vivid blue eyes, all set in skin so pale it looked like she had been raised in a cave and never seen the sun.  She stumbled as the gates were opened slightly, as she had been leaning against them, but she gathered herself to stand before the two guardsman, drooping only slightly.

               “Oh, finally,” she remarked, looking them over.  “I was beginning to worry that no one would ever hear me.  Makes me feel like a ghost, out here alone in the night.”

               “I know a lot about ghosts,” Trelish said eagerly.  “This isn’t really the kind of night for ghosts.  They prefer nights that are a little mistier and foggier, they do, that is how they prefer it.  Lets them drift about like a cloud, it does, and none be knowing that they’re there.”

               “Oh, that’s a relief,” the woman said.  “I guess I was afraid for nothing.”  She favored Trelish with a smile, and he blushed.

               Bult stepped forward, shooting an annoyed look at Trelish.  “What business do you have in Merolate, Ma’am?”  Only a man like Trelish could make it sound like Bult must be heartless and mean just because he was trying to do his job.

               “That’s what I’m here to find out!” the woman exclaimed.  She sounded as bright as a spring flower, a startling contrast and reversal from her previously cold, frightened, tired state.  Her cheeks seemed fuller now, too, less pale.  “I’m an apothecary, or at least I’m studying to be.  My mother was one before me, too, but she can’t travel so much these days, and so she sent me to the city to take care of our business here for her.  But it’s been just ages since I’ve been to Merolate, and I got sort of lost along the way, and only finally made it here.  Oh, I’ll be so glad for a soft bed and a proper meal!”

               Trelish nodded, shoving his way in front of Bult again.  “Of course, I understand exactly what you mean, I do.  I have a mother to, that I do, sure as you and I are standing here in this night.”

               “You’re fortunate to have made it here safely,” Bult said firmly, pushing Trelish to the side.  “There have been several bandit incidents in the woods nearby recently.  Did you see any signs of bandit activity during your travels?”

               “Bandits?” the woman repeated, putting a hand to her lips.  Something about the gesture and her expression felt off to Bult, but he could not identify why, and he quickly dismissed the notion.  “No, I certainly didn’t see any bandits.  Oh dear, I suddenly feel faint, just thinking of how close I may have come to such danger.”

               Trelish butted in again.  “Well, you needn’t worry yourself any further about that.  I don’t know why Bult has to go scaring you like that before he even has the decency to invite you right into the guardhouse, that I don’t.  But you’re certainly safe here, nothing to worry about, save perhaps for ghosts and witches – do you believe in ghosts and witches?  I most certainly do, and it’s a topic of some considerable debate around these times – and I’m sure that my friend here is just trying to do his duty as best as he sees it, that he is.”  Trelish put an arm around Bult’s shoulders, which Bult shrugged away, twice, with a deeper grimace each time.

               “We can’t let you into the city until morning,” Bult explained, interrupting before Trelish could output a further torrent of monologue.  “However, there’s always something to eat and a place to rest in the guardhouse, and we can let you stay there until dawn when the city opens back up.”

               The woman nodded.  “That’s quite alright Guardsman Bult, I understand completely,” she said.  “I certainly wouldn’t want to get either of you in any kind of trouble on my account.”  She laughed lightly.  “Oh, but it would be nice to sit down.”

               “Right this way then, Miss, if you please,” Trelish announced, rolling the gate open enough for the woman to slip through.  “And of course I think you should please, if you don’t mind my saying so, because surely there is no finer guardhouse to rest in in all of Merolate, that there is not.  Just follow me…ah, what did you say your name was, Miss?”

               Again, that light laugh.  It seemed more like a verbal affectation than a real expression of amusement.  “I didn’t, Guardsman Trelish.  But since you ask, my name is Aigalianiariapiagia, but you can just call me Aiga.”

               “Well then, Miss Aigaliar…Miss Aiga, may I be the first to welcome you to Merolate City, do let me be.”  Trelish left Bult at the wall to close the gate back up and return to the watch post.

               It wasn’t until much later that night that Trelish finally returned to his post, but Bult didn’t mind, mostly.  He enjoyed the peace and quiet of the night, but one thought kept intruding upon his contemplative solitude.  When Trelish finally joined him on the wall again, for once Bult was the first to speak.

               “Did you ever give your name to that strange young woman we met at the gate?” he asked.

               Trelish cocked his head, thinking.  “You know, now that you mention it, I’m not sure if I did.  I don’t remember diding so, that I do not, but I must have did, because she knew my name and used my name, did she not do?  So yes, I suppose I must have done.  Why do you ask?”

               Bult leaned against the wall, looking out over the plain, and sighed.  “She used me name, too, and I don’t recall giving it to her.  Probably just my mind playing tricks on me.”

               Trelish’s face lit up.  “Or maybe she’s a witch!  I bet that’s what it is, she’s a witch, or maybe an apprentice one, that I think she is.  Doubtless she went and plucked our names straight from our heads, like a splinter plucked out with those plier things, what do they call them, tweezers, that’s what they call them, that’s what it was like, her pulling our names right from out our heads.  Yes, I’m quite certain of it now, she must be a witch, that she must be…”

               With a sigh, Bult shook his head and ignored Trelish.  It had been foolish to ask in the first place, and now he would have to put up with more inane chatter and blither-blather about witches for the rest of their shift on watch.  Next time, he would just keep silent.

               It certainly wasn’t the first time that the whole governing council had been assembled in the throne room, and it probably wasn’t even the first time that Kiluron had seen the whole governing council assembled in the throne room.  It was, however, probably the first time that Kiluron had paid attention to the discussion going on with the whole governing council in the throne room, and it was definitely the first time that said discussion was being conducted for his benefit, by his own ministers.  Fortunately, Doil was leading the discussion, leaving Kiluron free to take notes.  And he did take notes, though his handwriting was a mess and his fingers were already cramping around his pen.  If he was going to be Prime, he intended to do a good job, and for now that meant spending as much time practicing with a pen as he would have liked to spend practicing with a sword.  Also, listening.  He had never realized just how much time Primes spent listening to people far smarter than them drone on, and on, and on.  And on.

               “It defies explanation.  None of my aides can come to an agreement on the nature of this disease,” Minister Kelina, the Minister of Health and Sanitation, was saying.  She had been part of Prime Wezzix’s governing council.  “Diseases don’t simply disappear.  Our best guess is that the humors involved must have been diluted by the warmer air, and may well return with the cooler weather when autumn comes.”

               Doil shook his head, and answered her with more patience than Kiluron would have been able to muster.  “Minister Kelina, as we have discussed, the disease was not a product of the normal humors associated with other diseases.  It was a direct attack on our population and our agriculture by the Guardian, and will not return again because we have defeated the Guardian.  I’ve already written a detailed paper on this.”

               Kelina snorted.  “Nonsense superstition.  We must use the reprieve offered by the warmer weather to prepare for an autumn outbreak by surrounding our cities and towns with the necessary manure barriers, organizing water inspection teams, and incinerating all affected areas.”

               Minister Adima, of Agriculture and Industry, looked fit to explode.  “Do you realize what you’re saying?  That would mean incinerating almost every field and village in the entire Union!  We wouldn’t be able to keep everyone fed through the end of the summer, much less through another winter.  As it is, we’re all banking on a bumper crop this year, since all of our emergency seed banks have been depleted by our replanting efforts.”  She had also been a member of Prime Wezzix’s governing council, and her positions were often at odds with Minister Kelina’s, or so Borivat had reported.  It had taken some convincing to get him to tell Kiluron about such internal dynamics, but he had finally relented.

               “Better that then letting the bad humors fester all year,” Kelina declared, as if this completed the argument.

               Kiluron glanced at Doil, who nodded slightly.  This would be an appropriate time for him to interject, before the argument went any further.  “We’re not going to burn the fields or villages,” he declared, resisting the urge to shift uncomfortably when the gazes of all of his ministers turned to him.  “The Union has suffered enough through the Heart War.”

               Minister Adima settled back in her chair, looking smugly satisfied by this outcome.

               “But the humors…” Minister Kelina protested.

               “Just in case, you can begin collecting manure for barriers, in the event that the disease does return in the fall,” Kilruon continued over Kelina’s protest.  “Does that seem fair to everyone?”

               He received grudging nods from the ministers involved, and a smile from Doil.  That was good enough for him.  “Alright.  Doil, what’s next?”

               Doil consulted his agenda.  For once, Kiluron had his own copy of the agenda, and could have consulted it himself, but his discussions with Doil had suggested that it might be best to allow Doil to run the meeting, which was in a sense being staged for Kiluron’s benefit, not by Kiluron.  “Minister Regicio, I believe you have a report for us on how intra-Union trade is recovering from the Heart War?”

               “Yes, indeed I do,” Regicio proclaimed.  He was an overweight man who favored elaborate silk robes, and was another minister who had previously served Prime Wezzix.  Kiluron thought him rather pompous, but Doil assured him that Regicio was one of the best minds to serve as Minister of Economics, Currency, and Trade since the founding of the Union.  Perhaps some of that pompousness was well earned.  “As a result of many of the measures implemented in response to the diseases of body, plant, and metal that occurred in conjunction with the grand conflict that was the Heart War, in which Merolate once again proved its strength as a Union as it vanquished its foes, intra-Union trade has slowed to hardly a trickle.  There is some evidence that does indeed imply a slight recovery of certain essential trade functions between the provinces, but it is my sage opinion, and soon to be the opinion of this most august of governing bodies, that significant resources ought to be assigned to enable my ministry to insure and encourage merchants seeking to trade between provinces.”

               Kiluron frowned, and tried to sort through the odd sentences that Regicio had presented.  Fortunately, Doil was faster.  “Where would you get this money from?”

               Regicio hesitated before inflating himself again.  “We could reasonably impose an emergency tax upon the people in order to finance these proposed programs, which are of vital interest to the Union in order to preserve ties between provinces and evince a compassion for all.”

               “The people have been devastated by the Heart War even more than the merchants have,” Minister Adima protested.  “We can’t just go taxing them – they have little enough left for us to tax.  We’ve had to pass out almost our entire seed bank just to get the farms growing again.”

               That seemed logical to Kiluron, and he didn’t like the idea of imposing taxes, which was traditionally only done in time of war.  They could do it, since they had just finished a war of sorts, but it would be better to avoid it.  Besides, the Heart War had not been a traditional war with troop levies and extensive field movements.  “Regicio, I’m sorry, but I think that we’re going to have to hold off on propping up the merchants.”

               “But, my lord…” Regicio protested.

               “I’ve made my decision,” Kiluron insisted.  He wished that he felt as confident as he sounded in that choice.  “Is there anything else you wanted to present?”

               Regicio deflated, his robes seeming to crumple around him.  “No, my lord.”

               Clearing his throat, Doil looked back at the agenda.  “Um, next we have a report from Minister Borivat and Admiral Ferl about Union security.”

               Borivat, now the Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands, glanced at Admiral Ferl, who Doil and Kiluron had made Minister of Public Defense and Civil Order.  That had been one of their better selections, in Kiluron’s opinion; the man had the most experience in military affairs of anyone except Vere, and had been serving in Merolate’s Coastal Defense Force for almost twenty years.  It was Borivat, however, who spoke.  “Prime Kiluron, Advisor Doil: Admiral Ferl and I have undertaken a detailed review of the defensive positions of our Union in the wake of the Heart War.  Our findings are mostly reassuring.  Since our intelligence suggests that the disease and corruptions that plagued Merolate during the Heart War were also present, though less severe, throughout Lufilna, we do not need to be terribly concerned about an imminent invasion from Rovis or Crebart seeking to take advantage of our weakness.  Of greater concern is our border with the Unclaimed Territories, which is now almost completely unguarded, after the Guardian attack there.  It is our recommendation that we recruit and send personnel to fortify that border with haste, lest we spend the whole summer suffering from repeated incursions by the nomads of the Unclaimed Territories.”

               “The governors won’t be pleased if we institute a personnel levy upon the provinces,” Doil observed.  It was the expected objection, but it took on more impact now, since Kiluron had been studying the text of the Merolate Charter recently.  The ability to raise and maintain military forces was one of the few powers specifically reserved to the governors, which Doil had explained to him had been a balancing mechanism at the time to enable the governors to not feel so threatened by the power of the Prime.  There was a clause that allowed the Prime to raise limited forces for defense of the Union outside of times of war, but it had always been treated with skepticism by the governors.  They probably wouldn’t be pleased if they saw Kiluron as attempted to subvert what was usually their prerogative.

               Admiral Ferl frowned.  “I suppose we could take some sailors from the CDF and reassign them to border duty, but it would mean cutting back significantly on our Nycheril expeditions.”

               “How significantly?” Doil asked.

               Drawing with his finger on the table, Admiral Ferl thought through the numbers.  “Well, it would probably mean decommissioning, or at least temporarily grounding, at least five ships.  So if we wanted to maintain our current coastal patrols, we’d need to cut back to just two Nycheril runs per year.”

               Doil frowned, thoughtful.  “What if we supplemented our coastal patrols with ships from the province navies?”

               “Only Corbulate maintains a sizable independent fleet,” Admiral Ferl replied.  “Tirate has some ships, but they’ve been consistently decommissioning them and handing them over to the merchants for some years now.  With the Union providing coastal defense and some exploratory functions, and no substantial, hostile naval powers in the area, the provinces just don’t have much reason to maintain independent navies.”

               “Maintaining independent navies just isn’t practical under the Union configuration,” Borivat added.  “Historically, navies were much more important for the wars between the provinces, during the Warring States period.  Although the governors have clung tightly to their authority to create land based forces and military constructs, they haven’t been so concerned about maintaining navies, which are expensive and challenging to maintain.  Merolate’s CDF is effectively the Union’s navy at this point.”

               “Right,” Admiral Ferl agreed.

               Minister Adima sighed and shook her head.  “It’s frightening how terribly the Heart War has set us back.  It took only weeks, and involved only three major actions, and yet it seems the entire Union is reeling.  And we’re apt to be still dealing with the aftermath a year from now.  Were we just unprepared?  Should we be doing more to anticipate these kinds of disasters?”

               Borivat frowned.  “I hardly think that anyone could have expected us to anticipate the return of some manner of ancient demon and the effects it would have on our Union.”

               “That may be, but we won’t be caught unawares again,” Kiluron declared.  “I intend that we will take steps to ensure that the Union is better ready to confront such threats should they arise in the future.”

               Doil nodded.  They had spoken about this, although they had yet to come to any conclusions.  Doubtless Doil would have preferred that Kiluron not say anything about it for now, but he didn’t want to allow the discussion to go into blaming Prime Wezzix, or for people to think that he wasn’t concerned.  “As Prime Kiluron says, we will be taking steps to be more prepared in the future, should something like this happen again, but for now our focus, and the focus of this council, should be upon finding ways to adapt to our new circumstances and mitigate the potential for further damage.  That means finding some way to defend the border.  Ideally, we should not cut the Nycheril expeditions quite so severely, as the resources from that continent will likely prove valuable as we recover from the ravages of the Guardian’s attacks.”

               “Of course, Advisor Doil,” Borivat agreed immediately.  His efforts to be conscious of the new nature of his relationship with his former pupil seemed obvious to Kiluron, but at least he was making the effort.  “If we are not willing to cut back on the Nycheril expeditions, then it seems that we are back to considering troop levies from the provinces.”

               “What about the provinces themselves?” Kiluron blurted.  The entire council looked at him, and he fought the urge to blush.  Then he fought the urge to itch at his suddenly hot collar.  “What?  We were just talking about how jealously the governors guard their right to maintain standing military ground forces.  But do they do anything with them most of the time, besides have them pull guard duty and march around in fancy parades?  Why don’t we deputize guarding the border with the Unclaimed Territories to the provinces?  They can work out a rotation or something to determine who is guarding it when, and each province can supply some amount of troops.”

               He more than half expected them to dismiss his suggestion out of hand, and he waited for Doil to sigh and explain diplomatically all of the ways in which he was terribly wrong, but instead the ministers all sat back.  They actually seemed to be considering what he had said, and somehow that made Kiluron feel worse, instead of better.  Now that he was Prime, people would actually listen to what he said, even if what he said wasn’t very good.

               Admiral Ferl was the first to speak.  “That’s actually not a bad idea, at least from a practical perspective.  We could easily set up a rotation, and I’m sure that Guardcaptain Vere could arrange for some of Merolate’s guardsmen to supplement the provinces’ forces.”  He sounded more respectful that Kiluron had ever heard him.  “But it’s never been done before.  Would it even be legal?”

               Everyone turned to look at Inpernuth.  Kiluron’s Minister of Law and Governmental Policy was the most unorthodox of all his ministerial picks; the almost ascetic man was infamous for spending almost as much time in various prisons as he had in courtrooms and universities.  Doil had mentioned that he was one of the few modern legal scholars who argued vehemently for a morality independent of law, and Kiluron had been intrigued.  An interview in which Inpernuth had spent most of the time looking bored and resentful and answering questions with a maximum of three words later, and Doil had regretted recommending they conduct the interview in the first place.  He regretted it even further when Kiluron decided to give Inpernuth the job.  If Kiluron were honest with himself, part of his reasoning had been that he just wanted to see how Inpernuth would disrupt interminable meetings, and he’d been vaguely disappointed that the man hadn’t yet said anything.  For several long, languorous blinks, Minister Inpernuth, his robes already stained, watched everyone look at him.  Finally, he shrugged.  “Yes.”

               Minister Kelina started.  “’Yes?’ she repeated.  That’s your entire opinion on the matter?”

               There was something vaguely tortoise-like, or possibly lizard-like, to the way Inpernuth turned his head just enough to focus on Kelina from the corner of his eye.  “Yes.”

               Borivat sighed, and there was nothing particularly patient about the expression of his exasperation.  “Minister Inpernuth, why is creating a rotation of the provinces to guard the border legal, in your opinion?”

               “’provided that all forces raised hereunder be sworn subordinate to the will of the Prime.’  Says it right in the Charter that everyone loves so much.”  Inpernuth seemed to consider this all the answer required.

               There was significant looking between the other ministers as they sorted through the brief statement.  “I don’t disagree with Minister Inpernuth,” Borivat observed, bringing the focus back to him, “but I would add that deputizing the border control responsibility could erode the power of the Prime, as that is one of the few ways in which the Prime may directly control Union military forces.”

               “Sure, if you want to think of it like that, lok.”  Inpernuth sighed and rocked his chair back onto all four legs with a bang.  “Or, you could think of it like the Prime is asserting the clause of subordination of the governors to the position of Prime and therefore is actually increasing the power of the Prime and the unity between the Provinces.”

               Borivat hesitated.  “I – that’s actually a good argument.”  It sounded like a grudging admission.  “Of course, this assumes that we will be able to convince the governors to go along with such a plan, and they may not be precisely accommodating.  They have their own concerns at the moment, and likely will not be interested in jumping to respond to demands from the Prime.  Prime Kiluron, the decision is yours.”

               For some reason, Kiluron found that being put on the spot for a decision was easier than when he had made his own suggestion.  “Doil, Borivat, let’s draft letters to the governors.  I think this is worth trying.  Inpernuth, you can help.  And I think I know just which governor we should approach first…”

               It had been just after midday when the meeting of Kiluron’s ministers began; it was dark by the time it dispersed.  The minsters left, carrying their stacks of papers and books with them, or in Inpernuth’s case, a single slip of paper folded up and placed in one of his pockets.  Borivat bid Kiluron and Doil a good evening, and disappeared to another part of the castle to his own rooms.  With several groans, Kiluron stretched dramatically and watched Doil collecting his papers and scribing a few more notes and thoughts on his many lists.

               “That was interminable,” Kiluron observed.  “Did you find that as painful as I did?  Kelina has the most annoying voice I’ve ever heard, and I swear that Regicio would never stop talking if someone didn’t interrupt him.  He’d just keep on puffing up more and more until he floated away.”

               “Actually, I thought that meeting went rather smoothly, my lord,” Doil replied, finishing with his papers and also standing to stretch.  “We accomplished quite a lot, and I think you made some good decisions.  Aside from Minister Inpernuth’s continued impudence, which I had been hoping he would reduce once he was actually a minister, I think we have a good setup here.”

               Kiluron huffed.  “I thought Inpernuth was the best part.  Just ‘yes,’ ‘no.’  He’s rather refreshing.”

               “He’s slovenly and disrespectful and doesn’t seem willing to take anything seriously.”  Doil hesitated.  “But I will admit that his opinion and thought process on your suggestion that we deputize border patrol of the Unclaimed Territories to the province governors was well considered.”

               “There, see?  He’s already growing on you,” Kiluron declared.  “Anyway, I was thinking that we should approach Governor Parl first.  If he goes along with the idea, I suspect the other governors will fall in line, too.  And if we approach him right, appeal to his sense of duty and military mindset…”  He caught Doil smiling at him, and frowned.  “What?”

               “Nothing, my lord,” Doil said, walking towards the door.  “It’s just good to see you actually excited about governing.”

               “Oops.  I forgot to act resentful and bored for a second there.  Someone might begin to expect things from me.”  Kiluron shifted uncomfortably.  “I still don’t really feel comfortable, being Prime.  I have way too much power.  I speak out with an idle thought, and all of those important, intelligent people actually stop and listen to what I say.”  He shook his head.  “Now I understand why Prime Wezzix was always on me about minding what I say and thinking before I say it.”

               Doil nodded.  “You’re new to the position.  I don’t know, but I think it’s probably normal not to feel comfortable in it.  I’m sure that we’ll both make mistakes as we work at this, but you’ll be a good Prime.  You want to do the right thing, and from what I’ve read, that is often the most important part.”

               Kiluron sighed.  “Well, I hope you’re right.  You just sort of moved right into your Advisor position, though.  Like it was made for you.”

               “That’s definitely not how it feels,” Doil admitted.  He pushed open the door.  “Do you want me to accompany to your rooms and work on drafting those letters tonight, or shall that wait until the morning comes?”

               Cracking his knuckles, Kiluron shuffled out through the door, Doil following behind him.  “I think that should wait for morning.  I’m not sure that I can suffer through any more formal speak tonight.”

               “Very well, my lord.  In that case, if there’s nothing else you require from me…?”  Doil suppressed a yawn, and glanced down at his stack of papers.  “I have a few more things that I ought to get through before I go to bed.”

               “Then go get that done,” Kiluron said, realizing belatedly that Doil was awaiting a dismissal.  “We’ll talk again in the morning.”

               “Yes, my lord,” Doil said.  “Good evening.”

               “Good evening.”  Kiluron watched Doil hurry off down another corridor.  “Don’t forget to eat supper!” he called after him.  Then he was alone in the corridor.  Well, not quite alone; a few servants scurried by, lighting candles and lanterns to ward off the darkness.

               Bidding them a good evening as well, Kiluron stuffed his hands in his pockets to ward off a slight chill from the evening air, and began making his way back to his own rooms.  The moon was large and low in the sky, gleaming through the windows, which was good; for some reason the servants had not yet lit the lanterns and candles in this corridor leading up to his rooms.  With a yawn, Kiluron shrugged and sauntered onward.  He was glad that he had started doing morning exercises with Vere and the guardsmen, as it seemed to be helping him keep from getting to sore from sitting through eternal meetings.  Instead, he thought ruefully, he was sore from getting beaten up with a dulled, heavy training sword.

               “Kiluron…

               Kiluron shivered and hurried his steps.  Someone must have left a window open, and the wind was making the hair on the back of his neck play tricks on him.  He would have sworn that he had heard someone whisper his name, but there was definitely no one else in the corridor with him; he could tell that much even by just the light of the moon.  Although, now that he was paranoid enough to consider it, it was possible that the candles and lanterns had been lit before, but had now been extinguished…he put that line of reasoning aside.  Regardless, he was nearly to his rooms, where there would be a big fire in the hearth and supper waiting for him, and a thick door to put between him and the cold stone hallway.

               “Kiluron…

               This, Kiluron admitted, was starting to disturb him, and he did not consider himself prone to baseless paranoia.  Besides, after making fun of Doil for being afraid of the dark, only to find that he had really been being haunted, Kiluron was less inclined to dismiss the possibility that it was now his turn to be haunted out of hand.  Then again, he hadn’t been sleeping well lately, and he had been very busy and not slightly stressed, so it was possible this was just a trick of his mind.  None of that stopped him from wishing that the sword he was wearing was something other than a decorative rapier.  Still, he was mere steps from his own rooms with their thick, reassuring doors.

               “KILURON!”  What had been before a whisper was now a shout, and it was accompanied by a roaring as of a fierce wind, or the breath of a thousand men being forced down the corridor.  Windows slammed in their frames and tapestries twisted on the walls like living tentacles, reminding Kiluron of Vere’s description of the Guardian.  Shadow seemed to loom larger, blocking out the bright moonlight along the hallway, until Kiluron could barely see.

               Taking a deep breath, Kiluron counted the beating of his heart.  At the third beat, he spun about, whipping his rapier from its slim sheath at his side.  It wasn’t a very substantial blade, but it was better than nothing, and at least having the hilt in his hand made him feel more confident.  He could see nothing, but he could feel the wind beating at him like a living thing, pummeling him backwards and trying to drive him down the hallway.  Instead, Kiluron bent forward until he was nearly doubled over, and marched right into the wind, like he would into a fierce gale in the winter.  Shadows boomed and loomed to either side of him, oddly bulbous despite having no discernible form, nor source; there was nothing to cast the shadows and no light from which shadows could be created.  He forced another step against the wind, and another, and then another.

               The wind stopped so abruptly that Kiluron stumbled and nearly fell from the sudden lack of resistance to his forward motion.  Righting himself, he looked up to see that the hallway had returned to normal, the shadows dispelled and the moonlight returned to light the way.  Even the candles and lanterns were burning again and shedding their light as if they had never been interrupted, and the tapestries had settled back against the walls with no apparent memory of their erstwhile adventures.  And at the end of the hallway, highlighted in a ray of reflected moonlight, was a pale young woman in a servant’s dress, kneeling on the ground in a pool of blood.

               Even as Kiluron rushed towards her, he was aware that it probably wasn’t the most intelligent thing to do.  Doil would have told him that he was being reckless and endangering his own life without taking enough time to understand the situation.  Borivat would have told him that as Prime his life was objectively more important than a serving woman’s, and that he should not put himself at greater risk.  Vere would have told him that he should go find a more defensible position and a better weapon, and more importantly report what he had experience to someone and find those with training for these kinds of situations to provide assistance.  Kiluron ignored all of their voices as he skidded to the young woman’s – a girl, really – side, and began carefully binding the horrible slashes on her arms.

               Looking at her face, he couldn’t remember her, but there were a lot of servants in the castle, and many of them were new since he had been invested as Prime after Prime Wezzix’s death.  He was determined to get to know all of them eventually, but that would take time, and he had been so busy recently that it just hadn’t happened yet.  Regardless, he bound her injuries, and spoke to her in what he hoped was a reassuring tone as he worked.  This much, at least, he had training to handle.  Once she was bleeding into the makeshift bandages he had made from his outer robe, he tucked his sword back into its sheath at his side, picked the girl up, and carried her to his chambers.  She protested feebly as he picked her up and set her down, but he brushed aside her gestures.

               “I’m going to go find someone who can help, and some guards to come investigate what happened,” he told her, although she seemed to be only semiconscious and he didn’t know if she could hear or understand his words.  “You just stay here and rest.  I’ll be back soon, I promise.”  It wasn’t a perfect plan, but it would do for now, until he could find some guardsmen.  He had the presence of mind to throw on a new outer robe and wash his hands of the girl’s blood before he went back out into the hall.  It would be a long time before he was able to sleep, but for now he had a mission, and it didn’t involve the fate of the entire Merolate Union.  This was something he could do, and he intended to see it done right.

               There were any number of sound medical explanations for her present numbness, and Aigalianiariapiagia’s mother had made certain before her execution at Prime Wezzix’s order that Aiga could identify them all.  Physical shock, the aftereffects of the strain magic put on her system, exhaustion, or plain and simple blood loss were all perfectly reasonable and likely explanations for the fact that she was finding it difficult to do much more than sit on the Prime’s luxurious chair in his own chambers, the cuts on her arms from where she had shed her blood to power her magic stinging beneath the same Prime’s own robes used as hasty bandages, and stare at the door through whence Prime Kiluron had rushed off to find help for her.  Her, who had just tried in dramatic and dramatically unsuccessful fashion to kill him.  No, her mother’s medical training failed completely to address the real cause of her present numbness.

               Realistically, Aiga ought to have known better than to try such a dramatic display of power in assassinating the new Prime.  Her mother had trained her better than that, whipping into her head the core maxim of Blood Magic, that efficiency was key, that small actions could produce large effects.  Instead, she had tried to transform the moonlight itself into a gale to crush the Prime.  Foolish, foolish, foolish.  She ought to have just settled for knifing him in the dark and using his own blood to power her escape.  That would have been a fitting irony, but no, she had stretched for the dramatic again, and it had nearly cost her all the blood in her body.  Even worse, she had failed.  The new Prime was still alive, and the castle would be on alert.  It was only a matter of time before they found her dagger and put the pieces together, and then the strange and unexpected kindness of the new Prime towards her would end, likely along with her life.  Foolish, foolish, foolish girl.

               The thought of the danger she would be in as soon as her dagger was discovered finally roused her from her stupor, and she managed to stand, letting the blanket that the Prime had haphazardly tucked over her fall to the floor in a heap.  It was fine material, of course, nothing like the rags that were all she and her mother had ever had.  Aiga wasn’t sure if that made her more want to stomp on it and drag it through the mud, or fold it carefully and place it in a glass box.  She acted upon neither of those impulses, instead fighting the wave of exhaustion and dizziness that nearly sent her back down on the chair again to make her way to the Prime’s wardrobe.

               As she’d expected, there were several daggers in various styles and sheaths within; she selected a slim one that appeared to have a sheath intended to sharpen the blade with each motion, and tucked it beneath her robes.  She thought briefly about rifling through the Prime’s chambers, perhaps stealing something she could trade for money, but caution won out, and she hastened from the chambers.  A quick glance down the hall revealed that no one was yet in sight, but she could hear voices coming up from the end of the hall where her blood was drying in a frighteningly large pool.  Had she really done that much damage to herself?  It looked like she had tried to commit suicide, instead of regicide.  Her chance to retrieve her own weapon lost, she instead hastened away, found a servant’s exit, and fled from the castle.

               After being allowed into the city the morning after her arrival, she had found a quiet alley near the docks where she could be mostly undisturbed; she fled back to this poorly sheltered hideout once she was clear of the castle.  No one seemed to be following her, which was fortunate.  The owner of the tavern that helped form her alley gave her some of his leftovers each night, and the sailors and lowlifes in the area left her alone; her pale countenance and odd manners were more than enough to play off of their superstitious tendencies, without needing her to invoke magic.  That was fortunate, because as she huddled beneath a pile of burlap sacks that was not nearly as comfortable as the Prime’s blanket had been, she doubted she could come up with more magic right then if her life had depended upon it.  Her stolen dagger clutched in her hands, she thought vaguely of planning for her next move, but before she could her exhaustion and dizziness finally overtook her, and she fell soundly asleep.

               Aiga awoke just before dawn, shivering; some of the burlap sacks in her pile had fallen askew, and a cool dew sparkled over everything in what faint light there was.  Across the bay, she thought she could just make out the Isle of Blood’s shadowy form, and she shuddered.  If there was one thing that her mother had hated more than the Merolate Prime, it had been the Isle of Blood and its balancer cult.  The magic that she and her mother could perform had not always been treated as anathema to all that was good and right in the world; once, having a local country healer treat you with Blood Magic would have been as common as getting a broken bone splinted.  That was before Exerpies and his balancing cult had turned the world’s natural magic into a religion, and the religion into a destructive empire.  Few enough even remembered what the Blood Empire had been, now, but it was because of its influence that Blood Magic like Aiga did was still a crime, and that people like her and her mother were feared and hated across Lufilna.

               Although still weak, she felt stronger now, and more so after she ate the scraps of food that the tavern owner had left for her.  She wondered what he thought of her presence; more than once she had heard him mention wraiths and wardings.  Perhaps he thought she was some kind of spirit of good fortune.  As long as it kept her fed and gave her a relatively safe place to stay, she was content.  In a way, it wasn’t far from the truth.  Aiga often felt that she wasn’t quite as solid, as present, as the other people she encountered, especially in a big city like Merolate.  It seemed incredible that people could choose to live in such crowded, filthy, malodorous, unpleasant, and irresistibly lively places.  Her mother had spoken to her about cities, but she had never seen a place larger than the local village.  Merolate was a whole different experience, and she found it oddly fascinating.  It felt almost as alive as the people within it.

               With her scant breakfast eaten, Aiga settled herself more comfortably amongst the sacks, and tried to think.  She had come to Merolate for a single purpose, to fulfil her mother’s dying wish and see the Prime of Merolate killed.  That intention had been muddied when she had discovered that Prime Wezzix had already been killed, in some kind of war, and that there was a new Prime now who hadn’t even been Prime when her mother was still alive.  Still, she had tried to follow through with her original plan, and gone and botched it terribly.  She had failed, failed, failed, letting her sense of drama run away with her and then failing to kill the Prime.  It certainly wouldn’t be so easy again for her to slip back into the castle, which was doubtless now on high alert and looking for someone matching her description.

               Yet somehow it wasn’t the daunting nature of re-infiltrating the castle to kill the Prime that left her stomach in a fist and kept her sitting in her alleyway, lost in thought and self-recrimination.  It was the unexpected kindness of the Prime.  Her mother had been very clear that anyone involved in Merolate’s government would execute anyone who knew Blood Magic as soon as look at them, and logically Aiga could tell herself that if the Prime knew who and what she was he would likely not have treated her with such kindness.  Her heart, though…her traitorous, traitorous, traitorous heart was caught up on the fact that he hadn’t stopped to ask questions or go for help or find a servant, that his first thought and impulse and action had been to help a girl he didn’t know because he saw that she was hurt.

               If her mother could see her thoughts, she would have whipped her raw and told her that she was a foolish, foolish, foolish girl.  And even knowing that, Aiga could not convince her heart that killing this new Prime Kiluron was the right action to take.  So she sat still in the alley clutching her stolen dagger and trying to make her thoughts make sense.

               Kiluron stared at the dagger that was sitting on the table, blood still crusted onto it from its prior evening’s exertions.  At least someone had maintained the presence of mind to put a handkerchief under it.  Then he looked again at Vere.  “I just don’t think it makes any sense.  There must be some other explanation.”

               Vere crossed his arms.  “I haven’t offered any explanations, Sir.  I’ve only stated that my guardsmen found this dagger against the wall right by where you say you found the serving girl.  A serving girl who has mysteriously vanished, despite being as you described quite severally injured.  The pool of blood next to the dagger supports your description.”  They had already been over this four times this morning.

               “But Blood Magic?” Kiluron asked.  “It just doesn’t add up.  There’s no way that girl could be an assassin.”

               Doil glared at Vere, but the Guardcaptain refused to meet his eyes.  “I think that it is very likely that this was an assassination attempt.  It may be linked to the Guardian, which would explain how none of the guards managed to notice that one of the serving girls wasn’t a serving girl at all.  I checked the records and talked with the other servants; there is no girl matching your description working on the castle staff.”

               “Fine, maybe there was an assassin.  He or she might have been waiting for me, and this serving girl stumbled on them while lighting the candles.  Maybe she fought for me, and that’s how she got injured,” Kiluron insisted.

               “She fought a mysterious assassin for you…while you weren’t even in the corridor.  And then she ran away after you tried to help her,” Doil repeated.  “Do you really think that’s likely?”

               Kiluron grumbled.  “It’s certainly possible,” he protested.  “I mean, look at how suspicious you all are being of her.  She must have realized that it would look bad on her, freaked out, and ran off.  It could happen.”

               “So she was brave enough to stand up to an assassin, but not brave enough to stand up to some questions?” Doil asked.  Even Kiluron could hear his skepticism.

               “It’s possible,” Kiluron repeated.  “Isn’t that how the rational philosophy stuff that you and Fetrina are always going on about is supposed to work?  You come up with a bunch of possibilities and see which ones you like, and then go out and prove why that one is right?”

               Doil looked about to burst.  “No!  My lord.  That is not how rational philosophy works.  The philosophy of rational inquiry into natural phenomena is predicated upon the principle of disproving a hypothesis, not proving it.  And it should be separated from emotional attachments.”

               Vere interrupted them.  “Actually, Prime Kiluron might have a point.  It does not seem to be rational that a girl would be sent alone to murder a Prime.  There might be something that we are missing, an accomplice.”

               Doil exchanged his glare for a merely sour look.  “Must you encourage him?”

               Shrugging, Vere walked around the table for the fifteenth time to examine the dagger from all angles.  “It’s my job to explore all of the possibilities.”

               “It’s your job to prevent assassins from getting within a hallway of killing the newly invested Prime!” Doil retorted.  He had been snappish all morning, especially with Vere, and Kiluron wasn’t entirely certain why.

               Turning pointedly away from Doil, Vere addressed Kiluron.  “Sir, I’ve doubled the castle guard at all entry points, and instituted an identification system for the staff.  Everyone must show a chit that my lieutenants provided them in order to gain entry.  I’ve also launched an investigation, searching the city for rumors or signs of a girl matching the description you provided.  Regardless of her involvement, we need to find her.”

               “But – “ Kiluron started.  Then he sighed.  “Agreed.”  He glanced at Doil.  “Is there anything that I’m not thinking of that we should be doing, or should we get back to real work?”

               “If you would, Sir, I don’t think you should go about alone until we know more,” Vere suggested.  “Beyond that, stay armed.  You may leave the investigation to me.”

               “Alright then.”  Kiluron rubbed his hands together.  “Vere, thanks.  Let me know what you find out this evening.  Doil, let’s get those letters drafted.”

               Turning about smartly, Vere left the room, leaving a pair of guardsmen at the door.  As soon as he was gone, Doil turned to Kiluron just as the Prime was settling himself into a chair and pulling out a pen.  “I figured that these letters ought to be in my own hand…that should be more convincing, right?  And I’ve been practicing my handwriting,” Kiluron said.

               Doil stared at him.  “My lord, you are taking this whole affair disturbingly calmly.”

               For a long moment, Kiluron was silent, staring at the blank page in front of him.  Then he put down his pen and looked at Doil with a sigh.  “I guess I’m just having a hard time convincing myself that this was really an assassination attempt, and especially that this girl was behind it.”

               “The evidence…” Doil began.

               “Forget the evidence,” Kiluron interrupted.  “I was there, and it didn’t feel like an assassination attempt.  Or if it was, it didn’t seem to have much conviction.  Besides, this didn’t seem like any Blood Magic that I’ve experienced, and I’ve experienced or been witness to a lot more of that than I would like.”   He hesitated, but continued before Doil could do more than open his mouth to reply.  “Besides.  I can’t help but feel that if someone already wants to assassinate me, then maybe I don’t deserve to be Prime.  I didn’t think I’d really even had time to mess up that badly, yet.”  He paused.  “A part of me wants to find out who was behind this just so that I can ask them why, what did I do wrong already?”

               Doil sighed.  “These sorts of things are rarely personal, my lord.”

               “And I know that, and I understand that.  I can even logic through that this could as easily have something to do with something Wezzix did as it could have to do with me, or someone who doesn’t like the Union, or someone from a foreign state, like Rovis, trying to foment unrest.”  He grabbed the pen again and began twisting it over in his hands.  “But I can’t convince myself, emotionally, of any of that.  Deep down, I’m convinced that it’s because I’m not doing a good job and that I won’t be able to do a good job.  This was much easier when I was just Sub-Prime and could let Prime Wezzix make all of the hard decisions.”

               Doil sighed again, and finally sat down in a chair beside Kiluron.  “I think you deserve more credit than you reserve for yourself.  You’ve been training for this role since you were a small boy, and though there should have been more, you are adapting to the role.  I’ve been, well, I’ve honestly been surprised and impressed by how you’ve been applying yourself towards the business of governance since your investment ceremony.”

               Kiluron glanced at Doil.  “Surprised, huh?  Figures.”  He hesitated.  “Really though, that means a lot, coming from you.  Thanks.”

               Looking distinctly uncomfortable, Doil bobbed his head.  “Well, I suppose we ought to complete these letters to the governors.  It’s not as if there’s anything more we can do at the present time about the matter of assassins in the castle.”

               “Right.  Uh, letters.”  Kiluron focused on the blank page in front of him, and scratched in the first words with his pen, reading them aloud as he did.  “’Dear Governor Parl…’”

               Frowning, Doil picked up the scraper and handed it to Kiluron.  “No offense, my lord, but I think you ought to scrape that off and start over before the ink dries.”

               “How else am I supposed to start a letter?”  Kiluron carefully scraped the ink off of the parchment, scratching out the scar on the page.

               “Well, you’re not addressing an equal, so you don’t want to give the impression that you are putting the Governor in a position of power,” Doil explained.  “I would just start it with ‘Governor Parl.’”

               Kiluron sighed, but wrote the greeting as Doil suggested.  “Now what?” he asked.  “’Excuse me, would you please send me some of your standing troops to help guard the border with the Unclaimed Territories, sincerely the Prime?’”

               Doil frowned at him.  “I think you know that something more diplomatic is here called for.”

               “Oh, alright.”  Kiluron paused, his pen poised over the page, and then began to scribble, again reading aloud as he went.  “’Governor Parl, After the Heart War, the Union finds itself short of guardsmen.  While more could be levied, doing so would take time, as well as additional funds.  Additional funds would, of course, require additional taxes upon the provinces, which is obviously undesirable while recovering from a crisis like the Heart War.  I would ask, therefore, that you provide troops from your standing army to assist in border control for a year.  Though I will be asking all of the governors, it is well known that Corbulate’s soldiers are among the most disciplined and skilled in the Union, and I am certain that you above all others would not shirk from such a duty.  Details will follow.  Sincerely, Prime Kiluron.’”  He stopped, set his pen down, and looked towards Doil.  “Well?”

               Doil nodded slowly.  “I think that’s a good start.  We should probably clean up the language, though, and tighten up the details.  I suppose you’ll be wanting me to draft those details you mentioned?”

               Kiluron smirked.  “You know me so well.”

               “I’ll get right on that.”  Doil hesitated.  “Now, I think we need to talk about Guardcaptain Vere.”

               Surprised, Kiluron looked up from revising his letter to Governor Parl.  “What about him?”

               Doil shifted in his chair.  “This assassination attempt happened while his guardsmen were on duty,” he observed.  “Ever since the events with the Guardian…”

               “You are not blaming Vere for whatever it is that happened last night,” Kiluron snapped.

               “Of course not,” Doil replied quickly.  “I’m just saying that he may need a…a break, after what he experienced.  It would shake anyone.”

               “Not Vere,” Kiluron insisted.  “Nothing could shake him.”

               For a long moment, Doil held Kiluron’s gaze, and then deflated.  “Very well, my lord.  May I be dismissed to go work out the details for the proposal?”

               “I – yes, fine.”  Kiluron waved his hand.  “Let’s talk again this evening to finalize these letters and get them sent out.”

               With a final nod, Doil left, leaving Kiluron alone in the room.  He sighed, wishing that Doil had never brought up his doubts about Vere.  Aloud, Kiluron dismissed them out of hand, and inside he didn’t truly believe them, but he couldn’t quite shake the thought of there being something wrong about Vere.  The thought was so unsettling that Kiluron had difficulty focusing on his writing, though he tended to have difficulty focusing on that under the best of circumstances.

               Once the letters were finalized that evening, Kiluron handed them off to have them taken by courier to the respective province capitals.  The guards at the door to the chamber saluted as he left, and another two fell into step just behind him as he began to make his way back towards his own rooms.

               “This seems like an exceptionally boring job for you,” Kiluron remarked.

               “That’s alright,” Guardsman Groi replied, chuckling deep in his throat.  It sounded like he was gargling gravel.  “A boring day on guard duty is a good day on guard duty.”

               “I suppose that’s true,” Kiluron agreed.  He left unsaid his immediate thought, that they likely blamed him for the terrors of the Heart War and the battle they had fought there.  That wouldn’t be a productive conversation for any of the three of them.

               The guards paused when they reached Kiluron’s chambers.  “We probably should look through your rooms first,” Groi remarked.  “That’s what the Guardcaptain wanted us to do, anywho.”

               Kiluron rolled his eyes.  “I think I can handle myself in my own chambers,” he remarked, but then he sighed.  “Still, I suppose as Prime I shouldn’t be setting a bad example and telling you not to do your job properly.  How about we all go in at the same time?”

               “Works for me, Sir,” Groi agreed, drawing his sword.  Kiluron drew his as well, and together they entered the room.

               As Kiluron had expected, there was no one there.  A servant had been through to light a handful of candles and start a fire in the hearth, since it was still relatively cool outside at night, and frequently damp.  Otherwise, his chambers were undisturbed from the morning when he had left them.  Groi nodded to him, sheathed his sword, and left the rooms.  Kiluron locked his door, sheathed his own sword, and headed for his dressing room to change into his nightclothes.  Just as he’d set down his sword belt, the air in front of him shimmered, and a girl with her arms wrapped in familiar cloth simply appeared before him, his own dagger in one hand, blood dripping from the palm of the other.

               It took nearly all of Aiga’s remaining strength to remain standing as she faced the Prime, who had finally returned to his rooms.  Aiga had thought to enter the castle disguised as a servant again, but found the security prohibitively tightened, necessitating that she use more of her blood to make herself invisible and sneak through the checkpoints that had been established.  It wasn’t the most elegant solution, and her mother would not have approved, but her mother was dead, and Aiga needed answers.  Unfortunately, her mother’s continual insistence on efficiency in the use of her magic was probably valid, because after again making herself invisible to avoid detection in the cursory search of the Prime’s chambers, she didn’t have energy or strength left to kill the Prime.  She barely had the strength to keep from being killed, herself.  But that was not why she had returned.  She made no move to stop Kiluron as he reached for the sword her had just relinquished.

               “You just had to go proving me wrong,” the young Prime remarked oddly, regarding her from behind a bared blade.

               Though the blade was expected, the words were not.  Aiga had assumed that he would probably call for the guards.  “Please, wait,” she implored him.  “I need to know.  To understand.”

               The Prime’s eyes narrowed, and he looked more than capable of killing her himself, without calling for the guards, but he didn’t make any further aggressive moves, though he did keep himself between her and the door, and his sword between her and himself.  His stance looked practiced.  “Who sent you?” he asked.  “I want to understand, too.  Why are you here?”

               Aiga hesitated.  She shouldn’t be talking to this man.  Her mother had been killed because of Prime Wezzix, all witches were prosecuted because of men like this Prime Kiluron, all for the stigma on Blood Magic from hundreds of years ago.  “My mother sent me.”

               “Your mother?”  The Prime sounded genuinely confused.  Aiga sympathized; she was confused, too.  That very sympathy she felt confused her.  “Why would your mother bloody send you to assassinate me?  I’ve barely even done anything yet.  Haven’t had the job long enough to mess it up too badly…”

               There was no reason to talk to this man.  He would have her killed, just like his predecessor had killed her mother.  Yet she felt oddly compelled to speak.  To understand.  “Not you.  Prime Wezzix.”

               “Well, a monstrous demon from thousands of years ago beat you to him.  So why are you still here?”  Or, as Aiga heard him ask, “Why are you trying to kill me, then?  Why are you still here?”

               “I don’t know.  My mother…” Aiga began, but she stopped.  Her mother had driven her for so long that it was difficult to separate her own motivations from her mother’s.  “I don’t know if I’m going to kill you.  I need answers.  I need to understand.”

               “Don’t we all,” the Prime muttered.  It was not what Aiga would have expected a man who ruled all of Merolate to say.  “Well, threatening me won’t help you much, there.  There’s any number of people around this castle who could help you far more with meaning-of-life questions than I can.”  Aiga saw his grip on his sword tighten.  “But I’m not going to let you get to them.”

               “Why did you help me?” Aiga asked.  The question seemed colossally important.  “Why?”

               The Prime shrugged.  “Just the right thing to do.  Or so I thought.”  He hesitated.  “Everyone else told me it was the wrong thing to do, that I should have gone for help.  And it looks like they were right, and here you are to finish the job.”

               Aiga’s hands tightened around her stolen dagger, but she didn’t draw it.  She knew she needed to draw it.  She knew that she needed to do what she had come to do before the Prime decided to call out for help, or kill her himself.  With her Blood Magic so weakened by its previous overuse, he would be able to overpower her in straight combat.  Yet the dagger remained in its sheath.

               “Look,” the Prime said.  It still threw Aiga off that he was so young; this would have been so much less complicated if it had been Prime Wezzix.  And if she hadn’t botched the initial assassination attempt and then been saved by her intended target.  “Why are you trying to kill me?  Really?  I haven’t even had time to do much, yet.  If you’re going to kill me, I’d like to at least know why.”

               It occurred to Aiga that the Prime must not realize that her magic was all but spent, that she did not have enough blood left for more than a small employment of her power.  He still believed her to have all the powers of Blood Magic, whatever he considered those to be, at her disposal.  The thought put his continued refusal to call for help in a very different light, and even more of Aiga’s conviction fled from her.  “Prime Wezzix had my mother executed.  She made me vow revenge, for her, and for your prosecution of witches.”  She met his eyes, and felt like begging him, imploring him to understand.  She needed him to understand.  “We’re not evil.  Not unnatural.”

               “I – “ Prime Kiluron began, but then he stopped.  It seemed a very long time before he opened his mouth again.  “Look, there are things Prime Wezzix did that I don’t agree with, but he usually had his reasons, and the more that I’ve been learning since I became Prime, the more I’ve come to understand those reasons.  So I know that there is more basis than you might think for the way that Blood Magic is treated in the realm.”  Aiga felt her fear surge up, and she took a step backwards, but the Prime wasn’t finished speaking.  “However, I’ve recently had opportunity to learn more than I would like about just how nuanced Blood Magic and Balancing can be.  Enough to make me think that some of the laws we have may not be relevant anymore.”  He hesitated, and Aiga waited, biting her lip.  “It will take time, and I’m not making any promises.  But I want to see things changed, too.  If a wrong has been done to you and yours, then why not give me a chance to make it right?  Killing me will only make what you do more feared and persecuted.”

               The words made sense, so much sense, sense, sense.  Aiga fought against the logic, but her heart wasn’t in the fight.  Her mind whispered that this was betrayal of her mother, of her family, of her kind, but her heart told her this was right, that what the Prime was saying made sense.  And he seemed so genuine.  He had helped her when he had no reason to, when as he admitted his own advisors would have preferred that he hadn’t.  There was a recommendation in that which Aiga found she could not readily ignore.  It went against everything her mother had taught her, and she knew she could not trust the Prime of Merolate, but this man…those were the actions of a man she could trust.  She dropped the dagger onto the thick rug with a thud.

               The Prime gave a very audible sigh of relief, and sheathed his sword.  He took a step towards her, and then hesitated.  “I don’t think I should tell anyone about this, just yet.  Can you get out of the castle on your own?”

               It took a moment for the words to register; Aiga’s mind felt numb, numb, numb after her decision, and everything about the moment seemed vaguely unreal, like the spiritual plane had momentarily coincided with the physical plane.  “I – maybe?  I used so much power in getting here…”  She shook herself – had she really just admitted her weakness to the Prime of Merolate?  No, no she had admitted it to Kiluron, and Kiluron she could trust.

               If the Prime found this admission concerning, he gave no sign of it.  “Alright.  Then I’ll help you escape.  You can wait in here until it gets a bit later, and then I’ll help you sneak out of the castle.  After that, I’m afraid you’re on your own, but we’ll see if we can’t arrange for some provisions and maybe some better clothes or weapons for you first.  Alright?”

               “I – yes, yes, that sounds alright.  Thank you.”  It sounded more than alright; it was unreasonably generous.  She had come here to assassinate this man, and now he was helping her escape his own castle, and was probably going to send her home with equipment and food worth more than Aiga had seen in her life.

               “Good.  Then there’s nothing to do but wait.  I’ll come get you when it’s time to go.”  With that, Prime Kiluron turned and walked out, leaving Aiga alone with her thoughts, her confused, confused, confused thoughts.

               Doil eyed Kiluron.  The new Prime was many things, but ‘skilled actor’ did not make the list.  Not that Doil was particularly adept at subterfuge, but he at least didn’t think that he was quite so obvious when he had something to hide.  When Kiluron tried to hide something, especially something that he was excited about, it almost made it more obvious, rather than less.

               “Yes perfect I can’t wait,” Kiluron was saying.  “It’s really wonderful that you’ve set this up for me would you look at the time I think I have an appointment with Vere oh and by the way I don’t think we really need to worry about that assassin anymore and have you considered revising the Blood Magic laws in light of our new agreement with the Isle of Blood of course?”

               Doil sighed.  “I don’t suppose that I can convince you to tell me what’s going on?”  They were walking down a flight of steps towards the main castle entrance.

               “What do you mean I always tell you what’s going on you’re my most trusted advisor,” Kiluron protested.  It did not sound convincing.  Particularly the last part, which was only undermined further by a very, very guilty yawn.

               “My lord, have you not been sleeping well?” Doil pried further.

               “What?  Huh?  I’ve been sleeping just fine.  Just a little tired.”  Kiluron seemed to have realized that he was talking too quickly, and managed to speak in distinct sentences, though this only made his speech seem more stilted and fake.

               “If there’s a woman involved,” Doil mused, “we should at least talk about the matter.  As Prime of Merolate there are certain standards expected of you.”  Internally, he cringed.  This was not how he wanted to spend his morning talking with the Prime.

               Kiluron fidgeted with his collar.  “A woman?  Why would you think there’s a woman involved?”  He seemed to realize that he had slipped up, and hastily tried to cover his mistake.  “I mean, that assumed that you think I’m involved in something.  Which of course I’m not.  I mean, why would I be?  Don’t be ridiculous.”

               Clearing his throat several times did nothing to make Doil feel less awkward as he continued down this conversational path.  “My lord, simply because Merolate does not practice primogeniture does not mean that there is no cause for caution or concern that may result from unanticipated or formally announced, er…”

               “Wait wait wait wait,” Kiluron interrupted.  He seemed caught halfway between a blush, a guffaw, worry, and confusion.  “It’s really not what you think.”

               “You’re hiding something, my lord,” Doil insisted.

               “Maybe…” Kiluron admitted.  “But it’s still not what you think.  Nothing like it, actually.”  The guffaw won out.  “But since you seem so keen on discussing the topic, just how much insight and input is my official Advisor supposed to have into my romantic activities?  I mean, maybe you’re intended to keep a watch on me, see that I don’t do anything untoward?  Keep track of things, as it were?”

               “Forget I said anything, my lord.”  Doil could feel his cheeks heating, and he did not think it helped foster the gravitas he attempted to emit in his official capacity.

               Kiluron frowned.  “But you clearly thought this was important, Doil, and I wouldn’t want to dismiss out of hand something that you think is so important.  Perhaps we should talk about this further…”

               “No, please, my lord, that’s really alright.”  Doil wondered how the conversation had gotten so far out of his control.  He had thought he was being so clever, convincing Kiluron to reveal whatever it was he was hiding.  If only his guess hadn’t been so off base.  At this rate, he would never discover what Kiluron was really trying to conceal.  “I’m sure that we have several very important and pressing matters of state to discuss, instead.  Or maybe the latest taxation reports.  Or maybe a report on the average muscular exertions of blummoxes and the relationship of that exertion with work output as calculated on a sliding reference scale…”  Or maybe, as Doil added in his head, anything else at all.  It had all been going so well, only to go so wrong.  Kiluron would be insufferable for the rest of the day.  Putting on his most artificial smile, Doil wished he could just start the morning over.  It was going to be a very long day.

The end of Blood Magic S2:E2: Witch’s Heir. 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 March 31st, 2021.

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