Thick, tangled underbrush tugged at Ovra’s skin and clothes as she ran, but she had no time to worry about the scratches and ticks and burrs she was doubtless accumulating, nor to pick a more careful path; it was all she could do to keep from tripping in the failing light.  Behind her, she could hear the harsh voices of soldiers calling back and forth, the whining of their hunting dogs serving as a terrifying harmony. 

               Somewhere ahead she knew lay the Luovis River, and beyond it, safety, or at least as much safety as she could hope to find for the night.  Though her bare feet were bleeding, and each breath was jagged in her throat, she kept running, and she stayed silent.  Somehow, even a whimper seemed like it would have given her away, though her pursuers could not be far behind, not with those dogs to track her scent.

               Maybe it had been foolish of her to wait.  The other families had certainly thought so, and several of the mothers in particular had looked upon her with scorn when she asked them to see her children safely across the river while she stayed on the Rovis side.  Now that she was moments from being in the hands of the Rovis soldiers, she was inclined to agree with them.  Yet how could she have not waited?  They had agreed to stick together, and that meant taking risks if there was even the slightest chance of saving one more family.  To set out with a dozen families, and to make it to the border with only five…Ovra’s heart wanted to break, but she held herself together and kept running.  No time for tears or regrets; the others would need her on the other side.

               She tripped over a sprawling tree root, skinning her knees, twisting her ankle, and somehow managing to tear what small parts of her skirt weren’t already shredded; before the pain had even registered, she was on her feet again and running, heedless of the limp that had developed now in her stride.  She could hear the water just ahead, drowning out the sounds of pursuit. 

               It would drown her, too, if the others hadn’t sent the raft back across for her as she had instructed.  She trusted them, but she also knew that the temptation of freedom was strong, and besides, any number of things could have gone wrong.  Merolate was more welcoming to Balancers than Rovis, but not by very much.

               In the darkness she almost missed it, but then she realized she was right on top of the thick, knotted rope holding the raft to the shadowed cleft of the riverbank, right where it was supposed to be.  Her fingers fumbled with it, and she bit her lip in frustration, trying to will her hands to stop shaking so much and only managing to make them shake more. 

               She got the rope free just as two dogs burst through the tall grasses.  Bent down as she was, Ovra was staring right into their eyes.  At the eye contact the dogs hesitated for a quarter of a moment, which was long enough for Ovra to throw herself over the bank and into the churning water below, moments before soldiers burst through the bushes after their hunting dogs.

               Cold, raging river water seized Ovra and yanked her away, tossing her about like a jewel on a tumbler – there had been no time to make sure that she jumped onto the waiting raft – and she lost all sense of direction.  She started clawing desperately at the water, hoping that she was heading towards the surface, but in the darkness there was no way to tell, and her lungs were already straining and burning, her vision was going white around the edges, and her heart seemed fit to hammer its way out of its boney cage. 

               She needed to breathe, had to breathe, and it didn’t matter if that breath was air or water – she realized that she was still holding the end of the slimy rope, the other end of which was connected to the raft.  Without even the mental capacity to spare to curse her own idiocy, she hauled along the rope with all her strength, praying that it would not slip through her rapidly numbing fingers, and a moment later her head burst into warm, sweet night air in which she could gasp and splutter to her lungs’ content.

               Except that there was no time to revel in the wonderful feeling of being able to breathe again; she could see soldiers running along the bank, paralleling her course, and she was still easily within bow range.  With some hidden reservoir of strength, Ovra managed to clamber onto the raft’s slick surface.  The pole had disappeared, probably swept off by the river, but at least she was able to breathe, and she was a little less likely to get dashed to pieces on a rock for the immediate future.  That was the only future she cared about right then.

               With the raft spinning erratically, and no pole, it would have taken someone with far more nautical experience than Ovra to find a steady course, but there was no one else, and Ovra needed to get to the opposite bank.  Once she was there, the Rovis soldiers wouldn’t dare follow; they’d be risking an armed incident with the Merolate Union, and no one would care that they had crossed in pursuit of a dirty Blood Worshipper. 

               Laying herself on her belly, Ovra tried to steer the flimsy raft as best she could with her hands, guiding it towards the opposite bank.  The running soldiers and barking dogs on the Rovis side made it easy to know which riverbank she was trying to avoid, but the thud of an arrow into the wood just beside her head made nothing easier.

               “Blood and Balance, what do you Rovis fools think you’re shooting at!” a voice shouted across the water, and Ovra whipped her head around to look towards the source.  She thought she could dimly make out a man in Merolate colors standing on the opposite riverbank; had she really drifted as far south as the nearest border post?  “Are you trying to start a war?”

               There was no reply from the Rovis soldiers, and the arrows trying to hit Ovra slowed; they must have been taking more care not to shoot too close to the Merolate side of the river.  Then another voice came from the Merolate side.  “Look, Sir!  Someone’s in the water!”

               Panicking, Ovra tried to kick her raft back towards the center of the current, hoping that she could outpace all of them.  Being taken in by the Merolate guardsmen might keep her safe from the Rovis soldiers, but it would present its own dangers, and not only to herself.  She heard a faint splash and wondered if the Merolate guardsmen were returning arrows of their own.  Then her raft rocked sharply, almost pitching her into the river, and a sopping wet, half-naked man with a rope tied around his waist hauled himself aboard.

               “Nice to meet you, Ma’am,” he said, puffing from cold and exertion.  He turned back towards the Merolate bank, and shouted “Alright, reel me in!”

               “Thieving Unioners!” a Rovis solider cursed from the Rovis side, but the arrows stopped flying; whoever was in command didn’t want to risk shooting a Merolate guardsman.

               Time seemed to stretch, but it couldn’t have taken long for the swimmer’s fellow guardsman to haul the little raft up to the Merolate side of the riverbank.  Ovra felt dazed as a strong hand helped her to her feet, and someone wrapped a warm cloak around her shivering shoulders.  Voices were blabbering all around her, but she couldn’t make sense of any of them, and they all kept being drowned out by a ringing in her ears that came and went in heaving waves.  It wasn’t until she had been bundled up by concerned guardsmen to lay before a roaring fire in the border post that she was finally able to regain some semblance of rationality, and almost she wished that she hadn’t, her new circumstances were so overwhelming.

               She didn’t want to tell the guards about the other families, but she had to explain the raft, and they just kept asking questions – kind, good-natured questions, in concerned voices and with considerate framing, accompanied by loaves of hard bread and sour broth and apologies for the quality of both – and Ovra was too distraught and too exhausted and too frightened to come up with any reasonable story but the truth. 

               For four days she was allowed to rest and recover in the border post, and then on the fourth day a pair of guardsmen came back, leading the five families who had crossed the border before her.  Two days later, two guardsmen set out from the border post with Ovra and the five families for Merolate City to have their case judged by higher authorities.  It was exactly what Ovra had feared would happen to them.

               A bird was perched upon a windowsill just outside of one of Merolate’s conference chambers, singing its carefree song as its feathers ruffled in the warm breeze, and Kiluron wondered if it had been put there deliberately to taunt him.  Spring was feeling more summer-like by the day, and any other year he would have been able to find some excuse to escape from his duties and go out for a long ride in the fields outside the city, or even just a walk to enjoy all of the glorious sunshine pouring down upon the land. 

              This year, he was stuck inside listening to a bunch of stuffy old men who probably derived their energies from book-molds and candlelight drone on and on and on.  Though Doil had warned him, Kiluron had not quite believed just how much his ministers would be able to find to debate about taxation.

               Nor did it matter that those taxes weren’t collected until the autumn, when the harvests started coming in; the Union government needed to begin discussing tax policy and budgeting now, in the springtime.  Doil claimed it was a legal requirement to allow the farmers time to budget for their taxes and give the province governors time to make petitions for changes to the distributions, but Kiluron increasingly thought it was because his ministers were going to be talking about taxes from now until it was actually time to go about collecting them, and even then, they’d probably only stop reluctantly.

               What really boggled the mind, or at least what really boggled Kiluron’s mind, was that they weren’t even really debating taxes.  By necessity, the taxes couldn’t change very much year to year, although emergency levies could be raised under certain circumstances.  No, the debates were mostly over the distribution of the funds after they were collected, despite the fact that there were decades of past years’ budgets upon which to look back and draw to create this year’s scheme.  Yet when Kiluron had suggested privately to Doil that they just reuse an old budget, his advisor had looked at him like he had gone completely insane.  Apparently, that had not been one of his “actually really good” ideas.

               Even Admiral Fel, whom Kiluron would have assumed too practical-minded for such arguments, was getting into the debate, vehemently espousing the need for more funding for the guard, and especially the navy, to support ongoing explorations of Nycheril. 

              “And furthermore,” he was then saying, “There is the matter of increased turmoil along the Rovis border, as a result of which we will also need more funds to support more frequent border posts.  Our espionage network suggests that Rovis is experiencing a minor famine as a result of the aftershocks of the recent Heart War, and are coping in part by evicting unwanted persons, who are fleeing across the border into Merolate.  Most of them are Blood Worshippers; there’s a dozen families on their way to the city under escort by our guardsmen as we speak.”

               Perking up at this news as an idea started to form, Kiluron let the ministers keep talking and leaned over to whisper a question to Doil.  “Why are we sending all of these refugees to Merolate?”

               “Their cases have to be judged,” Doil replied.  “Our officials will determine if they should be allowed to stay in Merolate or not.”  Kiluron opened his mouth to ask another question, but Doil preempted him, evidently anticipating his question.  “It’s a necessary step to screen for dangerous or maladjusted persons, and for spies.  We can’t have other nations just offloading their unwanted citizens on us.”

               “No, of course not,” Kiluron muttered.  “Still, seems inefficient.”  His idea was taking a very appealing shape.  “Say, wouldn’t it be more efficient if someone with authority to make those kinds of decisions were to ride out to meet them, instead of them coming all the way to Merolate City?”

               “I suppose so, but it’s been useful to have a central location for these matters, and besides, most of our legal officials wouldn’t tolerate assignment to a border post…” Doil trailed off.  “That’s not what you meant, is it.”

               Kiluron smirked.  “Not exactly.  I’ve been thinking what a nice day it is for a ride…”

               It was nearly noon before Kiluron managed to find an excuse to end the day’s debate, which was only the third of what Doil assured him were many, many more periods of tedium, but Kiluron had the servants pack him and Doil something they could eat on the road, and then they were riding away from the city before Doil could find any way of talking Kiluron out of his crazy idea. 

              He didn’t need his advisor to tell him that the Prime of Merolate himself did not need to personally pass judgement on a handful of refugees coming in from the Rovis border; he knew that.  Fortunately, providing such a useful function that would hopefully save some poor people a bit of their arduous journey was really just a pretext to get Kiluron outside and enjoying the beautiful day and its fresh air.  Almost as soon as they had passed the gates Kiluron let out a dignified whoop, and gave his horse its head, letting the beast run for a time before pulling back to a more reasonable pace.

               “Did you even tell the guards what you were doing?” Doil asked when he had managed to pull his horse to a gentle trot beside Kiluron’s.  Somehow, he looked disheveled from just that short gallop.  “You’re the Prime now; you should probably travel with guards.”

               Shrugging, Kiluron took a bite of his sandwich wedge.  “I should certainly hope that I don’t need guards to ride along a road just a little way from the Union’s capital.”  He purposefully avoided mentioning the incident with the brigands on his picnic with Lady Fetrina.  “Besides, there’ll be guardsmen leading the refugees, right?  That counts.  I do so declare.”

               To this, Doil just sighed.

               They camped that evening just off the road, and the next morning came in sight of the incoming Rovis refugees.  Kiluron’s first thought was that they looked the part: sallow-cheeked, gaunt, skittish, clumping together in little family groups, and walking or limping with bowed heads and sagging shoulders.  He turned to Doil before they approached.  “These?” he asked.  “We have to see if any of these poor people are a threat to the Union?  They look like they need a soft bed and a hot meal, not a legal evaluation.”

               “And that is exactly what Rovis counts on us to think,” Doil replied.  “It’s an easy matter to slip a spy in with a group like this – the records say we’ve caught quite a few that way.  Plus, most of the time there’s a reason that the Rovis were trying to get rid of them in the first place.”

               Kiluron grimaced at that, but had no argument to make, so he just flicked the reins and cantered on along the road towards the two guardsmen at the head of column, raising his hand and hailing them as he approached.  They hailed him back, then apparently recognized his sigil, blanched, and hastily saluted.

               “My lord Prime!” one of them exclaimed.  “I – that is, we didn’t expect you to come yourself, ah…”

               Kiluron stretched dramatically.  “I heard that you needed someone to make a legal decision, and it just so happens that I have a bit of authority in that realm,” he remarked.  Then he leaned in between the guardsmen.  “Besides, it’s always good to get out for a ride on a beautiful day, instead of being stuck in meetings about taxes.”

               That at least inspired a nervous chuckle, though neither guardsman relaxed completely, and Kiluron suppressed a sigh.  When he had been Sub-Prime, guardsmen had not been so uncomfortable around him.  The longer he held the role of Prime, the more comfortable he became, and yet the stranger it became that he had ever looked forward to having the position.  “What’s the situation here?” he asked.

               Having recovered his composure faster than his companion, the guardsman on the right gave a second, unnecessary salute before answering.  “I’m Guardsman Rolti, and that’s Guardsman Plyrt.  We’re escorting eight families, Sir, so maybe…fifty or sixty people?  Not more than a hundred.  It’s hard to keep a good count, what with the kids all running around and whatnot.  Anyway, yes.  Eight families.  Five of ‘em apparently were travelling together before getting to the border; the other three we picked up piecemeal, as it were.  Those Bloody Rovis – uh, pardon my language, Sir – they sure weren’t treating ‘em right, if you take my meaning.  Driving ‘em towards the border, hunting ‘em with dogs and things.  It’s not right, if you ask me, it’s just not.  Plyrt here pulled one woman out of the river nigh half drowned while they was all shooting at her from the other bank.  Good thing those Unbal- uh, Rovis soldiers got no aim, eh?  Sir.  Uh, that’s about everything, Sir.”

               Keeping his expression neutral to hide his amusement, Kiluron nodded.  “Thank you, Rolti.  Why don’t you and Plyrt get a camp set up for the night?  I’ll start talking with some of these families and see if we can’t get this all cleared up.”

               Looking relieved to have survived his brief interview with the most powerful person in Merolate, Rolti offered yet another salute, and then both he and Plyrt hurried off to do as instructed.  Kiluron sighed and turned towards Doil.  “So, what do you think the best way to do this is?  Just start going up and talking to people?”

               Doil frowned.  “If it were me, I would form an orderly queue and have everyone come speak to me one at a time.  Then again, if it were me, I probably wouldn’t be out here doing it personally, since it is an easily delegable task.”

               Dismounting, Kiluron hobbled his horse and gestured for Doil to do the same.  “I think I’ll just walk around and talk to people,” he said.  “People are more likely to be honest and open if they feel comfortable, anyway.  So, I’ll just have a conversation with them.”

               Having so decided, Kiluron plunged right into the midst of the Rovis emigrants, who were bustling around, occupied with as many different tasks as there were people.  Some ran about collecting firewood for cookfires, others were preparing the ground for sleeping, finding water, preparing meals, mending clothes, or a dozen other domestic tasks common whether in a castle or a crude camp.  Only now did Kiluron realize just how many of the immigrants were children; though the older ones were working on tasks alongside their parents, many of the younger ones were running about together. 

              He glanced at Doil.  “Still think they’re spies?” he asked.

               Doil sighed.  “I never said they were all spies.  Most of these people probably really do just need a new place to live, and although our resources are limited, there’s still plenty of unsettled land, if they’re willing to work it.  We just have to be careful, that’s all.”

               “Right.  Sorry.  I guess you’re right, as usual.”  Seeing one older man struggling with a pile of firewood he had gathered, Kiluron moved over to help him, taking much of the pile from the man and dumping half of it on Doil.  The man stammered his thanks, and then started upon realizing that it was not one of the guardsmen who had helped him.  Kiluron hastily waved down his stammering questions.  “Relax, please.  I’m Kiluron, and this is Doil.  What do you think of Merolate so far?”

               Tucking a stray wisp of hair that had escaped its braid away behind her ear, Ovra stomped over to where she could see Rolti and Plyrt helping some of the younger men cut wood for fires.  Plyrt noticed her coming, and gave her a wide grin and accompanying wave, and even in her sour mood she could not resist returning his good humor. 

               He was the one who had jumped into the river to haul her and her little raft back to the shore, and while that hadn’t been exactly how she had hoped things would go, she was still grateful for his straightforward bravery.  He was the kind of person who just sort of did what he felt was right without thinking too hard about it, or about anything, for that matter.  She liked Rolti, too, who seemed to make most of the decisions, but Plyrt just seemed so consistently affable; she almost thought of him as another son, but that thought was a little to tender to contemplate.

               “Hail, Mama Ovra!” Plyrt called, and Rolti paused in his work, wiped a sheen of sweat from his brow, and waved to her, too.  They had both taken to calling her ‘Mama Ovra’ within three days of leaving the border post, just like everyone else did, and that was fine with her.  Half the time they seemed to defer to her, anyway, for all that they were the ones ostensibly leading the Rovis families.

               Crossing her arms, Ovra caught Rolti’s gaze and gave him one of her well-practiced grimaces.  “Why are we stopping already?  I thought we were going to push towards the city so that we could get there early in the day tomorrow.”

               Rolti gave a helpless shrug.  “We were, Mama.  There’s been a change of plans.”

               Ovra waited for a moment in silence, until Rolti shifted uncomfortably.  “Were you planning to tell me why?”

               “Orders,” Rolti answered.  He looked embarrassed.  “I know you’ve got us well-trained already,” – she snorted at that – “but nobody can counter these orders, nobody.”

               “Where the Balance did you get new orders out here in the wilderness?” Ovra demanded, though she tried not to sound too annoyed with Rolti; it wasn’t his fault.  “Talking to trees seems more Plyrt’s style.”

               Plyrt guffawed at that, and Rolti cracked a smile before answering.  “No, no trees.  I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t spoken with him directly.  It’s still…a little hard to comprehend.”

               “What is hard to comprehend, Rolti?” Ovra insisted.

               “Oh, right.  Ah…” Rolti hesitated.  “Well, the Prime of Merolate himself sort of came out to meet us.”

               In her own estimation, and that of anyone who knew her, Ovra was not easily shaken, and she was not easily put at a loss for words.  This news was enough that she had to pause and blink for several moments before she managed to convince herself that she had not misheard.  Even in the little town in Rovis from which she had fled they had heard of Merolate’s odd government with its leader called a Prime. 

               Some people, though never too loud or when there were officials around, said that the Prime was probably the most powerful person in Lufilna, and Ovra supposed that was probably true; Merolate did control most of the continent, after all, and the Prime controlled Merolate.  But here, in the camp…Ovra was incredulous.  Only for appearance’s sake did she keep that sense from her voice, and instead asked with her customary acerbicness “What does he want here?”

                The two guardsmen exchanged troubled glances, and Rolti shrugged helplessly.  “Wish I knew.  He claims he’s here to get you folks all certified and legal-like in Merolate.”

               They had explained the process several times to Ovra and the others on the journey thus far, and even Ovra had to admit grudgingly that there was a certain amount of good sense to the policy of not just letting people come live in the Union all willy-nilly as it were, but it was also exactly what she had hoped to avoid for her and the others.  Now, with the Prime himself here to conduct whatever decisions needed to be made, her trepidation increased.  If he got so much as a hint of why her and the other families had been forced out of Rovis, that they were Balancers, they would almost certainly be turned out of Merolate.  Even if they weren’t sent right back to Rovis to be executed, nowhere else on the continent would be safe for them, either.

               Outwardly, she projected none of her concerns to the guardsmen, just as she wouldn’t to the families or her children.  Instead, she managed a smile.  “Well, good.  With him around, I’m sure we’ll get this whole affair settled in no time at all.”  One way or another, at any rate.

               Leaving the two guardsmen to their work, Ovra made her way back towards the main camp, which was already nearly completed, such as it was.  They had no tents, no real cooking equipment, and only minimal provisions and possessions, barely enough even for each person to have a bedroll, although the guardsmen at the border post had been generous with their own spare cloaks and uniforms to see them in at least a little more comfort along the road. 

               The result was that the camp was little more than an area where the grasses had been trodden down in a sort of circle, with especially trodden patches for sleeping.  Many of the immigrants were wearing a patchwork of their own clothes and guardsmen uniforms, usually horribly misfitted and piecemeal.

               She had thought to gather the other matriarchs together and warn them that the Prime himself would be coming around to talk to them, and to be careful what they said – a warning that was probably unnecessary but would have made her feel better – but she saw that the Prime was already circulating amongst them.  Except that instead of interviewing, he was sitting on the ground surrounded by a circle of children, scratching something in the dirt with a stick.  His cloak was off and around the shoulders of one of the boys, who looked immensely proud to be wearing such a garment, even if he likely had no idea what it really meant.

               Her surprise deepened further when she noticed that the other young man standing awkwardly just behind the Prime was the official Advisor, though he seemed far too young and gangly to be much use in giving advice.  Still, he noticed her attentive gaze on the little semicircle with the Prime at the center and walked over to greet her.

               “Hello,” he said, presenting himself to her.  “I’m Doil.  I, um, imagine you’re  ‘Mama Ovra,’ Ma’am?”

               Fighting the urge to tuck another imaginary stray bit of hair behind her ear, Ovra nodded, hesitated, and managed a passable curtsey, or at least what would have been passable in their old town.  She was no noblewoman.  “That’s me,” she answered gruffly.  “No need to be so formal with me; Mama Ovra will do just fine.”  She tried to think how best to address this man, who some said was practically the second most powerful person in Merolate.  “Lord Advisor.”

               The young man – she thought she had sons older than he was – looked distinctly uncomfortable.  “Please, just Doil.  Everyone said you’re the one we’ll want to talk to, but I’m afraid my lord Prime seems to have gotten involved in something…” he glanced over towards where the Prime was now miming a sword form with great enthusiasm while still cross-legged on the dusty ground.  “Would you be so kind as to wait a few moments here for him to finish?”

               A part of Ovra wanted to reply that no, she was not inclined to wait on anyone, and that if the Prime was too busy to see her, well, then she had actual work that she should be about, too.  She thought better of stating that aloud, though, and decided that in just this one instance she would bend her pride for the sake of politics.  Just this once.  “As the Prime demands,” she grunted with passable diplomacy, vaguely amused by the relief on the young Advisor’s face.

               It was getting well towards evening by the time that the Prime stood up, dusted himself off as if there were nothing at all odd about the ruler of the entire Merolate Union sitting around in the dirt, and sauntered over to where Ovra was still waiting with Doil.  He glanced from his Advisor to Ovra, and a warm smile lit up his face.  “You must be Mama Ovra,” he exclaimed, his words accented by a light laugh.  “The way everybody here talks about you, I almost feel like I already know you.  I’m Kiluron, by the way.  Thanks for showing up when you did…got me out of a terribly boring meeting, and for that you will always have my gratitude.”

               It took a moment for Ovra to decide whether to be more taken aback by the Prime’s youthfulness, or his familiar, jovial attitude.  “Glad I could help,” she muttered as graciously as she was able.  “I understand you wanted to talk?”  A long pause, and then hastily she appended: “My lord Prime.”

               Prime Kiluron laughed again.  “Please, just call me Kiluron.  How am I supposed to get to know you people if you insist on treating me like I’m somebody important?”  Ovra could have been mistaken, but she thought she saw a brief look of consternation pass over Doil’s face.

               “Very well…Kiluron.”  It wasn’t every day someone like Ovra got to call the ruler of Merolate by his name, she reflected, and there was something satisfying about doing so.  And she had told him to, after all.  “What do you want to know?  We’ll work hard, if that’s what you’re worried about.  We’re not criminals, I promise you that, if that’s what you’re worried about.  Pay our tithes and whatnot right on schedule.”

               Crossing his arms, the young Prime cast his eyes down and kicked idly at the ground.  “That’s, ah, good to hear,” he agreed.  “But…I guess what I’d really like to know is why you’ve come here.  Why Merolate?  Why were the Rovis forcing you out in the first place?”

               Ovra hesitated, and hoped her hesitation wasn’t too suspicious.  As much as she had thought over how best to present her little band of migrants, she still didn’t know if she could really do it well enough to convince this man that she was telling the truth.  If he started asking really probing questions, looking for details, Ovra feared the whole story would come crashing down around her ears, and with it their prospects of settling peaceably in Merolate. 

               She gave a helpless-seeming shrug.  “A sickness came through the villages, a kind of crop blight; nobody had seen it before.  It seemed to start on some of our farms, people don’t have enough food, so we made good scapegoats, I guess.  Fewer mouths to feed.”  She gave another shrug.  “I’m a village jeweler, not a politician.  I can make you a pendant or polish a ring, but I don’t know two carats about geopolitics.”

               “I guess that makes sense,” Kiluron mused, and Ovra felt a flash of relief.  He kicked harder at the ground.  “Those Rovis…how could they do that to their own people?”

               “I – I don’t know.”  Ovra was surprised by the anger and frustration in his voice, all for some people he barely knew who came from a country that was at best a rival, and she certainly had no idea how to respond.

               “No, I don’t suppose you do.”  The Prime sighed, and then offered her a smile.  “Well, I guess that’s about everything.  I’ll let you get back to work; I’m sorry to have kept you for so long.”  He paused, as if trying to remember something he had forgotten.  “Oh, and I’ll have an answer for you by morning.”

               It took several moments after the young Prime had walked away for Ovra to realize that he intended to sleep in the field with the families, a fact which was causing some consternation between the two guardsmen.  She gazed sideways towards where he was sitting at a cooking fire, laughing with some of the older youths as if he had grown up amongst them, and for the first time since being driven from her home, she felt that perhaps everything would turn out alright.

               Doing his best to hide his frustration, Doil waited just outside of the circle of firelight while Kiluron supported two older migrant husbands as they extolled some tale or another from their youths that had probably already been repeated three times.  As much as Kiluron might have inexplicably managed to be completely accepted amongst the migrants he was supposed to be evaluating, Doil knew that he never could do likewise.  Even if he’d known these people for years, he would not have sat around that fire with the ease and comfort that Kiluron showed, nor would he have been shown the same welcome.  That usually didn’t bother him, but tonight, for whatever reason, it did.

               It didn’t help that he had not expected to have to sleep on cold, hard, lumpy ground beneath the stars, instead of in the warm, secure castle, and that though he had tried to get a moment alone with Kiluron, hinting that he had something very important he needed to discuss, the Prime continued as if the sun were not completely set and the night getting very close to midnight.  Doil was tired, cold, hungry, frustrated, annoyed, and lonely, and he had to swallow against a bit of a lump in his throat as he waited in the shadows like some lowly servant to be acknowledged by his convivial master.

               There was also, of course, the discomfort of what he needed to discuss with Kiluron, which he was fairly certain the Prime was not going to like hearing, and which he had almost certainly failed to notice for himself.  Doil had almost missed it, too, but he had noticed something in the way Ovra had presented her story, and how it failed to quite match up with what some of the others had said, and so he had looked more closely, just listening and observing as unobtrusively as he could while everyone else went about their business.  It was one of the advantages of being so often ignored, he reflected with some bitterness: people would talk about things without even noticing he was there to hear.

               He was now convinced beyond almost any doubt that the migrants were Blood Worshipers.  That was the hidden link in Ovra’s story that explained why Rovis had been so eager and ready to force them out at sword-point, and to assign blame for the Guardian-induced blight and resultant famine.  Learning that, Doil knew, was going to cause all sorts of problems with Kiluron, because that made it illegal for the migrants to settle in the Union under the Blood Decrees, but Kiluron was almost certain to spout off about it just not being right.  It didn’t matter that Doil happened to agree that these particular people probably weren’t a threat, Blood Worshipers or not; the law was the law, and start bending or changing it too often and it became no more than flimsy words on flimsy paper.  Not even the Prime could change that.

               The fire had burned completely down to sullenly pulsating embers before the older migrants finally bid goodnight to Kiluron and found their respective patches of dirt to settle down to sleep.  Kiluron sat staring into the fire’s remains for so long that Doil began to think that he had fallen asleep, but then he roused himself, and looked at Doil standing in the shadows as if noticing him there for the first time.

               “Stop skulking over there, Doil, and come sit with me.”  He sounded oddly melancholy as he waved at Doil.  “How long have you been standing there?  I thought you’d gone off to bed.”

               Doil carefully refrained from pointing out that there were no beds, because they were sleeping in a field beneath the stars, and that he had specifically asked Kiluron if they could have a discussion before going to sleep.  Instead, he just settled himself awkwardly on the ground next to Kiluron, who had returned already to his contemplation of the fading embers, his chin cupped in his hands and his eyes downcast in the faint, ruddy glow.

               A long silence stretched, until Doil was just about to clear his throat to speak, but Kiluron broke it first.  “What a mess,” he murmured, perhaps to himself.

               “My lord?” Doil asked.

               Kiluron turned his head on his chin like it was a pivot upon his upturned palms to look sideways at Doil.  “These poor people.  I thought that coming out here would be an easy thing, just an excuse for a ride in the country, but suddenly it’s so much more complicated.  Makes me hate this job all over again.  Every time I start to think that I have things figured out…”

               Licking his lips, Doil examined the ground in front of him.  “My lord, there’s something I think you ought to know about these people…” he began.

               Kiluron raised his eyebrows.  “You going to tell me that they’re Blood Worshipers?  That that’s why the Rovis were so keen to drive them out like feral dogs?”

               Doil hesitated.  “Well, um, yes.”

               “I figured that out on my own, thanks,” Kiluron replied.  “I may not know everything the way you do, but I do listen.  There were more than enough hints in what the kids said to let me figure out what was really going on.”

               “That’s why you’re still sitting here, isn’t it,” Doil realized.  He was suddenly angry with himself for not giving Kiluron enough credit.  “You’re brooding, because you know what that means you’ll have to tell these people tomorrow morning, and you don’t want to do it.”

               “Yeah, I guess so,” Kiluron agreed.  He stumped his toe into the dust, and when he spoke again his voice was low and intense.  “It’s just not fair.  These are just normal people, good people, for all that they might be Blood Worshipers.  We don’t punish people for being Blood Worshipers if they already live here; why should it be different for people coming in?”  He looked long at Doil.  “Isn’t there anything we can do?  Can’t we change the Blood Decrees?  I mean, it’s not specifically written in the Decrees, is it?  It’s just one of those common law things?”

               Doil sighed and rubbed his forehead, thinking that he was far too tired to have a complicated legal discussion right then.  “Technically yes, but it’s more complicated than that.  The Blood Decrees have existed for longer than the Union has, and while the Prime officially has the power to change them, the governors would almost certainly act to implement their own workarounds, and sentiment would be very much against it.  Especially after the Heart War.  I know we’re not Sankt, with their odd popularity system, but it does matter how the people will react.  How carefully the Blood Decrees are enforced tends to vary, but to completely disregard one of their key provisions…”

               Kiluron grimaced.  “That’s what I figured.”  He was silent for another long span; by now the fire’s sullen embers had given up entirely to exhaustion, leaving the night cool and dark all about them.  In the near distance, someone was snoring with a noise like a raging dragon.  A deep yawn split Kiluron’s face, and he sighed.  “Well, I guess we’re not going to solve this one tonight.  Might as well get some sleep.”

               After suffering from a similar yawn, Doil nodded in agreement, but as they rose from the dirt and moved a little way off to where Kiluron had at some point set up a couple of bedrolls for each of them, Doil ventured: “What do you intend to tell them in the morning?”

               Laying himself down on the ground with a long sigh, Kiluron didn’t answer for so long that Doil again thought he had fallen asleep, and had nearly done the same, himself.  He was only vaguely aware when Kiluron did answer so softly that he seemed to be speaking more to himself than to Doil.  “I don’t know.  I just don’t know.”

               Though there was not very long before dawn by the time that they laid down to sleep, it felt a very long time indeed to Doil, for he could not find a single position that did not involve a root or a lump of sod or a stick or a rock digging into his poor flesh, and he did not think that he slept at all when the first birds began to chirp in the earliest traces of predawn light.  Everyone else still seemed to be very soundly asleep, as if the ground where they had set their bedrolls was as good as a proper mattress, and only Doil had found the one place that was just dirt. 

               Kiluron, though, sat up almost as soon as the birds began singing with a groan and much rubbing of eyes.  He glanced over at Doil.  “Oh, good, you’re awake,” he said, climbing to his feet and stretching dramatically.  “Come on, get the horses ready.  We have a long day ahead of us.”             Doil frowned, finding it a relief to get to his feet and leave the ground behind, though he would certainly be tired later.  “My lord?” he asked.

                “We ride for Merolate,” Kiluron declared, following his own orders before Doil could.  He swung himself into the saddle and gestured impatiently for Doil to do the same.  “We’ll have to ride hard to get there and back here before midmorning, but we can exchange our horses in the city.  Ready?”

               Feeling groggy and not at all ready, Doil struggled to put his thoughts into coherent words as he dragged himself into his own saddle.  “Why?  I thought we were going to give Ovra her answer and then go back.”

                “We are,” Kiluron replied.  “But first, we’re going back to Merolate to consult with Inpernuth.  I have a couple ideas, but since I know that you’re going to tell me I can’t do them, I figure maybe he’ll come up with something more creative.”

               Doil blinked, and as Kiluron dug in his heels and brought his horse to a gallop, he barely had the presence of mind to follow.  Was Kiluron really going to just turn to someone else, if he didn’t get the answer he wanted from Doil?  It was a suddenly terrifying thought, and it irked Doil more than he wanted to admit.  It was certainly within the Prime’s right to get opinions from multiple advisors on complicated or sensitive matters, or even on what to have for dinner. 

               It was just…Kiluron had always listened to what Doil had to say, even if he disagreed or didn’t follow his advice.  This was something different, and Doil felt like his mind just went in circles on the same thoughts over and over again during the entire frantically paced ride back to the city.

               They arrived back in Merolate just as the sun was clearing the horizon, their horses lathered with sweat, and caused quite a stir amongst the bored gate guards, who clearly thought that something terrible was happening to have driven the Prime of Merolate himself to ride his horse nearly to exhaustion at the very crack of dawn. 

               Kiluron barely slowed to reassure the guardsmen that there was no imminent attack and no threat for which they needed to prepare; he ordered them to see that fresh horses were ready for he and Doil as soon as possible, and then disappeared into the city with Doil, harried and still feeling slightly sick, following several steps behind him.  Soon they had reached Inpernuth’s house, where Kiluron proceeded to bang on the door.

                “You realize that Minister Inpernuth rarely even gets to the castle before noon?” Doil asked, wishing that his voice could have sounded incisive instead of small and frightened.

               In reply, Kiluron smacked on the door harder, rattling it in its frame.  After a long pause, just as he was about to repeat his punishment of the poor door, it swung open, revealing a frazzle-haired Inpernuth in a nightrobe.  “Who in the Unbalanced name of…” he railed, registered who was standing before him, and settled for folding his arms across his chest instead.  “Prime Kiluron.  What in Blood are you doing at my house?  It’s the Unbalanced crack of dawn, for Blood’s sake!”

                “Sorry, couldn’t wait,” Kiluron replied, pushing his way inside.  “I have some pressing legal questions for you.”

               If Kiluron hadn’t pushed his way in, Doil had the impression that Inpernuth might have slammed the door in his face, regardless of the fact that Kiluron was the Prime.  “I don’t give legal opinions until the afternoon.  Everything before then is just wasted breath.”

               Kiluron completely ignored his protests.  “Say that I happened to have a group of people who want to settle in Merolate, and who I want to settle in Merolate, but who aren’t allowed to under current laws, like, say, the Blood Decrees.  And assume that I don’t want to repeal the Blood Decrees right now.  How could those people perhaps be allowed to settle in Merolate?”

               While Kiluron had been presenting the situation, Inpernuth had settled himself in a rickety chair at a dirty table, put his feet upon that table, and closed his eyes, so that Doil thought that he had simply gone to sleep again instead of listening to Kiluron; he was therefore surprised when Inpernuth actually answered.  “They couldn’t.”

                “What do you mean?” Kiluron demanded.  “There’s got to be a way.”

               Inpernuth squinted at him from only one eye, as if he couldn’t be bothered to open both of them.  “Legally?  No.”

                “That’s it?  ‘No?’”  Kiluron made an odd noise in his throat.  “Inpernuth, I did not ride with the birds all the way back to the city to hear you tell me ‘no’.”

               Inpernuth rolled his eyes.  “Sure you did.  If you wanted a different answer, you should have asked a different question.”

                “Asked a different question…” Kiluron drew himself up, appearing as angry as Doil had ever seen him, but then paused.  Doil watched as his expression went from incensed to thoughtful, and then he turned sharply back to Doil.  “Come on, Doil, we’re done here.”  Without another word, he strode from Inpernuth’s house and slammed the door behind him.  Then he was practically running through the city streets again.

                “My lord,” Doil puffed from behind him, “I’m sorry that wasn’t more productive.  What are we going to do now?”

               Stopping so sharply that Doil collided with him, Kiluron turned, and met Doil’s eyes.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “I should have listened to you.  And to myself.”

               Ignoring for the moment how relieved he was at Kiluron’s apology, Doil struggled to form words between gasps for air.  “You know what you’re going to tell Ovra, then?”

               Kiluron resumed making his way towards the city gates, though now at a brisk walk instead of a mad dash.  Doil still felt like he was jogging to keep up, though.  “It seems to me that I have two options,” he said.  “Or at least, I’ve come up with two options.”

               Doil tried to think of what they could be, but failed.  “My lord?” he asked.

               By then they had reached the gates, and Kiluron didn’t answer until they were again in the saddle and riding out of the city, though not quite as fast as they had approached it.  “Yes,” Kiluron finally replied.  “Well, I suppose there are three, if you count just telling them they can’t stay, which I don’t.  No, I see two options.  First, we settle them in one of those remote areas of Merolate where nobody really goes, and no one would need to know.  Or, second, we could settle them in the Unclaimed Territories, just beyond one of our border posts.  That would let us comply with the letter of the law, but we could easily extend protection to them if need be.”

                “I guess those are options, technically,” Doil admitted.  “Though I’m not particularly comfortable with either of them.”

                “Well, I’m not comfortable just forcing these poor people out,” Kiluron replied.  “But which one do you think we should do?”

               They were nearly back to the camp, and Kiluron drew up next to Doil, who hesitated.  He needed to be thinking, not basking in relief that Kiluron was still asking for his opinion.  “I think the second option seems like it might be the most compliant.”

                “Alright,” Kiluron agreed.  “Let’s go talk to Mama Ovra.”

               Ovra’s bones creaked as she stood up from weeding, though of course she would never have admitted just how much the long journey seemed to have taken out of her.  Ever since her plunge through the river on the border, she had found herself feeling older than she ever had before.  Unfortunately, it would be a long time before she was able to sit quietly in a workshop and work on her jewelry again; building a settlement out of nothing in the wilderness was an even bigger undertaking than she had imagined, and the Unclaimed Territories were hardly the most hospitable of places.

               Part of her wanted to be bitter about getting sent off to the Unclaimed Territories, but as many of her charges had discovered, it was nearly impossible to stay upset with Merolate’s young Prime for too long.  For all that Ovra would have preferred things had turned out differently, there was something about Kiluron’s earnestness in his efforts to find a solution for them that went a long way towards gaining sympathy.  He had not settled for just telling them his decision; he had told them everything that had gone into it, and all of his own worries about the matter.  The number of shipments of resources that he had managed to divert to their burgeoning village admittedly also helped.

               Visible from almost any part of the little settlement to the south was the nearest border post, a tall wood and stone construction that had been reinforced with a special detachment of guardsmen to help claim their new colony in the Unclaimed Territories.  What had once been something to avoid had become a reassuring sight; if the nomadic tribes ever came to bother Ovra and her families, help would not be long in coming.  Nor were the guards distant figures; they came often to the village, and there was already talk of a marriage or two.

               A cluster of children ran past, and Ovra was about to reprimand them for slacking from their work when they called out to her.  “Mama Ovra, the Prime’s coming!  Prime Kiluron is coming!”

                “Well, there goes another day.  It’s not like we have anything to do,” she grumbled to herself.  Still, she joined the quickly forming crowd to greet the four approaching horsemen from the south, who soon resolved into Prime Kiluron, Advisor Doil, and Guardsmen Rolti and Plyrt.

               It was some time before the crowd had milled about enough for Ovra to come up to the front where she could actually see their Merolate visitors.  Rolti and Plyrt greeted her warmly; many of the children had taken to calling them uncles on the long journey to get to the new settlement, and they had taken congenially to the roles. 

               Doil nodded to her, and Kiluron hailed her cheerfully.  “Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner.  Doil told me I had to actually spend time doing work, and not just galivanting about the countryside to come visit you.”

                “Well, I’m glad to hear that there’s somebody with some sense around the castle to keep things going the way they should,” Ovra remarked.  “Besides, if you came any more often, we’d never get anything done!”

               Looking out over the settlement, which had now been cleared of trees, with hasty gardens planted and the original lean-tos and shanties largely transformed into plain, if small, log cabins, it almost looked like a real village, even if the wood was still pale and raw, and the soil was still churned and fresh.  “I don’t think anything could keep you from getting things done around here, Mama Ovra,” Kiluron remarked.

               Ovra grunted at that, but allowed herself a pleased smile.  It wasn’t every day someone like her got complimented by the Prime of Merolate.  Then the crowd churned again, and others took her place in the press for their moment to talk to the visitors. 

               As she moved away, she found herself nodding.  It wasn’t exactly as she had planned when they had fled Rovis, and there would be hardships to come: the Unclaimed Territories were unclaimed for a reason, and the winter especially would be a trial for their fragile and hasty colony. 

               Those were challenges they could overcome, however, or at least she thought so on her good days.  With the sun shining and the sound of children laughing behind her at whatever new story Prime Kiluron had concocted for them, Ovra considered all that had happened, and decided that this was one of those good days.

The end of Blood Magic S2:E5: In Contempt. 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 June 30th, 2021.

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