From his seat in the rearranged great hall, Kiluron sat beside Doil and watched the performers, who had to be the least interesting performers Kiluron had ever witnessed. The customary furnishings of the great hall had all been cleared away, a raised platform had been erected, seating in a special, semicircular arrangement had been set forth, and odd panels and long bunches of thick, dark, heavy cloth had been hung erratically all through the chamber, all at the request of a woman who had so far spent the entirety of the performance standing with her back to her noble audience.
At least the other performers were all facing the correct direction, more or less focused upon the woman who led them, but they had spent the whole time thus far sitting mostly still and making a dreadful din upon their instruments. Admittedly, the performance had only begun a few moments before, but so far Kiluron was not impressed.
“This is supposed to be pleasant?” he asked Doil, leaning over and almost shouting his whisper to be heard over the screeching.
Doil leaned back towards him. “My lord, it hasn’t started yet. They’re just warming up, I believe. Supposedly, the instruments sound different at different temperatures.”
“You mean it gets even more obnoxious?” Kiluron asked.
Doil gave a suffering sigh, and Kiluron suppressed a smirk. He knew fully well that Doil had been the one to make all of the arrangements for this performance. “It’s called a full orchestration. The woman up front, the orchestrator, will coordinate the playing of all of those different instruments into music. It’s supposed to be quite dramatic and stirring. They’ve just started putting these sorts of things together, instead of the more customary quartets or quintets.”
Kiluron nodded, doing a decent job of feigning interest, which was spoiled when he had to stifle a yawn. “And we’re just supposed to sit here and listen? No dancing or anything?”
“Please don’t try to dance,” Doil begged, and Kiluron laughed.
Their further conversation was curtailed when the orchestrator cleared her throat and tapped a slender length of wood, a sort of wand, against the podium in front of her. She then turned to face her audience. “Lords and Ladies of Merolate, Ministers, honored guests, and my lord Prime Kiluron, I am Aufinira, author and orchestrator, and I am very pleased to present to you tonight’s performance, which I wrote especially for this occasion. It is what is called a symphony, and I call it ‘Symphony of the Radiant Solstice,’ for I wrote it upon the just passed summer solstice.” The woman then gave a very low bow, and again turned her back on her audience.
“Why does she keep doing that? How is she supposed to perform with her back to us?” Kiluron hissed at Doil, who just sighed and gestured for him to keep quiet, be patient, and watch. With a sigh, Kiluron did so.
The orchestrator raised her hands, with the wand held jauntily, and almost immediately the other musicians quieted, so that the great hall became thickly silent. Then she swept the wand down, and a great noise filled the hall, but it was not the discordant, grating barrage of dozens of voices all arguing. The noise was like nothing Kiluron had ever heard, deep and full and resonant, and it rolled forth from the assembled musicians and seemed to take up residence somewhere in Kiluron’s breast.
The noise changed, morphing into new shapes and taking on different forms. Sometimes one instrument dominated, but mostly they all spoke together, somehow making a sound unlike any of the instruments alone. Kiluron found himself immediately understanding why this was not used for dancing; no one could possibly dance while reveling in the complexity of sound like what the orchestrator was drawing forth.
Though there were no words, Kiluron felt like he could almost see images conjured up as he sat and listened. He imagined horses racing across an open field, grain ripening outside a little cottage, a farmer tending the soil. Then the sound changed, and he saw a tiny group of soldiers, surrounded and outnumbered, but fighting on valiantly despite the odds. Periodically the sound would pause, and he would be left with a fear that somehow it had ended, and the images in his mind were incomplete, but then the symphony would pick up again with a slightly different tone that was still linked in some untouchable way with what had come before, and new images would appear in his mind. When it did finally end, Kiluron found himself at a loss for words as the orchestrator bowed once more, and she and her instrumentalists withdrew from the great hall.
With apparent trepidation, Doil turned towards Kiluron. “Well?” he asked.
Apprising himself of Doil’s intense expression, Kiluron suppressed his enthusiasm, and gave a shrug that he doubted appeared suitably nonchalant. “It was pretty good,” he admitted.
“Wait, you’ll even admit that you enjoyed it?” Doil asked. “You must have thought it was absolutely brilliant, then.” Kiluron stayed stubbornly silent. “I thought for sure you would find it as dull as a poetry recital. It seems to me to have a lot of similarities.”
“A poetry recital?” Kiluron huffed. “Don’t be insulting. I don’t enjoy a bunch of stuffy academics force-feeding me with whatever the most voguish of their opinions happen to be in a way that no one but they could possibly understand. This symphony thing, though…it leaves it all to the imagination.”
Doil nodded, a knowing smile on his lips, and Kiluron sighed. “Then if I were to have more such performances scheduled, you would not object?”
Keeping his enthusiasm muted, though it was probably too late to hide the truth from Doil, Kiluron shrugged. “I guess I wouldn’t complain too much.” He winced at Doil’s triumphant expression, and hurriedly made an excuse to retire for the evening. The last thing he needed was Doil’s smirk interrupting his imagination’s still-rampant running, all underscored by the peculiar performance called a symphony that he had just heard.
In truth, he did desire an adequate night’s rest before the meetings of the following morning. The taxation debates were finally finished, but even without that catalyst a meeting of the full group of Ministers was never not a headache-inducing experience. Sometimes, he wished he had remained irresponsible and could just go off gallivanting with the guardsmen, though never for very long.
Looking none the worse for wear from the late retirement the previous night, Doil cheerfully handed Kiluron an agenda as soon as he stepped into the conference chamber the following morning, and dutifully pushed a prepared plate of breakfast in his direction, which Kiluron began eating from absent-mindedly as he perused the agenda for the day’s meeting of ministers. Then he glanced up at Doil, noting the large pile of books on the table. “How long have you been here? Don’t you ever sleep?”
“Since just before dawn,” Doil admitted. “Ever since you became Prime, I haven’t had much time to remained updated on the various university publications, so I’m trying to catch up on the backlog that’s now accumulated.”
Kiluron took a bite of a sweet roll and examined the titles. “‘A Treatise on the Underlying Basis of Superstitions and the Manifestations of Inaccurate Belief Systems,’” he read around a mouthful of pastry. “I can see how you would be so excited to get out of bed in the morning to read that.”
Doil hesitated at Kiluron’s unexpectedly sincere tone, doubtless looking for the sarcasm; Kiluron was careful to keep it hidden. “Really, my lord? That is…surprising. Perhaps you really are becoming more of a scholar, now that you’ve been forced to, ah, settle down somewhat for your role as Prime.”
“Yes,” Kiluron agreed, after he swallowed. “I managed to make it all the way through that pretentious title without falling asleep.”
Doil chose not to deign that comment with a response, so Kiluron returned to his breakfast and his review of the agenda. Soon the ministers began arriving, settling themselves into their chairs with various stacks of notes and reference tomes and their own copies of the agenda, which Doil handed to them absentmindedly as they entered the chamber. When everyone had been seated, Doil waited for Kiluron to indicate he was ready, and then began the meeting, consulting the agenda for the first item. “Can we get the regular reports from the ministers first, please?”
Borivat had just opened his mouth to begin his report first, as was customary, when Minister Kelina preempted him. “Hold on, I think we need to talk about the emerging situation going on in Dervate right now, right away. It’s very urgent.”
“I suppose someone sneezed funny?” Minister Adima retorted. “Or someone slipped on a loose stone and broke an ankle?”
Kelina gave Adima a sour look, though Kiluron tended to agree with Adima; Kelina’s emergencies were as frequent as they were minor, or at least poorly supported by evidence. Mostly, she seemed to seek the attention. Regardless, Doil glanced around, and reluctantly proposed: “are there any objections to discussing the urgent business presented by Kelina before the periodic minister reports?”
Predictably, Adima objected, and so did Inpernuth, who objected to almost everything on principle, but no one else did, so Doil nodded to Kelina that she could address the ministers. Kiluron sat back and prepared to wait for it to be over.
Appearing pleased, Kelina pushed back her hair, and began holding forth in her usual, dramatized fashion. “If you’ll recall, I warned about the bad humors that might have been dissipated by the warmer air back after the Heart War, and I did recommend a full incineration campaign to purge them entirely from the landscape, but you will please recall that I was at that time overruled, and it was decided to leave the landscape un-burnt, and only manure barriers would be erected. While I would assuredly be the last individual to question the wisdom and efficacy of this august body, I would like to point out that, as I warned, the disease appears to have returned in force, and in new form.”
“Any chance you’re going to get to the point of all this recrimination?” Adima interjected acerbically, so that Kiluron thought for a moment that Kelina might actually hush her. The moment passed, and left Kiluron considering that the interpersonal drama was sometimes the most interesting part of these governing councils.
“As I was saying,” Kelina continued, when she was satisfied that she had glared at Adima for a sufficient length of time, “I’ve heard several reports now of persons exhibiting similar symptoms of what seems to be a very deadly disease circulating in Dervate. These victims have reported fevers, numbness of the extremities, and clamminess of skin, especially about the face and neck. Swollen glands have also been noted. Of the individuals who have so far been reported as suffering from these symptoms, only three have recovered.”
“Just how many people have reported these symptoms?” Borivat asked. Although he was careful to keep himself aloof from the drama between Adima and Kelina, he did prefer to keep it from escaping the bounds of reason. Kiluron enjoyed the moment as Kelina sweated before she answered Borivat.
“There have been fifteen reported cases so far, but of course there are likely many more that have gone unreported,” Kelina replied.
Adima rolled her eyes. “That’s hardly a relevant sampling. People die of all kinds of things; a dozen people perishing in the summer of some kind of a rotting sickness is hardly unusual.”
“If, as I suspect is the case, these are really all victims of the same sickness, we’re talking about an eighty percent fatality rate here. If the spread of the originating humors is not curtailed immediately, we could have a full-fledged plague on our hands,” Kelina insisted.
“What would you recommend?” Doil asked, trying to keep the acrimony from derailing the conversation further. He clearly wanted to return to the carefully scripted agenda he so dutifully prepared before each of these meetings.
Kiluron was amused by how eager Kelina became as soon as Doil asked her that question; it was like she had been waiting for this trigger to animate her, like the sun striking grass in the springtime. “We have to quarantine the area immediately. Cordon off the places where the cases were reported, and fully immolate them. And all travel to and from Dervate should be suspended until we can be sure that the humors have been suppressed.”
“Because of fifteen cases of a sickness that may or may not be different from anything else usual to the summer?” Admiral Fel asked. “That seems a little extreme to me, but I admit that my expertise lies elsewhere.”
“Yet you are so much more right than the supposed ‘expert,’” Adima snapped at Kelina, who just raised her chin.
“Why don’t we appoint a commission to study the matter?” Borivat suggested. All of the ministers were scholarly to varying extents, but Borivat was a scholar in the truest sense of the word. “We can gather real evidence, rather than rumors, and perhaps then be better able to fully address whatever danger may be posed by these humors.”
Doil latched onto the idea. “I think that sounds reasonable. Prime Kiluron?” It was probably the closest Doil would ever come to effectively playing politics, preempting Kelina’s further arguments by soliciting a decision from Kiluron directly.
“Perfect,” Kiluron replied. “Let a commission be appointed and dispatched at once.” He thought about adding a gratuitous wave, but he restrained himself. He also restrained himself from observing aloud that these meetings seemed to produce a lot of commissions, but not a lot of actual decisions. That number didn’t even include the number of extant commissions from Prime Wezzix’s time.
With Kelina, while not satisfied, at least temporarily appeased, the meeting could resume its usual course in accordance with Doil’s agenda, and Kiluron settled back and watched it unfold. He paid attention, mostly, but there was nothing else to be discussed that wasn’t routine, and he was glad when the ministers finally finished speaking, and he could apply himself to more productive tasks for the remainder of the day.
One problem with the Merolate Union, to Kelina’s mind, was that it was too large. The Union government of which she was a part had to concern itself with affairs across all of the provinces and that affected the Union as a whole, and that left it removed from the reality of concerns at the province or city levels, which was where most problems really festered. A deadly contaminant in Dervate could seem safely distant and removed to the ministers and the Prime while safely ensconced in Merolate’s castle, and it became easy to dismiss the reports as nothing different from the usual summer diseases.
That was why Kelina insisted on leading the commission to Dervate personally. It would ensure that she lived and breathed the immediacy and scope of the problem, and that she could bring the most convincing arguments back before the other ministers. They would listen to her, and if they wouldn’t, then she would simply have to persuade the Prime himself. That option probably would have failed with the old Prime, but the young Prime Kiluron seemed more willing than his predecessor to break with the consensus of his ministers if he were sufficiently moved.
It had not taken long to gather the commission, which consisted of herself, two of her assistants, and a handful of guardsmen whom Guardcaptain Vere had appointed. They were already approaching Dervate City, the guardsmen – a Sergeant Pitrick, and Guardsmen Galtre, Thruch, Olresh, and Talim – walking alongside the carriage in which sat Kelina and her assistants Romenua and Gouchen. A horse clopped along ahead of the carriage, guided by Gouchen, who could handle the carriage well enough while conversing with Kelina and Romenua.
There was little enough left to plan; the three days before had been more than sufficient time to determine the best approach by which the commission could gather the evidence Kelina thought she would need to convince Prime Kiluron and the other ministers that action was urgently required to contain the outbreak.
Now, it was only a matter of reaching Dervate, which was finally in sight; Kelina was looking forward to a proper bed and a rest in the governor’s castle before they began their work the following morning. Belonging to the only province in the Union without a coastline, Dervate City was known for its workmanship. It lacked Merolate’s cosmopolitan amalgamation, and Corbulate’s military discipline, but it had the kind of simple elegance that came from taking pride in simple tasks. Built and populated mostly by farmers, miners, and lumbermen, there was a practical strength to the construction and the temperament of the city, and its gates which, Kelina found as the carriage horse clopped up to them, were closed grimly against her commission.
Sergeant Pitrick stepped forward and thumped loudly upon the solid wood with his fist, but there was no response. Glancing uneasily about and especially up at the flanking guard towers, he put his hands to his face and shouted up to the top of the gate: “Open for the delegation of the Prime of Merolate!”
There was no response, and no sign of movement nor light, and a sense of foreboding began to brew in Kelina’s chest. Twice more Sergeant Pitrick pounded upon the gate, and twice more he received no response but the protests of the wood itself by way of answer. He backed up from the gate and glanced towards Kelina. “Minister, there ought-to-be guards at-their posts. This isn’t right, not-at-all.”
Kelina was inclined to agree, but she maintained her composure and gave no sign of her mounting fear. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe the guards had simply been called away for some other tasks, or maybe there was something wrong with the gates. Maybe there was a perfectly reasonable explanation. Maybe she wasn’t too late. She desperately hoped that she was not too late. “Options, Sergeant?” she asked.
“I say we keep-trying to draw their attention,” he answered. “There’s-got-to-be someone in there, and we don’t-have-a-way to open the gate ourselves, anyway. If we don’t-hear-anything-by nightfall, then we camp here tonight, and-in-the morning we can-try-something else.
“Very well,” Kelina agreed. She had no better ideas. “Summon me if the situation changes.” An assurance secured, she retired with her assistants to consider amongst them the implications of this newest development. Talking it over helped her slightly to calm her fear.
Late in the evening, when Kelina should have been sleeping but was instead worrying herself into insomnia, she watched Sergeant Pitrick sitting with his back to the camp on guard duty, his face upturned towards the city walls. She saw, therefore, when he grew unexpectedly tense, and his hand drifted towards his belt knife beneath the cover of his cloak. Keeping herself very still to avoid attracting attention, Kelina strained her eyes in the darkness to see what had prompted Pitrick’s concern.
“Sergeant Pitrick? Is that you?” a voice whispered out of the darkness from in front of the camp, in the direction of the city. Kelina could see no sign of its source.
To her surprise, Sergeant Pitrick relaxed upon hearing the voice, and his hand moved away from his belt knife. “That you, Ebavin? What Imbalance is-going-on here? Why the-Blood-are the gates closed?” His voice was an urgent hiss that did little to keep quiet, and the odd, strung-together style of his words was amplified.
The owner of the mysterious voice, Ebavin, crept forward, but stayed in the shadows. “It’s a long story, Sergeant. Blood me if it isn’t the most horrible thing as I’ve seen in all my time.”
“Stop talking-in riddles, Ebavin, and come-out-here-and show yourself,” Sergeant Pitrick replied. “We’re on assignment-from-the Prime himself.”
Ebavin remained hidden in the darkness. “Whatever you’re here for, Sergeant, you’ve got to turn around. Turn around and go back, before it gets you.”
Sergeant Pitrick hadn’t yet realized what was happening, but Kelina had put it together. She waited with bated breath for Ebavin to confirm her worst fears. “Before what-gets us? Ebavin, speak sense.”
There was a long pause before Ebavin’s reply. “Some kind of a demon, I swear it, Sergeant. You got to get out of here, I’m telling you.” He sounded like he was holding onto his composure by his fingernails. “City’s been cursed, somehow. Everyone’s dying, Sergeant, everyone. We can’t keep up, can’t treat the sick, can’t even get enough men together to burn the dead. More houses’s full of corpses now than are full of people. Get away from here, go back to Merolate, where it’s safe. Before it gets you, too. It’s only a matter of time before it gets us. They didn’t want anybody to go out, thought maybe you’d go away, but I had to come, had to come and warn you…”
“We’re here-to-help, Ebavin. That’s why we’ve come,” Sergeant Pitrick answered, though there was a note of fear in his voice now. “Can you get-us-into the city? How did-you get out?”
“Ain’t you been listening, Sergeant? You don’t want to come in here. A few of us, we’re gonna try to burn the place. Only thing left to do. Maybe that’ll be enough to drive the demon away.” Kelina wondered what kind of a man this was who could sound so terrified, and still intend to go back into a city where he would burn himself to death. She doubted she would have the strength to do such a thing. Or maybe Ebavin had no intention of returning to the city. Now that he had escaped the walls, however he had done so, maybe he intended to flee. That could not be allowed to happen.
Realizing that a different tactic was needed, Kelina stopped pretending to sleep, and walked up to join Sergeant Pitrick. She looked into the darkness towards where she thought the voice had been coming from. “Guardsman Ebavin, my name is Minister Kelina. I’m Prime Kiluron’s Minister of Health and Sanitation, and I’ve come personally to see to the safety of this city in response to the plague.” There was no doubt any longer that this was a plague, and not the usual course of summer rotting sicknesses and other ill humors. “I need you to lead us into the city so that I can do my job and help you and these people.”
For a long moment, there was no reply, and Kelina began to worry that Ebavin had decided to flee. Finally, he responded, his voice full of a terrible resignation. “Alright, Minister Kelina. I’ll lead you into the city. But I’m warning you, you shouldn’t go expecting to get out again.”
When morning came, Ebavin led the delegation from Merolate into Dervate City. This involved a long climb up a rope, which the guardsmen accomplished easily, but was quite beyond the strength of Kelina and her assistants, so the guardsmen were obliged to scale the wall before them, and then hoist them to the battlements from above. This was accomplished without mishap, and then Kelina looked upon the plague-stricken city for the first time, and she knew beyond any doubt that she had come too late, had been too slow.
Though it was yet early in the morning, there should have been some activity, but the city could have been deserted. More telling was the stench, which was of all the worst aspects of humanity, and the streets, which were dirty, and even from the battlements Kelina could see bodies laid out haphazardly in various states of decay.
“We tried to collect the bodies and burn them, at first,” Ebavin whispered, following Kelina’s gaze to the streets below. Her assistants were pulling out kerchiefs to block some of the odor. “But they started dying faster than we could collect them, and then there was no one left to collect fuel. Then there was no one left to collect the bodies. After the governor died, it got worse. Food was running out, survivors started banding together and hoarding supplies, fighting amongst themselves. A few of us guardsmen tried to keep order, but we were too few. It was all we could do just to keep ourselves alive. We did close the gate, to try to keep people from getting out and spreading this to the countryside.”
That, Kelina reflected, was probably the best thing they could have done, and she was impressed they had thought of it. She turned towards him. “You said you were going to try to burn the city. What was your plan to accomplish this?”
Ebavin hesitated. “I – there wasn’t much of a plan, really. We just knew that’s what needed to happen.” He paused. “Right? That’s what you’re supposed to do to contain a – a plague?”
Kelina nodded, her face grim. She might have been sent only to study the problem, but it was clear now that the situation had progressed far beyond such tedious measures. “Sergeant Pitrick, one of your guardsmen will accompany Gouchen back to Merolate. They must warn the Prime of what has transpired here.” She turned back to the city. “The rest of us will go with Ebavin, and we will destroy this plague with fire before it can spread any further.”
The guardsmen around her shifted and exchanged glances. Kelina caught Sergeant Pitrick’s gaze and held it. “Do you think I want to burn a city to the ground? That I relish the loss of life that will inevitably result? I studied humors my whole life so that I could heal people, not kill them. So that instead of relying on superstition and ancient rituals, people could take real, deliberate, rational steps to make their lives healthier and prevent bad humors. But sometimes…” she took a deep breath, and regretted it, almost gagging on the stench wafting from the dying city below. She steeled herself and continued. “If whatever humors have infested Dervate City are allowed to spread to other cities, the whole Union could look like this. It must be stopped here, at any cost. The sacrifice of a few in this city will save an untold number of lives in the rest of the Union.”
None of the guardsmen looked comfortable with this, despite her speech – for that matter, Kelina herself was not as confident in her decision as she asserted aloud – but none spoke to challenge her. Sergeant Pitrick designated Talim to accompany Gouchen back to Merolate, and they were lowered down the wall and seen on their way. Then, knowing that it was very likely she would not emerge from the walls again, Kelina allowed herself to be lowered into the stricken city, and the guardsmen accompanied her.
Though he would never have admitted it to anyone, Talim was relieved Sergeant Pitrick had sent him back with Gouchen. There had been a sense about Dervate City that had rendered him queasy just standing atop the wall; it had been like peering into the innermost chamber of some horrid dungeon master, the ones who were expert at inflicting pain and keeping their subjects alive and conscious throughout. Or maybe the city itself was one of the torturer’s subjects. Shaking his head as if the physical motion would dispel the dark thoughts and clear his mind to focus on driving the carriage, Talim glanced back at where Gouchen was sitting. The man had been scribbling intently upon a board for most of the morning, but now was slumped over, sleeping.
Munching a stick of salted blummox jerky, Talim shivered slightly, though the day was warm, and looked up to see if a cloud has passed over the sun, but the sky was bright a clear. With a shrug for his own benefit, he tightened his traveling cloak about himself, and focused on driving the carriage.
By the time the sun was beginning to set and it was time to find a place to stay the night, Talim felt almost as tired as Gouchen appeared, still slumped over and sound asleep in the back of the carriage, and he felt stiff and sore from the day’s travel. Stretching and stumbling as he jumped from the carriage and attended to the horses, he fumbled with the knots and buckles, grumbling to himself. Once he had finished with the horses, he walked around and began setting up a fire, and glanced back at the carriage, where Gouchen still had not so much as stirred.
“Hey.” Talim tossed a stone in Gouchen’s general direction. “You going to sleep all night, too?”
Gouchen awakened dazed and blinking away crustiness from around his eyes. Groaning, he looked at Talim, at the cooking fire, and then up at the rapidly darkening sky. “Blood and Balance, how long have I been asleep?”
Talim smirked. “Most of the day. You want some dinner?”
“I – sure, that’s probably a good idea.” Gouchen fell out of the carriage even less gracefully than Talim had, and it seemed to take all of his energy to get up and settle himself at the cookfire. “I was trying to work out what I was going to say to the ministers about Dervate, and then I was tired, so I thought I would just rest my eyes for a moment or two.” He flushed. “I guess I was more tired than I thought.”
“Probably the travel,” Talim suggested charitably. “Can be hard to get a good night’s rest out on the road if you’re not used to it. Us guardsmen, it’s practically part of our training to sleep anywhere.”
“I guess that must be it,” Gouchen agreed. “I feel like I could still sleep all night. But you were up all day, so I’ll take the first watch if you want.”
From the continued tiredness on Gouchen’s face that was not dispersing with food, Talim doubted that the man would last a whole watch. If there had been a present danger, Talim would have insisted on taking the watch, regardless of his own tiredness, but keeping a watch at all was more of a precaution than a necessity. “Thanks,” Talim accepted.
Gouchen was not the only one who needed more sleep than he would have expected; when Talim woke up with the dawn, he realized that Gouchen had fallen asleep, and that he had himself slept through what should have been his watch. Groaning, Talim cast an eye towards the carriage, reassuring himself that nothing was missing, and set about dragging himself off the ground and into some semblance of action. Feeling stiff and sore, he fumbled with his flint and steel to start a fire, deciding that it was worth taking the time this morning to have a hot breakfast before they resumed their journey, and eventually a fire was crackling, and porridge was bubbling above it.
When the porridge was ready, he went to awaken Gouchen, who groaned and tried to push him away, before rolling over with some incoherent mumblings that faded into continued snores. Sighing, Talim poked him again, until finally the other man stirred into a half-awake state.
“Time to get back on the road,” he said. “You can go nap in the carriage again once we’re done with breakfast, if you’re so tired.”
“What…yeah, I guess that’s a good idea.” Gouchen lurched to his feet, blinking and unaware of his surroundings, and rubbed his neck. “Got to finish that report, though…”
No more words could Talim get from Gouchen over breakfast; Gouchen seemed too sleepy to do more than vaguely swallow the porridge he was mechanically spooning into his mouth. Keeping his grumbles to himself, Talim prepared the horses for the day, cursing his clumsy fingers, and soon they were again traveling towards Merolate.
By noon, it was apparent that something more was affecting Gouchen than road exhaustion. His skin was noticeably pale, his neck and wrists were swollen, and though sweat stood out in beads upon his face, he shivered violently even in his fitful sleep. He moaned when Talim prodded him gently after stopping to rest the horses, and Talim couldn’t raise him to awareness. Shuddering at the touch of clammy skin, Talim managed to get a few crumbs of cheese down Gouchen’s throat, before hurrying to resume their journey. He didn’t know what to do for Gouchen besides get him to Merolate as fast as possible, and he shuddered just thinking about the man’s condition and proximity. What if whatever was affecting Gouchen affected him?
For the rest of the day, Talim alternated between worrying about Gouchen’s state, and catastrophically reasoning that every twinge of numbness in his fingers or the slightest hint of swelling about his joints was an omen of impending doom. He drove the horses as hard as he dared, in the hopes of reaching Merolate sooner so that someone more experienced and knowledgeable than him could make the decisions. Taking care of a sick politician was no job for a junior guardsman; this was why there were officers. But there were no officers on the open road; there was only Talim, and his increasingly incoherent companion.
Talim contrived to dribble some broth from a weak soup he made after they stopped for the evening into Gouchen’s mouth; the man swallowed reflexively, only to groan and cough, so that Talim couldn’t be sure how much was actually swallowed, and how much was simply coughed all over the ground and the front of Talim’s shirt. Though Talim only had a single extra shirt with him, he burned the one Gouchen had coughed upon in the fire before settling down for a fitful night’s rest plagued by nightmares about being trapped in Dervate City.
The sun was well above the horizon when Talim awoke the next morning, and he cursed to himself, having had every intention of starting early. He was not usually one to sleep late by an accident. Once he had taken care of his ablutions, he checked on Gouchen, whose condition was little changed from the previous night, or perhaps even slightly improved. Striving to keep his contact minimal, Talim tucked a spare blanket around Gouchen, and then mounted the carriage to get underway, not stopping until midday. They were then only about a day’s travel from Merolate.
To Talim’s eyes, Gouchen’s condition appeared to improve after their midday rest: he awoke enough to satiate his own meager appetite, and was even conversational after a fashion, though his voice was strained and quiet with the effort it took him to speak. Talim had not realized how worried he had been about Gouchen’s state until he showed signs of recovering, and he resumed the journey that afternoon with his spirits higher than they had been since reaching Dervate.
Yet by evening, Gouchen’s condition had deteriorated again, and he was struggling to retain even a vague consciousness. When Talim approached him with a weak broth, the sick man waved him away, that small effort visibly exhausting him further. Biting his lip, Talim settled himself on the opposite side of the fire after making sure Gouchen was as comfortable as he could arrange.
“When we…when we get to Merolate…” it took a moment for Talim to realize that Gouchen was trying to speak to him, and he hurried around the fire to make it easier, “you must…must tell them…I can’t…don’t let me…”
“Can’t what? What must I tell who?” Talim looked around, as if there was someone to whom he could turn for help in the bushes. “Just save your strength. We’ll be in Merolate tomorrow morning.”
“No…” Gouchen mumbled. “Can’t…I can’t…”
“We’ll get you to Merolate, and there’ll be people there who know what to do, people who can help you better than I can,” Talim asserted. “So get some rest, that’s what my mother always said to me when I weren’t feeling well.” Though Gouchen continued to make weak protestations, they were increasingly incoherently, and they made Talim uncomfortable. He retreated to the other side of the fire and tried to relax enough to sleep.
Gouchen was too weak the next morning even to help himself into the carriage. Waking early, Talim had to muscle him onto the seat like a very large and awkward sack of parsnips, but once the horses were hitched, they were underway before the sun had cleared the horizon. Sparing occasional glances back at Gouchen, Talim urged the horses to greater speeds, knowing that they would not need to run again the next day. He was convinced that Gouchen’s only hope lay in reaching Merolate, where someone could treat him properly. Being out on the road was no place for a sick man, Talim knew that much. The relief he felt when the city walls finally came into sight was enough to put a lump in his throat.
Perhaps noting the reckless speed with which Talim was driving, two guardsmen appeared from the gates and rode out to meet him. Talim babbled out a garbled version of his story, mostly focusing on getting Gouchen to a healer as quickly as could be contrived; one of the guardsmen stayed with him to escort him into the city, while the other raced ahead to find a healer and inform the officers of Talim’s return. All Talim knew was that he had never been more grateful for his own bunk and someone else to make the decisions than he was at that moment.
None of the theories, Doil considered, were consistent. Humors, spirits, demons, curses, invisible beings, unbalanced planar existences…none of them actually could isolate, identify, and present a consistent cause of sickness. Every sickness seemed different, and people would display different symptoms. Sometimes, a single person would fall ill, and no one else, and sometimes only a single person might be left alive. Some sicknesses seemed to be seasonal, while others appeared random. None of it helped Doil to approach the problem that was now confronting him.
The predominant theory, and the most successful one at explaining a majority of illnesses, was that of humors, which were said to be a property innate to the four components of matter: solids, liquids, gases, and fires. Depending upon the character of the humors in an area, they could materially affect a population or an individual. Good humors led to increased health and vigor, while bad humors had deleterious effects, and resulted in illnesses of various forms. Yet the questions of why humors took on certain characteristics, and how to affect what characteristics they undertook, were left quite unanswered by the theory.
None of it was helpful now, as Doil contemplated the possibility of a full-scale contamination of Merolate. He glared at Kiluron. “You did what?” he demanded. “My lord.” He amended, without enthusiasm.
Kiluron crossed his arms, defiant. “I’m not punishing a man for trying to save someone’s life. Besides, if you’re right, don’t we have bigger problems?”
“It’s the principle of the thing! Everyone knows that you don’t bring someone from a contaminated area into an uncontaminated area. Everyone,” Doil insisted. “Except, apparently, Guardsman Talim. Though what Kelina was thinking, sending anyone back without a proper observation period in isolation first…”
“So we’ll punish her when she gets back,” Kiluron answered. “Find someone else to be responsible for vomit and excrement, or whatever her job is. But I’m not punishing Talim, and that’s final. Can we please move on?”
Grumbling, Doil relented. It was obvious that arguing with Kiluron was not going to produce results, and though it pained him to admit it, Kiluron’s point that they had bigger problems to address was valid. “Fine.”
“Thank you.” Kiluron sat down with a sigh, and Doil joined him a moment later. “Now, when will we be able to say for certain that whatever humors are affecting Dervate aren’t here now, too?”
“I don’t know!” Doil exclaimed. “It’s not as if humors behave consistently. Guardcaptain Vere has Talim in isolation with the two guardsmen who rode out to meet him, and Gouchen’s body has been cremated appropriately, along with the horses, and the carriage, and all of the gear that made the journey. If Gouchen’s reaction to the humors is representative, then we should know within three or four days.”
Kiluron nodded. “Good. So now we just wait. But why wasn’t Talim affected?”
Doil sighed, and resisted the urge to exclaim again then he didn’t know. “Humors are fickle. We don’t know why they affect different people differently, or why different humors affect more people more severely than others. I do suspect that Talim was affected, just much more mildly.”
“Alright.” That seemed to satisfy Kiluron, though it didn’t satisfy Doil. “What about Dervate City? I assume that we’ll need to place it under isolation as well.”
Doil nodded. “Even if Kelina is successful in burning down the city, we should deploy guardsmen to isolate the area, prevent anyone from passing in or out. That should keep the bad humors there from spreading to other cities and regions of the Union.”
“I wish there were some other way,” Kiluron sighed. “All those people who could survive the humors, like Talim did, shouldn’t have to die like that.”
“Unfortunately, immolation is the only method we know of that is truly effective against humors,” Doil explained. “Manure barriers are only a temporary deterrent, and there is evidence to suggest they aren’t effective at all.”
“Fine.” Kiluron sighed. “Wasn’t one major existential crisis enough for my reign? Or at least for the first year? I shouldn’t have to deal with the Guardian and a deadly plague in the same year, right?”
Doil managed a weak smile. “Apparently not, my lord. Maybe the rest of your reign will be especially bountiful and peaceful as a result.”
“You think that might be right? I mean, it makes sense,” Kiluron asked.
“No. I don’t think that’s how it works in the slightest,” Doil replied.
Two days later, it was clear that if the level of disaster experienced in the first year of Kiluron’s reign was to be balanced by the brilliance of the remainder of it, Merolate was destined for an incomparable golden age. Despite the precautions Doil had ordered taken, the humors had infected Merolate. No one could get an accurate count of the number of people complaining of symptoms matching those exhibited by Gouchen and characterized in Kelina’s preliminary report, but Vere reported that almost half of his guardsmen were already displaying some symptoms, and two dozen of them were bedridden.
With Minister Kelina still in Dervate City, and not likely to return, Doil had asked Kiluron to authorize an emergency Minister of Health and Sanitation, but that individual had already been taken to bed by the humors. Inpernuth had locked himself in his house and refused to meet with anyone, even to attend meetings of the ministers for the duration of the plague, and Regicio was inclined to follow suit, so Doil and Kiluron gathered only Vere and Borivat together with them in the conference chamber. Doil worried about what the other ministers would think of Borivat’s preferential treatment, but Kiluron had ignored his concerns.
It was one of those steamy summer days that left the tapestries in apparent need of wringing out, and Doil was glad of the light fruits and pickles that had been provided for breakfast in the conference chamber. It smelled rotten, more so than usual from the brininess of the nearby ocean, but that could have just been Doil’s imagination. He had studied the two plagues that had occurred since Merolate’s founding with Borivat during his training, and the horrific plagues around 600 PU, which served as the catalyst for the Blood Empire’s founding, and thought he knew too well what to expect as the humors from Dervate contaminated and proliferated through Merolate.
As usual, Doil was the first in the room, which was how he preferred it. The quiet, earliest hours of the morning, when the castle was still and peaceful, were often some of his most productive, and allowed him to convince himself that he would be capable of addressing all of the day’s problems. Borivat was not long behind him today, however, with a palpable air of concern that immediately disrupted Doil’s sanctuary.
“Perhaps I’ve lived too long,” Borivat sighed, taking a place at the table and settling his notes before him. “You shouldn’t have to face more than two major plagues in one lifetime.”
“You sound like Kiluron claiming that one crisis ought to have been enough for the first year of his reign,” Doil remarked.
“I suppose I do, at that,” Borivat agreed. “It’s just – anyone who was alive for the last big plague knows that they were for unknowable reasons granted an extension on life while everyone around us died. It’s hard not to think that the bill has finally come due.”
Frowning, Doil shook his head in denial. “I don’t think that’s how it works. Your wisdom and experience will help see us through this plague. Perhaps it won’t be as bad as I fear.”
More pessimistic than usual, Borivat just grimaced. Further discussion between the two of them was forestalled by Vere and Kiluron’s arrival. Vere in particular appeared grim, and his grip upon the hilt of his sword was unusually tense.
“I figured the two of you would be here already,” Kiluron observed, sitting down in his chair and grabbing a plate of fruit. “Shall we get started?”
Doil picked up his notes as he nodded. “I’ve been reading about measures taken during previous outbreaks of plague, and there are some measures that we can take immediately. Those with the means should be encouraged to depart the city for more rural residences. The guardsmen can organize shifts to collect corpses for cremation on a regular basis, with increasing frequency as needed. And we should close the port and the gates, in case there is any chance of preventing these humors from spreading to other parts of the Union.”
Kiluron frowned. “Can the city handle being closed like that, with our supplies still low from the Guardian conflict?”
“Not for very long,” Doil admitted. He had anticipated that difficulty and already run through the necessary calculations, but it was a mark of how much Kiluron had grown into his role as Prime that he would think to ask such a question.
“How long?” Borivat asked. “We likely must anticipate that the humors will not be dispelled any earlier than the first frost.”
Consulting his notes, Doil grimaced. “Barely enough to last to the end of the summer.”
“That won’t be enough,” Borivat said. “And I assume that’s accounting for…?”
“The afflicted rate? Yes,” Doil answered. “If Minister Kelina’s figures are correct, and the rate stands are three in four deaths among the afflicted.”
Kiluron leaned forward. “Isn’t there anything else we can do? Some way to treat these humors, or the people afflicted by them? Three in four…”
Borivat shook his head. “Prevention and survival. That’s really all there is.”
There was a long silence, Borivat, Doil, and Kiluron regarding each other, until Vere interrupted. “While I am certain that this has been a most productive event, there are many sick guards to whom I must attend. So if you don’t object…” he sidestepped towards the door, and then he was gone.
Kiluron stared after him, and Doil frowned. “What was that about?”
“The guardsmen always have a higher rate of incidence during these plagues,” Borivat observed. “They’re responsible for dealing with the bodies. I suspect Vere is concerned for the status of his force.”
“No,” Kiluron replied. “He’s concerned for his people.” He looked at Doil. “Isn’t there anything we can try that might actually address these humors that are causing this?”
Doil hesitated for a long moment, wishing that there was a different answer he could give. He finally just shook his head.
“Fine.” Kiluron looked from Borivat to Doil. “We’ll implement your recommendations. But we can’t just sit here and have people starving to death in a season if they don’t die of humors first. I have something I want to try.”
If only Kiluron had not run into Doil on his way from the castle, what he wanted to try would have been so much easier. As it was, it was now going to be difficult even to leave the castle. It was like he was a prisoner in his own home. It was, he realized unexpectedly, becoming less strange to think of the castle as his, rather than Wezzix’s.
“And you couldn’t have me convey the letter to one of the guardsmen for what reason?” Doil asked. “You’re too important to have exposing yourself to the humors outside. Especially while there is no sub-Prime.”
“It’s not that simple,” Kiluron insisted. “This is something I need to take care of myself. Besides, I don’t even know exactly where I want to send it.”
Doil frowned. “And a guardsman is going to be more help with that? Who could you possibly need to send a letter to right at this instant that’s so important? And whose abode you don’t even know?”
“I said it’s complicated,” Kiluron repeated. “Look, can you just let me go? I promise that this is important, and that I will come back and, as the Prime, suitably chastise myself for taking foolish risks.”
Doil didn’t move. “Can you please at least tell me what you’re trying to accomplish? Because this seems a lot like one of your more reckless ideas…”
Kiluron adopted a pained look, which was better than looking impatient. “You’re never going to let me live that down, are you.”
“Let me take the letter?” Doil asked again.
Shaking his head, Kiluron started walking again, forcing Doil to back up and then fall into step beside him. He let that be his answer to Doil’s question.
Doil exclaimed like he had just come to an epiphany. “This is about Lady Fetrina, isn’t it? I figured it out.”
That was almost enough to halt Kiluron in his tracks. “You think I need to send her a letter? Balance, Doil, I didn’t even think of that. I should probably do that, shouldn’t I.” Then he did pause. “Tell you what. I’ll go back and write that letter, and then we can revisit this conversation. Sounds good?”
“Except for the part where you’re going to go deliver your current letter as soon as we part company, and then come back and go through the same process for Lady Fetrina’s,” Doil replied.
“Well, I guess we can both go.” Kiluron resumed walking.
“That wasn’t quite what I intended,” Doil protested, but since Kiluron kept walking, he was obliged to acquiesce. “At least tell me what’s in this letter?”
Kiluron hesitated before he answered. “You know how in archery, you can stand up somewhere really high, aim your arrow way above the horizon, and lob it really far, but probably without much hope of hitting a target?”
“In a strictly academic sense, yes,” Doil agreed. “The kinematics of such a trajectory have been plotted to correspond to a parabolic path.”
“I have no idea what you just said. Anyway, this is that,” Kiluron said.
“Somehow, I don’t have any more idea what you’re talking about.” They were in the city now, but it was quiet, and few people were about; the warnings about the plague had been distributed that morning.
“Are you sure you want to?” Kiluron asked. “You probably won’t like it. There are all kinds of problems that you could point out with it, which is why I didn’t ask you, because I think it’s worth a try. If it works, it might at least save a few people.”
Doil sighed. “You do have a flare for the mysterious, don’t you? I think it’s gotten worse since you became Prime.”
Sighing in turn, Kiluron relented. “I’ll explain the whole thing after we’ve delivered the letter.”
That must have satisfied Doil, or at least sated his curiosity long enough for Kiluron to entrust the letter to Guardsman Talim. Even Kiluron knew enough about humors to know that it was very unlikely that Talim could continue passing the humors along after the supposedly mild case he had suffered from on his way back to Merolate, so he seemed the safest option.
“I’m afraid I can’t give you an exact location,” Kiluron explained. “There’s a town somewhere in the northern tip of Welate Province. Ask around for a girl named Aiga. She should have a dagger with my personal seal on it. Wait to leave until she’s read the letter. But if you don’t find her by the end of the summer, go ahead and come back.”
Guardsman Talim saluted, leaving Kiluron and Doil to make their way back to the castle. They had barely left the guardhouse before Doil asked, “Who’s Aiga?”
With a sigh, Kiluron kept walking as he considered his answer. “I suppose I should have expected that it couldn’t stay secret forever.”
“Oh dear,” Doil observed.
“Aiga is a witch,” Kiluron explained. “She came to Merolate earlier this year to assassinate me, but I saved her life, and she decided that was a good reason not to kill me. We talked about changing the Blood Decrees so that local practitioners of Blood Magic wouldn’t necessarily fall under the same prohibitions as Blood Priests. Anyway, she told me that a lot of what she does with magic is healing arts for locals. Seemed like maybe she might be able to help with our current predicament.”
Doil was quiet for a long span after that, long enough that they returned to the castle before he spoke again, leaving Kiluron wondering the whole time just how problematic his idea was going to be. “You’re right, I probably would have tried to stop you,” Doil finally admitted. He hesitated. “But I think that I’m glad that I didn’t have the opportunity.”
“That so?” Kiluron asked.
Nodding, Doil paused at a doorway. “You may be unconventional, and as a Prime you’re terrible at following your own laws, but you have good ideas, and you care a lot about your people. There are worse characteristics for a ruler.”
“I…” Kiluron swallowed and suppressed the quip he had been preparing to alleviate the moment’s heaviness. Instead, he settled for something simpler. “Thank you,” he said. “That means a lot, coming from you.”
By three days hence, Merolate felt empty, with almost a quarter of its residents moved out of the city, and more locked up inside of their homes, but the plague didn’t feel completely real to Kiluron until Borivat didn’t come to the meeting with Doil and Vere one morning. Instead, a guardswoman delivered a message from him, saying that he was sick in bed with the same bad humors that were affecting the rest of the city, and the same symptoms that had so ravaged Gouchen. During that same meeting, Vere commented that Kiluron’s signatures on new decrees and papers from the castle were growing sloppier. The following evening, it took dropping his knife twice during dinner to convince Kiluron that his extremities were turning numb, just like the other sufferers.
He made light of it, of course, not allowing Doil or Vere or any of his other, overprotective dining companions to take any funny ideas into their heads, nor permitting himself to worry over it, at least until he reached his own chambers and found that he could barely unbuckle his own belt. Still, he had no intention of letting some pesky humors interfere with doing his job, and even as he went to bed, he assumed that he would feel just fine in the morning.
That lasted until morning, when he could barely crack his eyes open enough to see Doil standing over him, looking even more concerned than he usually appeared. The effort that he had expended beginning to sit up fled at the news he saw in Doil’s expression, and Kiluron flopped back onto his bed and let his eyes close again. The Prime, it seemed, had been contaminated.
The end of Blood Magic S2:E6: Contaminant, Part One. This story will be concluded in next month’s episode. 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 July 31st, 2021.
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