There were only four of them sitting in the makeshift briefing room, although it was almost a stretch to call it a room.  Four, out of an original officer complement of twenty, and one of their four was only an officer by virtue of a field promotion, granted by the captain to provide some semblance of order and normalcy.  Evry hadn’t thought it would really make a difference, but somehow it had.  While she could barely hold the ship’s hull together, Captain Tarshion’s decision to promote Chief Wair to Ensign Wair had kept their entire world from devolving into chaos.  For a brief moment, Evry had thought her faith in Captain Tarshion had been misplaced, but no longer.  She, and the rest of the crew, would follow the man to the ends of the world, if he so ordered.  Indeed, it seemed they had done just that.

               Settling himself on the overturned bucket that was all they had to offer as a chair, Captain Tarshion met the eyes of each of his three officers in turn.  He took in their bedraggled, worn, bruised countenances, and somehow got them all to stand up a little straighter, despite their exhaustion.  “Report.”

               The word rang with crisp normalcy, but there was nothing normal about the situation, and no one knew which of them was supposed to report first.  Normally, the first officer would have gone first, but he was missing, presumed drowned.  The second officer was in a coma in what was left of the medical bay, and the executive officer was dead, crushed beyond recognition when a bulkhead caved.  His burial at sea had been conducted with buckets.  The other officers seemed to be going through the same thought process, for finally Commander Crout cleared his throat.  As the medical officer, he was technically outside of the chain of command, but he was the second highest ranking person in the room.  “Well Captain, do you want the bad news, the really bad news, or the terrible news first?  The med bay is in shambles.  I’ve lost half my nurses, and we don’t have the crew to spare to train more.  My equipment is almost all gone or damaged beyond repair.  There are three crewmembers, including Second Officer Shaldun, who are still alive, but whom I don’t expect to hang on much longer, not unless I can get them to a proper medical facility.  A dozen more sailors are in critical condition, and it would be faster to list those who aren’t injured than those who are.  I think the former list is maybe three people long.”

               It should have been the worst report of the day.  Certainly Commander Crout delivered it as if reading the titles of his own condemnation; he never had learned to keep the same detachment that most doctors assumed.  Evry knew that it wasn’t, though.  The worst was yet to come.  She started to speak, but no sound came out at first.  She had to clear her throat two more times before she managed to make proper speaking noises.  When she did finally get the words out, they sounded dead, as mechanical as the engines she was supposed to maintain.  The engines that were now gone.  “We’ve stopped the worst of the leaks, and the motorized bailers are working constantly, but we’ll be out of power soon; most of the fuel went overboard in the storm.  Even if I could get the engines repaired, which I doubt, we have no way to fuel them.”  She didn’t need to add that the engines would be useless even if they repaired them, since the enormous paddlewheels were both torn to shreds, the only evidence of their erstwhile existence the huge axle shafts extending from either side of the ship, near the stern.  Everyone could see that well enough for themselves.  “We have no propulsion at all.  We’re stuck here, wherever here is.”

               “Yes, as it happens I’ve been doing some figuring on that matter,” Captain Tarshion replied.  He sounded as calm as if they were discussing the finer points of cheesemaking over a cup of tea.  “I believe that I have determined our position to be in fact very near the double zero.  That means that, if the projections are correct, we are not far distant from the continent of Lufilna.”

               “But that’s impossible,” Evry interjected before she could prevent herself.  “My apologies, Sir, but Lufilna is barely more than a myth.  And no ship has ever passed the double zero square.”  Indeed, it was thought to be terrible luck to cross the double zero square, enough so that it had been codified into maritime law that no ship should sail beyond that meridian.  Not that Evry believed in such superstition.

               “Nevertheless, that is where I believe us to be,” Captain Tarshion asserted.  “And I would propose that our chances of survival are greater by making for the continent of Lufilna.  I realize that most of you consider it to by little more than a myth, a legend out of ancient times, but recent projections regarding the gravitational influence of the planet do imply the existence of a large land mass in the opposing hemisphere from our native Pifecha.”

               It pained Evry to disagree with the captain, but she felt she had little choice.  “But Captain, even if it does exist, we have no way have knowing where it is or how to reach it.  And even should we know those things, we have no means of propulsion.  That storm has reduced us to getting out and pushing!”  Never mind that the fabled continent was supposedly cursed.

               Unfortunately, that was not far from the truth, and it spoke to the underlying consternation of all of the officers, of the entire crew.  This ship had been designed to penetrate the Southern Ice Fields, sailing the frigid waters of the South Boran Ocean between Grinou and the south pole.  Yet when they had sought to respond to a distress call from a ship well north of them, they had rapidly found themselves in a storm that made their ice breaking armor plating seem like papier mâché.

               “Commander Evry, I would have expected greater imagination from you,” Captain Tarshion observed.  “The wind still blows, does it not?  The tides still ebb and flow, do they not?  We have around us the same powers that have been moving ships across these seas for centuries before the invention of coal fired steam engines.  Why, our ancestors are said to have been able to navigate nearly as effectively by reading the waves as we are by using the sun and stars.”

               “It’s not as if we have bundles of extra sailcloth and a spare mast lying around on what’s supposed to be a state-of-the-art steam-powered ice breaking exploration vessel,” Evry grumbled.  But of course the captain was right.  He almost always was.  An idea was already working its way through Evry’s brain.  “I suppose if we were to gather up whatever cloth we can find – uniforms, banners, blankets, the like, whatever we can spare – we might be able to cobble together some kind of makeshift sail.  I could probably rig it up somehow from the steamstacks.”

               “A fine idea.  Make it happen,” Captain Tarshion ordered.  “Now, Ensign Wair?”

               Ensign Wair shifted uncomfortably.  It was odd for such a grizzled veteran to look uncomfortable around authority, but there was a sense in which ensign was a far lower rank than chief, for all that it might not look it on paper.  Still, he knew his job better than anyone on the ship.  “A lot of the damage didn’t come from the storm, Captain,” he admitted.  “A lot of the damage came from the charges.  No matter how carefully we pack them, liquid fire is just too volatile.  It got shaken around enough by the storm winds to go off.  However, we still have one cannon, and most of the small arms.  One of the storage units of shot survived, but we only have enough liquid fire for maybe a half dozen cannon rounds.  More in the small arms, obviously.”

               That worried Evry even further.  If they were going to be sailing into unknown, supposedly cursed territory, she would have preferred to be doing it well-armed.  Though she could easily dismiss curses as nothing but superstition, most myths and legends were at least based on truth.  Something, long enough ago that it had faded from common consciousness, had happened to convince the cultures of an entire hemisphere that they ought not to go to the other side of the globe.

               She suspected that Captain Tarshion harbored similar reservations, but he gave no sign of it.  “Focus your attentions on the cannons,” he instructed.  “Collect cartridges from the small arms to pool for more shot, if you can.  We are more likely to need cannons than pistols.”

               “Aye, Sir,” replied Ensign Wair.

               There should have been more reports, but there hadn’t been time to appoint more of the crew to positions of authority since the storm had struck.  Not that there was a lot of crew left over which to have authority.  Evry fought down her emotions as Captain Tarshion cleared his throat.  There would be time to mourn later, when they were out of danger.

               “Very well,” Captain Tarshion pronounced.  “We will attempt to make landfall at the fabled continent Lufilna, traveling via improved sail.  In the meantime, we will attempt to repair the ship as best we can.  First priority will be a full inventory of our supplies, leaving nothing out from the list, even personal items.  Then we can begin to see what else we might be able to do to improve out situation.”  He paused, looking at each of his officers in turn.  “We will make our way home again, I swear it.  And it will because all of you make this the best crew in the fleet.”

               Though Evry knew that the Captain was practically obligated to say things like that, especially in dire situations, she nevertheless swelled with pride.  When the Captain dismissed them, she left the makeshift briefing room with her spirits high, determined to hold their vessel together even if she had to use chewing pines and her own hair.  That lasted until she began scrounging for fabric with which to improvise a sail, at which point the reality of their situation returned.  Evry was an engineer, so she understood statistics.  She suspected their survival was, in more ways that one, about as likely as finding a mythical continent.

               Under other circumstances, the sight of a large column of Corbulate troops marching towards the capitol city would have been a cause for concern and possibly panic, but today it was a cause for celebration, even if Guardcaptain Vere did look a bit sour as he and Admiral Ferl rode out with Kiluron and Doil to greet Governor Parl.  The troops were well armed and looked little the worse for wear from their long march across the Union from Corbulate.  For now, all of them wore Corbulate’s colors, but Kiluron had reason to hope that the other province governors would soon commit to lending their assistance, as well.  That Governor Parl had agreed to be assigned in this fashion carried more weight with the other governors than did the diktats of the Prime.

               Dressed in the same uniform as his soldiers, with a fine sword belted at his side and his armor and boots polished to gleam in the sun, his shoulders sparkling with general’s insignia, Governor Parl broke from the column after giving it orders to make camp outside the city, and rode up to greet Kiluron and his official party.  Not surprisingly, he offered a salute, instead of a bow.

               “Prime Kiluron,” he greeted in a loud voice.  To Kiluron, he sounded younger than he had when they had last spoken.  Perhaps it was just his enthusiasm.  “Advisor Doil, Minister Ferl, Guardcaptain Vere.  May I present the freshly activated and deployed Corbulate Guard Corps!”

               “They look fantastic,” Kiluron remarked.  He probably would have been obligated to say something to that effect regardless of the truth, but in this instance he genuinely meant what he said.  This, finally, seemed like something going right in his rule for a change, and it was something he could definably point to and say that he had accomplished.  That felt surprisingly good.  “The Union thanks you, Governor Parl.”  Less formally, he added, “and so do I.”

               It hadn’t all gone as Kiluron had envisioned, of course; Governor Parl had demanded tribute benefits, a fixed deployment period, and more command authority than Admiral Ferl or Doil had considered it advisable to cede.  Yet Governor Parl had agreed, which was more than any of the other governors had done so far.  They were all quick to point to the Charter, or to claim they could not spare the resources because of the costs of the Heart War.  There was an irony there; Corbulate had been one of the most persistent opponents of the Union from the start, and though it had come to support the concept in time, its relationship with Merolate tended to be cooler than the other provinces’.  Now, it was Corbulate that responded to a request from the Prime before any other province.

               “Will you be staying long at the city?” Kiluron asked Parl, referring to Merolate.

               Governor Parl shook his head.  “Only long enough to complete the official agreement and receive intelligence briefings from Guardcaptain Vere.”  He nodded respectfully towards the Guardcaptain, who returned the gesture, though he still seemed sour.  Perhaps he resented Governor Parl usurping some of his authority.  “Then we’re all off to the border.”

               Doil made an odd noise in his throat.  “Governor, with all due respect, surely you do not intend to remain deployed with your troops?  Who will care for the governance of your province while you are away?”

               “How could I fail to remain in the field with my troops?  You can’t lead from behind, Advisor Doil, not in the military, not amongst Corbs,” Governor Parl asserted.  “Besides, my own Advisor Ruva is a more than capable steward in my absence.  I’m sure you won’t have any difficulties dealing with her.”  From the tone of his voice, Kiluron suspected that at least part of the reason he was insisting on deploying with his troops was simply because he wanted to be out in the field, though Admiral Ferl was nodding at his logic.

               They went into the city then, to finalize the agreement, and Kiluron managed to convince Governor Parl that he could forgo dining with his troops for one evening so as to sup with Kiluron and Doil.  When the evening had finished and all had retired, Kiluron went to be feeling that, for the first time since his official investment ceremony, he might actually be starting to understand how to be a good Prime, and he slept more contentedly that night than he had in a long time.

               Then, of course, he was awoken at a distinctly unbalanced time of the night by Doil shaking his shoulder urgently.  It was still entirely dark outside.  Trying to blink away the clinging aura of sleep, Kiluron shielded his eyes from Doil’s candle, and batted numbly at him.

               “Go ‘way,” he mumbled, trying to reach for a pillow to pull over his head.

               Doil produced an aggrieved sigh.  “My lord, I wouldn’t be waking you if it weren’t urgent.”

               Waking Kiluron acknowledged that this was true, and also acknowledged that his role as Prime never stopped, even when he slept.  However, sleeping Kiluron was not interested in what waking Kiluron thought.  “Whatever it is, it can wait until morning.”

               “This can’t wait until morning,” Doil insisted.  “Please?”  Kiluron made an exaggerated snoring noise with the pillow over his head, and Doil sighed again.

               “Fine, fine.”  Kiluron swatted vaguely at Doil and removed the warding pillow from his face.  “I’m getting up.  Wait for me in the sitting room.”

               With a nod, Doil retreated, and Kiluron swung his legs out of bed.  Doubtless Doil would be listening to make sure that he didn’t go back to sleep, so he made certain to make plenty of noise as he rustled his way into a thick robe and shuffled out into the sitting room, giving an exaggerated yawn and stretching dramatically as he entered.  That was at least as much for Doil’s benefit as it was for his; he was rapidly finding himself awake now that he was up and moving about, but it wouldn’t do to let Doil get off too easily for awakening him in the middle of the night.

               “So?  What’s going on?” Kiluron asked, once he had settled himself in a chair across from Doil.  “What’s so urgent that you felt you needed to interrupt the peaceful slumber of the Prime of all of Merolate?”

               If it had been Kiluron, he would rolled his eyes, but of course Doil was far too polite for that.  Still, Kiluron thought he could hear the same sentiment in his voice.  “A ship is making its way up Merolate’s harbor.”

               Kiluron squinted.  “Doil, that happens literally all the time.”

               Doil shook his head.  “Not this kind of ship.”

               “Then what kind of ship is it?” Kiluron asked.  “Another from the Hiblanicho Isles?”

               “I – I don’t think so, my lord.”  Doil sounded increasingly nervous.  “It’s difficult to explain.  It would be easier if you just saw it for yourself.”

               “Sure, that sounds great,” Kiluron agreed.  “If only there were light outside to see anything with…oh wait.”  He looked pointedly at his Advisor, who flushed.

               “My lord, the entire ship seems to be made of metal.  That shouldn’t even be possible.  And Admiral Ferl says that one of the observation posts reported that when the ship reached the mouth of the bay, they summoned thunder without lightning.  But from what we can tell, with how strangely the ship is configured, we think it might be badly damaged.  We need you to decide if we should allow it to dock or not,” Doil explained.

               “Because you think they might have some kind of Blood Magic practitioners on board.”  Kiluron sat back, thinking.  Clearly his advisors thought that the ship might be dangerous.  Yet turning it away might be even more dangerous.  Plus, it seemed an evil thing to turn away a ship in need, if that was truly what was happening in this case.  “I say we let them dock,” Kiluron decided.  Besides, the idea of some strange people with a strange ship from strange and unknown lands was exciting.  Maybe this time, he would actually get to be involved with whoever they were.

               Doil looked relieved.  Perhaps he had been expecting Kiluron to be more recalcitrant.  “Thank you.  I’ll pass the word along to the dockmasters.”  He got up, but hesitated at the door.  “Will you be going back to sleep?”

               With a sigh, Kiluron also got up from his chair and stretched again, this time for his own benefit.  “I’m up now.  Might as well get ready to greet these foreigners.”

               Something close to a smile played with Doil’s lips.  “Very good, my lord.  I’ll see you soon.”  Then he left the room.

               It was past full light by the time the strange ship drew close to Merolate’s docks, only to stop ponderously some ways away and apparently dropped anchor, although it was difficult to tell with its peculiar configuration.  Then a smaller ship was dispatched from the larger, and began to make its way to the docks.  But the first Kiluron saw of the strangers was when they were brought to the audience chamber – it still seemed wrong to think of it as being “his” audience chamber – and he found himself facing a man who appeared at least several decades his senior, wearing clothes that, though a little ragged around the edges and appearing the worse for wearing, looked to be of a finer material than anything Kiluron had before seen.

               “Welcome to Merolate,” Kiluron addressed the stranger after clearing his throat.  “I’m Prime Kiluron, and we are pleased to grant you safe harbor here, so long as you abide by our laws.”  Only after he had finished speaking did he notice Doil trying to attract his attention, and he hesitated.  “A moment, please.”  He gestured Doil forward.

               “Um, my lord, they don’t speak our language,” Doil whispered into Kiluron’s ear.  “We only got this far by communicating through signs and gestures.”

               “Oh.”  Kiluron tried not to feel too awkward at having just addressed a man in what must have sounded like utter gibberish.  He thought for a moment.  “In that case, give him food.”

               “Food, my lord?” Doil asked.

               Kiluron nodded.  “Seems pretty universal to me.  You don’t give someone food if you’re not intending to offer them hospitality.”

               Oddly, Doil cocked his head.  “That’s…actually a very good idea.”

               “Thank you,” Kiluron replied with mock grace.  “One of these days, you might have to stop being surprised every time I come up with a good idea.”

               “I’ll take that under advisement, my lord,” Doil smiled.  “I’ll get the food arranged.”

               While Doil went to find food, Kiluron continued to sit and study the stranger, who studied him in turn.  There were so many questions to ask this man, if ever they could learn to communicate.  He was certain Doil already had people working on that, so in the meantime he let himself ponder just who it was who had come to Merolate’s shores.

               When Commander Crout donned his white coat over the singed, stained, stinky uniform he had been wearing for three straight days on the morning after their ship docked in a harbor of a mythical continent, it extended a penumbra of calm all around him.  It was his way of instilling order upon a chaotic world.  Some people said that they thought doctors wore white because it was a clinical color, cold and aloof, detached, but that wasn’t why Commander Crout wore white.  To him, the white coat of a medical practitioner was a symbol of the enlightenment of learning coming to improve people’s lives, and wearing it gave him as much a sense of purpose and reassurance as he hoped it instilled in his patients, or the crew that happened to see him.

               Since the disaster, he had taken to making a round of the ship each morning, checking on each of the surviving crewmembers individually.  There were only twenty of them in total, four officers and sixteen enlisted, out of an original crew of seventy-five.  The first morning he had done these rounds, it had taken less than an hour.  The second morning, he hadn’t finished until well into the afternoon.  That was alright; if someone needed to talk, he intended to be there to listen to them.  The people on this ship weren’t just crewmembers, they weren’t just survivors of a horrific disaster; they were individuals, and they were friends.  Other doctors spoke of professional detachment, and the officer training course he had taken before entering the navy had expressed a similar sentiment for leaders.  Care, but not too closely.  As if it were that simple.  Military types always liked to think they could reduce things like care and morality into tools that could be used when convenient and put aside when it was not.  That had never been enough for Crout.

               This morning, though, he did not stop to converse with the crewmembers he saw along his way to the makeshift medical bay he had created from what was left of his supplies, though he nodded congenially to the few he passed on the short walk from his improvised cot to his similarly improvised office.  Everyone was important, but there was someone more important with whom he needed to speak first, someone who’s responses each morning had become an odd sort of ritual for Crout since the disaster.  He nodded to the nurse who had been on duty, dismissing him, and took the report that he handed over about the night’s changes to his patients’ conditions.  One name leapt out at him immediately: Second Officer Shaldun.  He was still alive.

               Wheeling a rolling stool over to Shaldun’s bedside, Crout hung his clipboard on a stand and sat down, watching Shaldun breathing.  The breaths were so shallow that they were barely noticeable, but they looked like deep, heaving breaths to Crout.  It was nothing short of a miracle that the man was still taking them.

               “Morning, Shal,” Crout said.  He had long since stopped worrying about how strange it must seem to others that he spent part of his day conversing with a man in a coma.  There were studies that suggested that comatose patients could respond to some audible stimuli, but that wasn’t why Crout did it; his motivations were much more selfish.  “So, you’ve survived another night, have you?  Feeling any better?”

               Of course there was no response, and Crout hadn’t expected one.  Yet he felt like Shaldun was listening.  “You probably heard some of the other crewmembers talking by now; we’ve made harbor somewhere in Lufilna, just like the Captain said we would.  Never would have believed it, myself, but there it is.  Captain’s gone ashore to see if he can figure out how to talk with the folks here.”  He paused.  “That’s right – the place is inhabited.  I don’t think even the Captain was expecting that.  Who would?  But they’re primitive – maybe about where we were four or five hundred years ago.”

               He heard one of his other patients groaning, and hurried over.  The young crewman had awoken, and his face was already contorted in pain.  “Hey, Doc,” he forced out through clenched teeth.  “Got – got any more of the good stuff?”  He winced.  “Could really go for that right now.”

               They had run out of strong painkillers two days ago now, but the crewman clearly didn’t remember that.  Crout shook his head sadly.  “Sorry, lad.  We’re all out of that.  Best I can do for you is some more sleeping meds to help you sleep through the pain.”

               “I’ll take it.  Thanks, Doc,” the crewman replied.  “Sure could use some of that good stuff, though…”

               Once Crout had arranged the injection of sleeping medicines, he returned to Shaldun’s side.  “Of course, them being primitive, we’re not really going to get much help repairing the ship from them,” he continued.  “And we probably ought to be careful about sharing out technology.  Learned that lesson during the Grinou expeditions – ended up having to conquer the poor primitives for their own good.  Yet another complication, I suppose.”  He snorted, rueful.  “I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising.  Seems to be just the way things are going on this trip.”  He glanced down at his pocketwatch, and sighed.  “I guess it’s time to make the rounds again.”

               With a groan, Crout levered himself to his feet, and checked on each of his patients in the improvised medical bay, of whom there were still far more than he would have preferred.  It was the odd conundrum of the medical profession, and he thought it was why doctors tended to make people uncomfortable: they derived their employment from the suffering of others, yet any good doctor should hope to be unemployed.  Yet in this case, Crout supposed that the fact that there were still so many reflected how many he had been able to save.  In that light, he would have rather had dozens more patients for whom he needed to check temperature, pulse, respiration, and all the other indicators of life.  Most were in various states of consciousness; only two others were in a coma like Shaldun.

               He was just about to sit back down beside Shaldun when Captain Tarshion walked in, pausing in the doorway to look around himself, and making the sign of the One to hasten the healing of those he saw in the medical bay.  Though he rarely flaunted it, Crout knew Tarshion was a deeply religious man; he had always been strong enough to resist the clashes seen by lesser men between science and faith.  Crout rose to his feet to greet him.  “Captain.  I’m afraid the only stimulant I have left at the moment is coffee.”

               Indeed, Captain Tarshion looked in need of even that small aide.  Already there seemed to be worry lines around his eyes that had not been there before; Crout could hardly blame him for that.  It had been a trying few days since that terrible storm for all of them, and the Captain had been responsible for seeing all of the crew through it.  “No time for coffee today, I’m afraid.”

               Crout had known the Captain long enough to realize this was not an idle visit; the Captain didn’t have time for anything idle in their present circumstances.  He was also wise enough to hold his silence until the other man spoke.

               “I have a favor to ask of you,” Captain Tarshion said, after crossing the medical bay to lean against a counter.  It had once been a bulkhead.  “It won’t be easy.  And if you don’t succeed, I promise it will not reflect badly on you.”

               “Anything you need, Captain.”  Crout wondered what mission he was about to be given that could be so perilous.

               Captain Tarshion nodded.  “You’ve made something of a hobby out of philosophy, haven’t you?”

               “As much as anyone can make a hobby out of something fundamental to the fabric of human existence.”  Crout frowned.  “Why?”

               There was no second chair to be found in the makeshift medical bay, so Captain Tarshion was left to lean against a nearby wall.  “I don’t suppose you’ve done much translation work in pursuit of that hobby?  Working with ancient texts and so forth?”

               Crout raised his eyebrows.  “Captain, if you’re asking what I think you’re asking…I’m a doctor. This sounds like a job for a professional linguist.”

               “We don’t have a professional linguist,” Captain Tarshion pointed out.  “The closest we had on the crew was Ensign Relae, who was a history major with a minor in ancient languages.”

               He didn’t need to add that she had been amongst the crewmembers who had perished in the initial storm; Crout already knew that, having memorized the entire list.  It seemed the least he could do for them, having otherwise failed them so completely.  “Captain, I’m sorry, but this is beyond me.  There must be someone else with more experience in languages than I have.”  He glanced around himself.  “Besides, I think it’s pretty clear that I’ve got my hands full right now trying to keep this crew alive.”

               “Doctor,” Tarshion said, “the best thing you can do for these crewmembers right now might well be finding a way for us to communicate with these natives.  That’s the only way we’re going to get access to the kinds of supplies and resources to manufacture the equipment that we need.”  He paused, his voice softening.  “I know that you’re not an expert.  None of us are.  I think that they indicated they’re going to put their best scholars to work on communicating with us, but I’d rather not let our entire fate rest on the scholars of a group of people that hasn’t yet discovered steam power.  Plus, they’ll need someone fluent in our language to help them.”

               Crout looked down at Shaldun again.  The man was stable for now, but without his equipment, there was nothing more Crout could do for him or the others, and there was no way of knowing how long they might last like this, or what terrible infections might be awaiting the whole crew in this foreign land.  He squared his shoulders.  “Alright, Captain.  You’ve got yourself a very, very amateur linguist.”

               There was a pattern to all words, but to these words in particular, their relationships with the ones with which he was familiar, Doil was more and more convinced there was a pattern that wove into itself staggering implications.  It was the kind of sense that tickled at the back of his mind and made him want to sweep everything else off of his desk, clear his calendar and assignment list for the next ten days, and do nothing but immerse himself in his studies until he could define exactly what the pattern was, and why he thought it was so significant.

               Unfortunately, he had to focus on the task at hand.  Having effectively matriculated speaking five languages and six different dialects of Merolate’s national language with Borivat during their extensive tutoring sessions, he was able to pick up new languages relatively quickly, especially if they had at least some features in common with Merolate’s language.  He had expected to have greater difficulties with the foreigners’ language, since he doubted it would bear any resemblance to languages with which he was already familiar, but that had not proven to be the case.  At least, the word forms and sounds were relatively consistent, even if the grammar and vocabulary were immensely separate.  Perhaps that was all the pattern he was sensing.  It could simply imply that there were common threads that existed in all languages, even if they arose separately.  Except Heart City’s language, of course.

               Regardless, after only a few days of extensive study with the man from the ship who had been designated to work on communication, Doil was able to communicate adequately with the other man, who had been introduced as Crout.  At first, Doil had not been certain if this was a title or a name, but he was now convinced it was a name.  He now knew that the ship’s captain’s name was Tarshion, and that the ship had come from a distant land across the Cruman Ocean called Pifecha.  Crout had seemed uncertain at first, but then had been surprised by how quickly Doil had managed to develop translations between their two languages.  With Doil serving as translator, Crout had decided that it was appropriate to properly introduce Prime Kiluron and Captain Tarshion, and Doil had agreed.

               With Captain Tarshion walking into the audience chamber accompanied by Doctor Crout, Doil now found himself less confident.  Despite the apparently cordial relations they had enjoyed with the foreigners thus far, it was still true that no one in Merolate knew who they were, where they had come from, why they had come to Merolate, or what they wanted.  The fact that they had conjured thunder from the sky apparently just to announce themselves when they reached the harbor was not lost on anyone, and Admiral Ferl had delivered a report to Kiluron and the other ministers suggesting that there were no weapons in Merolate’s arsenal that could do more than scratch the alien ship’s hull.

               After this meeting, perhaps that would change.  Doil’s nervousness only increased as Captain Tarshion approached to stand before Kiluron, and the man offered a peculiar bow, and spoke his greeting, which Crout translated.  “Thank you for receiving my crew, and for granting us shelter.  We are grateful to you, and I am pleased to be at last able to speak with you.”

               With a glance at Doil, who nodded and prepared to translate, Kiluron made his reply.  “We are always glad to be able to render assistance and establish good relations with those who come to trouble in our waters.  I’m glad to finally meet you properly.”

               There was a stiltedness to the conversation that was unavoidable, but at least they could finally communicate.  “How did you come to be in these parts?” Doil translated for Kiluron.

               “Our ship was damaged by a storm,” Captain Tarshion answered through Commander Crout.  “We were too far off course to make landfall at any of our normal ports, so we risked the chance of discovering land past the double zero square, to find somewhere we could put to shore and affect some repairs.  We certainly never expected to find those lands inhabited.”

               Kiluron nodded.  “No more than we expected to learn that there was land on the other side of the world,” he agreed.  “Your ship is unfamiliar to us, but we would be happy to lend aid and materials to help you repair it.”

               “Thank you, but I’m afraid that there is little that you can do for us,” Captain Tarshion asserted.  “You lack the knowledge to produce the kinds of materials we would need, and we certainly cannot allow your people on our ship.  A safe harbor from which we can base and assemble our own materials to conduct our own repairs will be more than sufficient.  We are of course prepared to compensate you appropriately.”

               “Compensate us?” Kiluron asked.  He did not sound pleased, and Doil suppressed a wince as he translated.  He knew the Prime more than well enough to know that he would not like the condescension he perceived in Captain Tarshion’s tone, no matter how justified or reasonable that might be.  “Your ship’s composition and function might be unfamiliar to us, but we’re capable of learning.  Doil tells me from conversations he’s had with your medical officer that you’re seriously undermanned and in pretty bad shape.  We’re willing to help, and not out of hope for payment.”  It was difficult for Doil to translate everything exactly, since he was far from fluent in the foreigners’ language, but he managed to communicate most of Kiluron’s meaning.

               “I’m sorry, but that’s out of the question,” Captain Tarshion repeated through Commander Crout.  “It could do significant damage to both your culture and your people to expose them to the knowledge and technology we have on our ship, and our past experiences have taught us it is best never to compromise on these matters.  Please do not take this personally; it is a matter of our own sense of morality.”

               Doil watched Kiluron closely, waiting to translate for the Prime.  In his conversations with Crout, Doil had learned about the Grinou expedition and how that small continent had been plagued by even greater instability and warfare ever since making drastic technological leaps with the aid of envoys from Pifecha, and he had warned Kiluron that this was likely the response his offers of aid would receive.  “At least let us offer your crew temporary quarters, and your medical officer the services of our apothecaries and a less makeshift facility.”

               At this offer, Crout and Tarshion withdrew a ways to consider, murmuring quietly between themselves such that Doil could not hear what was said.  “Think they’ll go for it?” Kiluron asked.

               “Maybe,” Doil considered.  “They do take a lot of care for the lives of their people.”

               Kiluron grunted at that, doubtless not feeling inclined towards a charitable view of the foreigners after the slight he felt he had been offered by their captain.  Further conversation was forestalled when Crout stepped forward again to resume the conversation.  For Captain Tarshion he said “Prime Kiluron, we appreciate your offer, and your unflinching generosity.  Unfortunately, we must decline.  Please accept our thanks for continued safe harbor here, and I hope that we will be able to return to our own lands before we have too long imposed upon you.”

               It was an ending to the negotiations, for all that choosing an end ought to have been Prime Kiluron’s decision.  Some further pleasantries were exchanged, Doil translating for Kiluron as usual, but there was a perfunctory character from both sides that neither missed, and that worried Doil.  He had possessed high hopes for what Merolate could learn from interactions with these foreigners, especially in the fields of medicine from what little he had learned from Commander Crout, and he knew that Kiluron had been similarly eager to establish beneficial relations, if for other reasons.

               “Well?” Kiluron demanded once he and Doil were again alone in the audience chamber.  “Am I too much a primitive to be able to negotiate with them?”

               Doil sighed.  “I’m sure that’s not how they meant it, my lord.  Their Commander Crout explained to me that they have had bad experiences sharing their technology with less advanced societies in the past, and therefore implemented a rule to restrict such transfers.”

               Kiluron punched his fist into his opposite palm.  “It’s not like I’m asking them to share the secrets of their thunder weapons with us.  I offered to help them.  How are metalworking and shipbuilding technologies going to ruin Merolate as a civilization?  We’ve had technological advanced in sailing before without ‘ruining our civilization.’”

               “I’m not saying I agree with their reasoning, my lord.”  Doil searched for the right words.  “I’m just trying to explain their reasoning so that we can better understand.”  He hesitated, suspecting that he knew at least part of why Kiluron was particularly annoyed.  “I don’t think you can take this personally, my lord.  It’s not a reflection on you or your abilities to properly extend Merolate’s hospitality.”

               “Prime Wezzix wouldn’t have had these problems,” Kiluron grumbled.  “He’d have impressed them with our adherence to the rule of law and convinced them we were a sufficiently advanced civilization to be useful to them.”

               “You can’t know that, my lord,” Doil argued.  “I think you’ve done everything you could.  Besides, perhaps it’s best that they don’t think we’re useful to them.”  Although perhaps it was best not to consider that line of thought too closely.

               “Oh?  Why is that?” Kiluron asked sarcastically.

               Doil was quiet when he replied, wishing he had not brought the topic up at all.  “Because if they thought we were useful they might decide to conquer us, and I don’t think we would fare well in that conflict.”

               That brought Kiluron short in his recriminations, and he narrowed his eyes at Doil, worry growing on his face.  “You really think…?”

               “I don’t know, my lord,” Doil admitted.  “But it’s certainly a possibility.  What little I’ve learned from Commander Crout of their civilization is that they in some way or another control almost their entire hemisphere.  Or at least, that’s what they want us to believe.”

               Kiluron shook his head at that.  “I hate this.  I hate that we can’t even trust what we’re be told by these people.  I hate that they’re treating us like – like children, just because we aren’t familiar with the design of their ship.  I mean, Doil, you’re plenty smart – I’m sure you could go up there and understand how it works well enough.”  He paused, but continued before Doil could interrupt.  “Mostly, I hate that we feel like we have to tiptoe around these people because we think their one ship might have some kind of magical weaponry that would make our whole fleet useless.”

               “I doubt it’s magical,” Doil sighed.  “Otherwise, I agree with you.  Unfortunately, that’s not the way geopolitics works, and we have to look out for the needs and interests of the Union.  Right now, I’m afraid that my recommendation is still that we let these foreigners do what they need to in order to repair their ship, their way, according to their regulations, so long as they don’t blatantly violate our laws.”

               Grumbling some more, Kiluron finally pushed away from the table and began walking towards the hallway, gesturing for Doil to follow, which the latter did.  “Yes, yes, I know.  I just…” he groped for words, but found none that suited his purposes.

               Having reached the intersection beyond the hallway, Doil hesitated.  “My lord, I still have other tasks to complete today.  If I may…?”

               “Yes, yes.”  Kiluron waved his hand.  “I’m going to go have a chat with Vere and Fel about making sure that we keep a close eye on what our ‘friends’ out there are doing.  And I think…I think that if they’re so insistent that our help is unwanted and useless to them, then we oughtn’t to give it to them.  They can find their own sources for materials or whatever else they need.”

               “Is that your thought, or is that a policy decision?”  Doil winced mentally, worried that Kiluron would decide it was the latter.

               “I – “ Kiluron hesitated.  “I guess it’s just my own thought, though I wish I had the courage to make it policy.  For now, anyway.”

               Hoping that his relief wasn’t too obvious, Doil bobbed his head.  “Of course, my lord.”  He started to make his way back to his own chambers, where he kept his office, but he hesitated and turned back towards Kiluron, a thought having occurred to him.  “You know, sometimes making the safer, wiser, more prudent choice is the decision that takes courage, especially when you’re responsible for so much.”

               Turning back as well, Kiluron made an exaggerated sigh with his shoulders.  “Maybe so, but it doesn’t make me like it any better.  I’ll see you later today, I’m sure.”  Then he turned again, and continued on his way to find Vere and Fel.

               Rubbing his forehead, Doil made his own way onward, to where his desk awaited him.  He was more curious than Kiluron about the function and construction of the foreigners’ strange ship, but his stuttering, fumbling conversations with Crout had begun to give him insight into what kind of place Pifecha was, and what he heard made him increasingly convinced that only their rules against crossing the double zero square, wherever that was, had kept them from dominating two hemispheres, instead of one.  They were an orderly, efficient, technologically advanced people, and they were very well aware of that fact.  He only hoped that by not being in a state to provide appreciable aid to their visitors Merolate might be thought insufficiently useful to be worth the dangers of exploring further.

               Although his patience with primitive lands was worn thinner than an overused uniform, and he felt nearly as frustrated as he had when working at the naval headquarters in the capital city, Captain Tarshion allowed neither of those emotions to show even a glimmer in his eye, much less be seen on his face or heard in his voice.  Instead, he sought to project calm, cool understanding, and the warmth of command.  People trusted leaders who projected those kinds of emotions, even if they weren’t always entirely certain why.  Tarshion had long ago stopped worrying whether he was manipulating people into following him and whether he was a true leader, or just an imposter.  At some point, if you continued to live the principles you sought to espouse, the difference between an act and the truth became immaterial.

               Even so, he suspected that the newly minted Ensign Wair was perceptive enough to note the little vein of frustration worming at Tarshion’s temple, even if Evry was oblivious.  After all, the man had been a chief before Tarshion had promoted him, and chiefs rarely missed those sorts of indicators.  It was part of their duties.  “I can impose additional secrecy measures immediately, Sir,” Wair asserted.  It might have even been true in substance, rather than just nominal adjustments to fulfil a checklist.

               “Do it,” Tarshion agreed, mostly because it would make everyone feel better to see him make a decision, and to be doing something about the problem.  “In the meantime, I believe that I will need to have another conversation with the primitives’ leader.  Commander Crout, you’ll accompany me as before.”

               He received a nod from the doctor, but Evry grumbled.  “Captain, with all due respect, more security is only going to further hamper my ability to make this ship seaworthy again.  At this rate, we would be practically better off carving some paddles and rowing ourselves back home.”

               “I realize it’s inconvenient,” Tarshion agreed with the kind of ‘I see, but actually’ agreement used by all commanders when confronted with a challenge they could not merely dismiss outright.  “However, we cannot afford to compromise on this.  These primitives must be kept from learning about our technology.  Can you imagine the chaos that this hemisphere would devolve into if one of their chieftains were to gain access to liquid fire technology, or even steam engines?  It would be a disaster.  Could you live with that?  Could any of us, knowing that we were the cause of so much death, all because we were a little lazy and impatient to get home?”

               “No Sir,” Evry subsided, and everyone chorused it along with her.  After a speech like that, how could they not?  They all knew well enough to story of Grinou, and that had been when liquid fire technology was still relatively new and limited to large explosives.

               “Very good,” Tarshion affirmed, looking around at his officers and meeting each of their gazes in turn.  “We will make our way home, and we will repair our ship.  It will just take time.  But we will not compromise our values in accomplishing those goals.”  He paused, allowing the topic to pass, and returned to the original subject of the meeting.  “Now, I will try again to communicate to their chieftain that we are not interested in their ‘help,’ and that it is imperative that they leave this ship alone.  This time to include spying upon our efforts.”

               There was a general assent around the still-makeshift briefing room, so Tarshion nodded.  “Excellent.  I know that we all have more than enough work to do, so I won’t hold you up any longer.  Dismissed.”

               The officers filed out, and Tarshion followed shortly, returning to his office, or rather what was left of it.  His books had been almost entirely ruined, and his solar experiments had been completely destroyed by the storm.  For that matter, most of the contents of the cabin had been thoroughly soaked if not outright torn apart by the storm, although of course replacements for his most essential furniture had been found rapidly.  Most tragic to him had been the loss of his logbooks and most of his measurement apparatuses, with which he had been carefully tracking details about the winds, the seas, the tides, and other aspects of naval existence for most of his career.  He would have preferred to be studying the stars in this odd part of the globe, seeing how they were different from the constellations with which he was familiar, but there was no time for any of that.  Instead, he set himself to considering how best to approach the primitives’ chieftain the following day.

               Instead, it was five days later before he was finally granted an audience with the primitives’ chieftain, Prime Kiluron as he styled himself.  In the intervening time, Tarshion’s patience had not increased, and he found it increasingly difficult to suppress his growing irritation, impatience, and general sense of superiority over the audacity of these primitives, who clearly were incapable of understanding what was in their best interests and how dedicatedly Tarshion was working to protect them both from his own people and from themselves.

               Perhaps Crout sensed Tarshion’s frustration, for as they walked into the dark, brooding hulk of a castle he remarked, “Captain, I wouldn’t take the wait too personally, were I you.  I’ve heard that they’re in the process of recovering from some kind of major disaster, a crop failure or some such.  It’s possible that they really were too busy with their own affairs to see you immediately.”

               Tarshion favored Crout with a very forced smile.  “You know me too well, Doctor.  But do you really believe that they haven’t had any time to see me?  They’ve certainly had enough time to dedicate to spying on us.”

               “Maybe so,” Crout admitted, “but remember, just because their Prime Kiluron is a primitive chieftain to your perspective, to theirs you’re a foreign ship captain, and he’s the leader of their whole nation-state.  Actually, it’s rather a more intelligent means of selecting a ruler than many that were used in our own hemisphere until much more recently, relative technology-wise.  Regardless, think of it more like trying to get an audience before the Board and the Headmaster.”

               To that, Tarshion grunted; he had been before the Board and the Headmaster when he had been up for promotion to captain, and his appointment, even after it had been made, had been delayed almost twenty days.  “Let’s be glad it’s not as bad as that, then.”

               A guard announced them at the door to the audience chamber, and then they were allowed inside, to find Prime Kiluron and his advisor sitting at the other end of the long, vaguely triangular table, although they rose to greet Tarshion and Crout upon their arrival, and gestured for them to sit.  That soothed Tarshion’s pride somewhat, particularly when he considered the situation in the terms that Crout had suggested.

               “I’m sorry for keeping you waiting for so long,” their Prime said through his interpreter.  “What can I do for you?  I was under the impression that you didn’t want our help with anything.”

               The resentment in their Prime’s voice bothered Tarshion, and he fought against his tendency to grit his teeth when spoken to in such a way.  There would be no persuading this man of the moral rightness of Tarshion’s position, or the fact that he was attempting to protect both of their peoples.  Tarshion nodded to Crout to translate.  “I think that we both know why I’ve come before you again.  You’ve been spying upon us, watching our movements.  This must stop, for your own protection and mine.”

               Either this man had not been their Prime for very long, or he was simply atrocious at hiding his emotions, because Tarshion could read the annoyance plainly on Prime Kiluron’s features even before he heard it in his voice.  “A necessary precaution, especially given how secretive you and your people have been,” he retorted.  “Would you have me allow strangers wander about our city or even the countryside without being aware of their movements?”

               “He has a fair point,” Crout murmured, and Tarshion grimaced.  Just because it was a fair point didn’t mean he was going to concede it, and it certainly didn’t mean he was prepared to allow this Prime Kiluron to learn the exact materials and processes necessary to create Pifechan technology.

               Gesturing for Crout to translate, Tarshion made another attempt, keeping his voice calm and composed with an effort of will; he had no wish to appear undignified.  “Please, try to understand.  We try very hard to avoid unnaturally affecting the technical development of primitive civilizations; it always leads to problems.  Just our being here has already caused damage that would have been better avoided.”

               “Or perhaps you could allow us to make our own decisions about what is dangerous, rather than treating us like children,” their Prime retorted.  Tarshion wished that the Prime’s translator was more expressive; it was difficult for him to pick up the correct inflections from the Prime’s alien tongue.

               “But you are like children; this is exactly our point,” Tarshion insisted.  If he could only get through to the Prime, make him understand the risks involved.  “Our technology is dangerous, especially to those who do not fully understand it.  We seek privacy for your own protection.”  He hoped that his impatience was not too obvious.

               From the look on the Prime’s face, this only made him more indignant.  “You came to us for help.  We took you in and offered you food and shelter and resources and aid, and you have repaid us not with kindness or openness but with insults and secrecy.”

               Forcibly, Tarshion controlled his own frustration.  “I will repeat it again: our technology is dangerous.  We are dangerous to you.  It is best for all of us if we keep our contact as limited as possible.”

               A different look passed over the Prime’s face, one more difficult to identify, and when he spoke his interpreter hesitated and had to be prompted before repeating the words.  “Is that a threat, Captain?”

               Tarshion swallowed, worried suddenly that perhaps he had pushed this man too far.  Their repairs were far from complete, and although they had replenished some small portion of their supply of liquid fire, he did not relish the idea of combat with this Prime’s forces, which would surely outnumber his own exhausted crew and eventually overwhelm them, no matter how primitive their techniques and weaponry might be.  “It is not a threat,” he soothed as best he could.  “It is merely the truth.  I implore you to heed and understand our warning.”

               There was a long silence then, in which the Prime conferred quietly with his advisor.  Tarshion began to wonder if he would receive any answer at all, and standing there he went over all that he had said and wondered if there was any way that he ought to have better presenting his arguments, but he could think of none.  Surely any reasonable person would understand that, and although they were primitive the people he had encountered in this land seemed mostly reasonable.  Finally, the Prime turned back towards Tarshion, and spoke.  His translator, after a moment’s hesitation, repeated his words, taking especial care to choose them deliberately and well.  Tarshion was honestly impressed by the man’s command of the language.

               “Merolate has long prided itself on its hospitality, especially its tradition of rendering aid without question to ships and sailors in need from distant lands.  Long before the Union was even formed, it was known that the harbor of Merolate was safe even to her enemies when their need was dire.”  The translation paused, and felt a distinct foreboding for how it would continue.  “Therefore, we will not set you adrift, as would be our right for the threats and general disrespect with which you continue to treat us.  However, we ask now that you depart our waters as soon as your ship is able.  Know that we would rather have had this relationship turn out differently between our two peoples, and that we maintain hope that in the future we will meet as friends and allies.”

               It had all the air of an official pronouncement, and Tarshion bowed in ascent, keeping the pleased smile from his face.  “We understand, and apologize for the disagreements we may have inspired,” he responded diplomatically.  “I too hope that we will one day meet as friends and allies.”  He did not add that he did not think that was likely.

               He returned to his ship with Commander Crout, pleased with what had occurred.  He had intended to depart as soon as possible, regardless, and could now forgo any pretense of priority other than getting underway with all haste.  The potential animosity of a nation-state that still believed in magic and ran around with swords was of little concern to him.  Evry would complain about not getting to make everything perfect, but they would be able to move in likely only a few more days, and then they would leave quietly under the cover of darkness.  For himself, he would not entirely relax until they were safely out of these barbarous waters.

               From a quiet stretch of castle wall, clad in a thick cloak over his nightclothes, Kiluron watched the foreigners departing under the cover of darkness in their strange ship, which was now belching smoke and growling like some kind of mythical dragon come to life and harnessed.  Doubtless their captain thought himself very clever, sneaking away while no one was watching.  After all, surely if the foreigners hadn’t found anyone still spying on them, that meant no one was.  Kiluron smiled grimly at that; he still itched at the condescending tone that had characterized all of his interactions with their Captain Tarshion.  It didn’t help that, although rationally he knew that Prime Wezzix would probably have been treated in the same way, he couldn’t help feeling that it was because he was so new and young in his role as Prime.

               With the foreigners clearly sensitive to espionage, Kiluron had not been able to put people as close to them and their repair efforts as he would have liked, but he had still been able to keep at least a watchful eye upon them; the harbor being in a city, some watching eyes were practically unavoidable.  While his men had not been able to learn the secrets to how the odd Pifechan ship worked, he had at least been able to keep them from wandering around Merolate without being watched, and he had known precisely how rapidly their repairs were progressing.  He had also been alerted immediately, despite it being the middle of the night, when the ship had seemed apt to depart imminently.

               “I must say, I hope that’s the last we see of them,” Kiluron muttered.  “What an arrogant bunch.”

               Doil shuddered.  “I hope so, too.  Because if they return, I doubt it would go as well.”

               “’Well?’” Kiluron repeated.  “You call that ‘well?’”

               “You didn’t hear the way their translator, Crout, referenced something called the Grinou expeditions,” Doil responded.  “Anytime I asked, he would stop talking about it, but from what I gathered they ended up conquering an entire continent ‘for its own good.’  It would be like if we decided to conquer Nycheril for its own protection.”

               It was Kiluron’s turn to shiver, and not simply because of the chill to the night air.  At least a warm breeze was coming off the harbor, bringing with it scents of fish and brine, and an odd, dirty, sooty odor that must have been the smoke coming from the Pifechan ship.  It was like a smudge in Kiluron’s nostrils.  “Like I said.  Arrogant.  You really think they’re that much of a threat?”

               “I don’t know,” Doil replied, turning his gaze away from the departing ship.  “Their land is a long ways away, and it would be no small undertaking to return here in force.  But they also have resources and capabilities that we can barely imagine.”

               Kiluron glanced over at him, and sighed.  “I guess there’s nothing to do but keep a watchful eye to the east.”  He sighed, and it turned into a yawn.  “For my part, I think I’m going to go get some sleep.  These Pifechans have had me up in the middle of the night far too often.”  He stretched.  “Besides, I’m sure we have plenty of our own affairs to worry about tomorrow, without worrying about what we can’t control.”

               Doil nodded.  “That’s…probably a wise decision, my lord.  I only wish I could implement it.”

               Kiluron snorted.  “I didn’t say that I could actually stop worrying about things I can’t control.  Only that it would be better if I did.  You coming?”  He gestured down the stairs back into the castle proper.

               For a moment longer, Doil gazed out at the disappearing Pifechan ship, belching its way out of the Merolate harbor.  Then he nodded again, and followed Kiluron back inside.  At least for the moment, there were bigger concerns, and not least of them was a good night’s sleep.

The end of Blood Magic S2:E3: Strange Lands. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, and enjoyed the story, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the next episode will go live on April 30th, 2021.

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