Something about the intensity of the boy’s expression, with his teeth grinding together to keep his composure against the pain he was in, struck Aiga as particularly brave, no matter how foolish she might think the genesis of his injury.  Her mother would probably have scoffed, berating the child for being a brainless waste of her talents even as she expertly set and wrapped the fractured arm.

               More and more often, Aiga found herself ignoring what her mother might have done.  She smiled warmly at the boy.  “What’s your name?”

               The act of answering was almost more than the boy’s composure could handle, but he managed to force out a single word in reply.  “Meldruin.”

               “Well, Meldruin, I’m going to need your help to set this arm to rights, yes, yes, yes,” Aiga told him.  “I’m sure a brave man like you can do that, right?”

               All the answer she received was a nod, but she smiled anyway, and handed Meldruin a freshly whittled wooden rod.  “I want you to hold onto this for me, and count to ten when I say so,” Aiga instructed, while moving quietly to the side with the broken arm.  Her splints and wraps were already laid out for her.  “Ready?  Go.”

               Meldruin began counting, and Aiga took a deep breath, braced herself, and set the bone back into place.  A choked cry half-escaped Meldruin before he could cut it off, and he was panting heavily, several tears linked from his scrunched shut eyes.  Almost as quickly as she had set the bone, Aiga laid the splints, and tied them off securely, before backing away and giving the boy a moment to compose himself.

               “That was a dirty trick,” Meldruin accused, perhaps to hide the slight tremble in his voice.  “I weren’t ready.”

               Aiga ignored this.  “Haven’t you finished counting to ten yet?  I need my rod back now.”

               Looking down, Meldruin slowly managed to unclench his fist from the wooden dowel and drop it into Aiga’s palm.  “Thank you,” Aiga said, tucking it away amongst her other supplies.  “Now, try not to jostle that splint too much, and you must not stress the arm for half a season.  Understand?  And no more jumping out of tall tress just because Andrey told you to.”

               With a mutter of what might have been gratitude, the boy snatched up the extra wrappings Aiga offered him and sped away towards the village.  When he was gone, Aiga sighed and sat back in the tiny cabin that had been allotted for her, far from the village proper.  At least Meldruin’s fracture had been clean, with no magic required to see it properly healed.  The villagers were suspicious enough of her as it was.  When she had last visited this village with her mother, they had seemed welcoming enough, but perhaps that was simply what her mother had desired.  Aiga did not have as forceful, forceful, forceful of a personality as her mother, and she wasn’t certain she wanted to adopt one.

               This time, she had used magic twice: once to restore a field that had lain fallow for two generations, and once while acting as a midwife to save the mother during a particularly difficult birth.  Both acts that should have brought blessings and gratitude upon her, but instead they were seen with suspicion.  There were whispers that the benefits she brought were the cause of other ills in the village, and each new injury or problem acquired in the course of normal activity was blamed upon her magics.  Never mind that her magic didn’t work that way, that she actually drained some of her own blood to power her arts.  One day, she was expected to give her life to power her magic and perform a miracle for someone, the ultimate expression of what people like her and her mother were supposed to be.  Yet Aiga doubted if the act would even be appreciated.

               Yet the magic, as Aiga reminded herself again, was just a small, small, small part of who she was, and of the work that she did, so she got up and went outside to walk the surrounding forest.  She had found several patches of silver arrowleaf, rumble cinis, and teasure bushes within half a morning’s walk from her cabin, and she made it a point to harvest there at least once every six days.  Such plants were not so common as to be ignored, and they were quite medicinal when prepared properly.

               There was something medicinal about just walking in the woods, too, or so Aiga thought, especially on a hot summer day when all of the resins and saps flowed faster and made the deep aromas of the woods a nearly tactile experience.  Walking through that dense, rejuvenating fog of flora, Aiga felt her worries begin to ease.  The opinions of a few farmers were transient things compared to a forest like this, and Aiga could be just as transient.  Perhaps it was simply time to move on to the next village.  Her mother had always said that they were most appreciated in their absences, and only tolerated while present.

               A few late summer berries were gleaming from a branch nearby, so Aiga stopped to eat a few, earning herself the approbation of a nearby finch than had laid a prior claim to the bounty.  Her fingers stained with juices, she continued to the arrowleaf patch and began to prune them, slicing them just above the soil with her belt knife so that the root would be intact and the plants, each of them a single, blade-like leaf, would grow again once she was gone.  She had to be careful not to crush the leaves now, or they would lose their potency; only when dry could they be crumbled and stewed into medicine.

               By the time she was finished with her harvests, she had resolved herself to leave just as soon as her most recent collection of teasure fruits were pickled.  As she turned back towards her cabin, she contemplated where she ought to go next.  There were a handful of villages nearby, but she had been to them relatively recently, and decided that it would suite her better to travel further afield.  Perhaps as far as Tirate.  Yes, that would be good.  The only time she had seen the ocean had been when she had gone to Merolate in her bungled assassination attempt against the Prime, and she would like to see it again.

               When she reached her cabin, her thoughts of the ocean fled, and she nearly did, too; there was Mayor Egri from the village, standing beside a very awkward looking young man wearing the uniform of a Merolate Guardsman, though it was travel-stained and nearly as tired in appearance as his face.  Struggling to maintain her composure, and not reach for her belt knife, Aiga’s mind raced with what they might be doing there.

               “Mistress Aiga?” Mayor Egri asked.  He sounded nearly as nervous as she felt.  “Ah, this is Guardsman Talim from Merolate.  He says he has an urgent message for you.”

               Managing to keep her expression neutral, Aiga nodded for him to proceed.  Talim stepped forward, clearing his throat.  “Ah, yes.  You are Mistress Aiga?”  When she nodded again, he seemed to sag a little.  “Oh, thank Balance.  I swear I’ve ridden through every town in the Union trying to find you.”

               In her head, Aiga’s response was “Why, why, why?”  Instead, she tried to retain her dignity.  “What has sent you upon such a journey?” she asked.

               Talim’s throat bobbed as he swallowed again.  “Urgent mission from the Prime himself, Ma’am.  I’ve a letter here for you somewhere.”  After fumbling in his pockets for a few moments, he produced a sealed letter with a few dirty fingerprints marring the paper.  He held it out to Aiga, and she took it from him, snatching it away to hide the tremble in her fingers.  Turning away, she peeled it open, and her long-ruminated plans from her forest walk crumbled around her.

               If anyone would have asked him, Doil would have said he was less than fond of people as a whole, and that if given the choice he would gladly take being alone with his books and his work over meetings and working with people.  Holed up in his own quarters, books and papers stacked all around in haphazard piles that would have been more at home upon Kiluron’s desk, it therefore bothered him how isolated he felt.  Any other time, he would have relished having so much time to work alone, but now that there was no one with whom to work, he was lonely.

               The Prime was sick in bed, and the servants refused to enter his chambers, so Doil went to tend him three times a day.  It had become a sort of ritual, a small bit of routine in a world gone insane, no matter that the routine was itself a symptom of that insanity.  Sometimes when he went, Kiluron was lucid enough to have a conversation, even struggling to sit up in bed over Doil’s protestations and hopes.  Other times, he did not so much as stir when Doil changed the sheets and dribbled broth into his mouth.  Those times frightened Doil, but he could still feel the fluttering pulse in Kiluron’s neck, though his limbs were curiously clammy.

               Even before the Prime had taken ill, the ministers had refused to come to the castle or even attempt to perform their duties.  All save Borivat, but Borivat was sick now, too.  That left Doil to run the entire Union alone.  Five days after Kiluron took ill, Doil began signing orders in the Prime’s name and using his signet to seal official documents, feeling guilty about it the entire time.  Yet his most pressing work had nothing to do with running on a nation in crisis.

               The more Doil studied past plagues and illnesses that had beset Lufilna, the more he found that the present sickness did not follow the same patterns and progressions.  Where other plagues had appeared in isolated cases here and there before beginning to spread more widely seasons or even years later, this one had apparently appeared from nowhere to sweep through a single city, and then spread from there.  It was why he refused to fire the city, though that was what most of the literature suggested he do.  Fire could defeat plague, could contain it, but if this wasn’t a plague at all, at least not in the traditional sense, then it would be horrid to apply such a drastic solution.  At least, that was what Doil told himself when he began to feel guilty for not taking such drastic measures, and worried that his research was really just an excuse to avoid making a decision.

               It was eerie in the castle.  Only a few servants remained, the others having either fled or taken ill.  That left the rooms empty and the corridors barren, and rendered the entire edifice feeling vast and cold.  When first the sense of being alone in the belly of some stone monstrosity had become overwhelming, Doil had left to walk about the city, but he had found it almost as eerily deserted, with the merchants and nobles and anyone who was able having fled the city or barricaded themselves in their homes, and everyone else only venturing out in furtive and urgent errands with their cloaks pulled tight as if the cloth could ward off the ill humors.  It had left him wishing only to return to the relative familiarity of the castle.  No matter how alien it had become in the present circumstance, it was still home.

               A knock upon the study door distracted Doil, and he realized only then how lost he had become down a tangled maze of unproductive thoughts.  Turning in his chair and rising to his feet, he opened the door.

               “I heard that I could probably find you here,” Vere remarked, his arms crossed over his chest.  Without waiting for an invitation, he stomped into the room.  Doil winced.  “Have you learned anything new in your long pursuit?”

               “Quite a lot, actually,” Doil retorted.  It would be Vere who was unaffected by the illness.  Then he sighed, and dropped back down into his chair.  “Unfortunately, none of it seems to help.  But I’m more and more unconvinced that we’re just dealing with some bad humors here.”

               Vere nodded.  “I already suspected as much.”

               Frowning, Doil looked at Vere.  “You did?”

               Idly looking through the room’s singular window, Vere nodded again.  “I did some experiments of my own.  Tried to infect myself every way I could imagine, but it was like trying to infect a stone.”

               Doil wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or shocked at Vere’s recklessness.  He suppressed both emotions.  “What did you find?”

               “I believe we’re dealing with a poison of some kind,” Vere answered.  “Most likely from Nycheril.”

               “And you came to this conclusion because…” Doil prompted.

               “As a result of some particular and particularly exciting experiences which I experienced whilst journeying through the jungles of Nycheril, I effectively developed a tolerance to most of the toxins, poisons, and venoms native to that region,” Vere explained vaguely.  “Thus, my inability now to ‘infect’ myself with the contaminant that has contaminated this city.”

               Doil nodded slowly.  Part of him wanted to ask more detailed questions about Vere’s methodology, but a larger part of him was certain that he didn’t want to know.  The main part of him was more concerned with trying to apply this new knowledge as swiftly as possible.  “I don’t suppose you can tell my precisely what the contaminant is and how to treat it for those of us who do not happen to have a native tolerance to most toxins?”

               Vere shook his head.  “I would have come to you sooner if I were in possessions of such elixirs.  However, fear not: I believe that I have in my custody someone who may be able to assist you in your efforts here, if you are willing to accept somewhat…unconventional methods.”

               Doil sighed.  “At this point, I’m more worried about being able to help the people who’ve been affected than I am about getting my results published in a proper paper.  Who are we talking about?”

               “Come with me,” Vere said.  “I’ll introduce you.”

               Pushing away from his desk, Doil snatched up his cloak and followed Vere out into the corridor.  “Is this really the time to be dramatic?” he asked.  “You couldn’t just bring this mysterious healer here?”

               “Well-applied consonance,” Vere observed.  “Believe as you wish, but in this case my penchant for mystery and drama conveniently coincides with more practical considerations: I am not certain that this individual ought to be allowed anywhere near the castle and our feverish Prime.”

               Grown wary now, Doil knew better than to press Vere further; the Guardcaptain clearly had no desire to reveal the identity of this stranger until he could present him to Doil in person, so there was little Doil could do but follow along to the guardhouse and be patient.  The streets through which the peculiar pair wound were almost completely deserted, though it was midday and there would normally have been merchants and servants and all manner of others running about on their particular errands.  Merolate felt to Doil like a city holding its breath, or perhaps a city with few breaths left to hold.

               When the reached the guardhouse abreast of the city’s main gates, Vere led Doil inside, a guardsman, weariness etched into his face, nodded to the pair.

               “Upstairs, Sirs,” Guardsman Bult said.  “Trelish is there, too.”

               “Thank you,” Vere replied, and led Doil up the stairs.

               Unsure what to expect, Doil half imagined that he would find some diabolical genius fettered and raving upstairs.  Instead, he saw a young woman sitting in a chair and chatting amiably with Guardsman Trelish, though Trelish appeared to be doing most of the chattering.  The woman was strikingly pale, and her eyes were a vivid blue, but she was otherwise unremarkable, her clothes plain and rough, though there was a bag of herbs and other oddments sitting against the chair leg beside her.  Doil turned to Vere.  “Is this supposed to be some manner of prank?  Because I really haven’t the time.”

               “No prank,” Vere asserted.  Both of the rooms occupants had risen upon the entrance of Doil and Vere, and Vere now gestured towards the young woman.  “Doil, I present Aigalianiariapiagia, Witch.”

               A smile stretched the pale skin across the woman’s face.  “Most remarkable, Guardcaptain.  You didn’t even stumble.”  She turned to Doil.  “You can call me Aiga.”

               “A pleasure, Aigalianiariapiagia,” Doil replied.  He was every bit as literate as Vere, and he only hesitated slightly over the name.  Internally, he seethed at Vere.  What did the man mean, ‘witch’?  Now, of course, there was no opportunity to demand an explanation, which was probably Vere’s whole purpose in being so mysterious about this matter.  Then the name by which she had presented herself fully processed in Doil’s mind, and he found himself staring.  “Then you must be here in response to Prime Kiluron’s letter?”

               Aiga nodded, and held out a dagger with the Prime’s personal seal.  “I have the dagger, if you need proof.  I’ve come to help, if I can.  Prime Kiluron indicated the situation was desperate, and I do know a little about the healing arts.”  She hesitated.  “Where is Kiluron, by the way?  I had sort of imagined he might come meet me himself…”

               Calming his racing mind to focus upon the present, Doil turned away the proffered dagger.  “I’m afraid that the situation has deteriorated even since Prime Kiluron wrote his letter to you,” he explained.  “The Prime himself is ill, and if I cannot find a treatment soon, I fear that he, and Merolate itself, may not long survive.”

               Though he hid it well, Aiga could tell that Doil was uncomfortable, and it was not difficult to surmise why that might be.  The Prime might have been quick to forgive her attempt on his life, and to see past his absorbed attitudes about magic, but he was a very different man than his advisor.  Not that Doil was overt in his discomfort or suspicion, but he did maintain a formality and distance that Aiga resented, no matter how much she might understand it.

               “We think that we’ve managed to contain the plague to Merolate and Dervate Cities,” Doil was saying.  “Intelligence is poor these days, but it is likely that Minister Kelina successfully razed Dervate City.”

               That seemed typical of city-dwellers.  They saw a problem, and so they tried to burn it away.  It was a wonder that they hadn’t already tried to burn Merolate, although there was enough stone in its construction to make that a difficult proposition.  “And I suppose no one tried to treat any of those afflicted?”

               Perhaps that had been too confrontational; Doil gave her a sharp look.  “Even before the Prime fell ill, I was working via correspondence with other scholars to determine possible cures.  Unfortunately, nothing that we’ve tried has been successful.  We can address symptoms in a limited fashion, but little more.”

               Her mother would have derided Doil’s efforts.  Of course, her mother would never have been in this situation at all; even if she had been summoned by the Prime for aid, she would have refused, saying that the city could rot itself into the sea and Lufilna would be better off.  But Aiga was not, not, not her mother.  “How long has Kil – the Prime been ill?”

               Stumbling over something he had been about to say, Doil hesitated.  “Almost ten days,” he admitted, and there was a weariness to his voice in that answer which had not before been present, though he recovered quickly.  “I’ll have a study set aside for you, and we can provide you with whatever books you might need for your own research…” he trailed off when Aiga suppressed a laugh.  “What’s amusing?”

               Swallowing her laughter, Aiga shook her head.  “Nothing, really.  It’s just…you expect to cure an unknown illness by reading about it?”

               Doil shifted.  “Well, I…anyway, I actually am not entirely convinced it is an illness or plague, at least not in the traditional sense.  Guardcaptain Vere and I had an interesting conversation just before he brought me to meet you.”

               “Oh?” Aiga allowed the change of topic.  Everyone had their own methods, even amongst witches.  Perhaps Doil’s deserved more credit than she was giving it.

               “We think its some kind of toxin or poison, probably from Nycheril, something that has contaminated the city somehow,” Doil explained.  “There are a lot of questions that stem from that: is it naturally occurring, or did someone bring it here?  And why?  And why did it first appear in the Union’s only land-locked province?  However, the most pressing, if this hypothesis is correct, is to identify the contaminant, and develop a suitable antidote.”

               Aiga ignored the broader, political questions.  Those were for people like Doil to worry about, not her; she only even had a vague idea that another continent existed to the south.  She was here only to treat whatever this illness was, regardless of its origins.  With the Prime affected, her mission had, in her mind, become even smaller: she was here to save the Prime.  Just as he had saved her, when he could so easily have seen her executed.  “Makes no difference to me,” she told Doil.  “My methods will be the same.  Can I see the Prime?”

               There was the hesitation again, the clear sense that Doil did not trust her, especially around his Prime.  It made Aiga bristle, but to the Advisor’s credit he relented from his initial opposition.  “Yes.  Follow me.”

               The two of them had just reached the castle, and now Doil led her through its corridors to the Prime’s chambers; they were little changed from Aiga’s last visit, except that they seemed to have lost the life in them, sucked out by the Prime’s illness.  Kiluron was himself lying on the bed, his skin pale and clammy, his cheeks sunken and sallow.  Whatever Doil said about humors and contaminants, Aiga knew a patient in the late stages of an illness when she saw one.

               “I’ve been treating him as best I can,” Doil explained.  He sounded defensive.  “No one else will even approach him, for fear of contagion.  We know that it can pass from person to person, but if it’s truly a contaminant of some kind, then I don’t understand how that’s possible.”

               Though she saw Doil tense, Aiga approached Kiluron’s bedside and leaned over him.  She found his life rhythm, wild and erratic at the neck, but barely existent in his wrists.  If failing to kill the Prime had been a betrayal of her mother, finding herself concerned for his welfare was surely rubbing salt into the wound.  Yet as the Advisor prattled on about botany and toxicology and other words Aiga did not know, she realized that she cared, cared, cared that this man who, against all logic, had shown her kindness did not die.

               “Can you get me root of hurnbottom, weltinberry petals, and hithick bark?” she interrupted Doil.

               Trailing off, Doil recovered.  “Probably, those are not terribly uncommon.  You think you know an antidote to try already?”

               “Not an antidote,” Aiga shook her head.  “We need to slow his heart before it bursts.  A broth made of these plants should help slow his vital functions and bring down the fever.  It will not cure him – too much could kill him, actually – but it will slow the progress of whatever is already trying to kill him, and that will give us the time we need to develop an actual cure.”  She looked up at Doil, hoping for approval, not understanding why she needed it from this man, but finding that she did.

               “I – it will be done,” Doil agreed.  Aiga could see questions in him, so many, many, many questions.  This Advisor seemed never to have anything but questions and worries, so different from what little she knew of the Prime.  Still, he hesitated for a long moment before asking his next one.  “Isn’t there some kind of, well…witchcraft that you could use?”

               Aiga froze, wondering if Doil knew what he was asking, if he would so cavalierly expect her to sacrifice her own life to miraculously heal the Prime.  Only gradually did she convince herself that the question was asked in innocence, that Doil knew nothing of witchcraft and witches, or what she was expected one day to do.  “Perhaps the Blood Priests,” she practically snarled the moniker, “have different methods and techniques, but that is not how my magic works.”

               At least Doil had the decency to appear abashed.  “I apologize.  I intended no offense.”

               More mollified than she wanted to be by his contrition, Aiga waved the matter away; it was better not to dwell on that painful, tangled knot of thoughts and emotions.  At least working to cure or stop this contaminant would be a boon to the entire city, not just the Prime and his Ministers.  Even her mother would probably have approved of that motivation.  In this one matter, at least, Aiga could make common cause with Advisor Doil.  “Well, let’s get started,” she said.

               Aiga’s words about trying to cure an illness by reading books kept rattling around in Doil’s mind, but he knew not another way by which to approach the problem.  She had asked him already to have those who were ill and willing to allow her to attempt different treatments upon them report to the castle, in addition to a dizzying cornucopia of herbs, roots, berries, nuts, and bark – enough to fill the entire catalogue, it seemed, of something like Beltard’s Complete Collection of Lufilnan Flora.  With some hesitation, Doil agreed to each request as it came, dispatching guardsmen to collect what ingredients they did not have on hand, and posting notices all across the city for those who were ill.

               Even so, it surprised him how many responded.  Doil had made no secret that he was asking on behalf of a woman, a veritable stranger, who practiced a breed of medicine much unchanged since before the days of the Blood Empire.  Had it been him, he doubted he would have so readily turned to something that he considered little more than superstition and questionable witchcraft, but nonetheless people came.  So quickly did attitudes and opinions change, Doil supposed, when matters of life and death were in the balance.

               These people, from all different backgrounds and parts of the city, were dosed with concoctions that smelled like everything from hickory smoke to rotting fruit.  In one case, the starkly orange pigmentation of an exotic root was so strong, even diluted, that the little dribbled upon a man’s shirt became a stark and permanent stain.  Another was subjected to a broth so spicy that he teared and sweated for what seemed an age before Aiga relented and provided him with a cup of goat’s milk.  Some of the treatments produced an amelioration of symptoms, but none provided the cure for which Aiga was searching.  Despite that, for every patient Aiga subjected to some new and foul concoction, Doil felt more and more that his efforts were paltry and meager by comparison.  Surely, he ought at least to be trying something, not just reading.

               It was enough to dampen his motivation, but as Aiga seemed to draw no closer to a true cure, and Kiluron lay abed in a corpse-like, catatonic state induced by the drugs Aiga had administered to keep him alive long enough to receive whatever treatment she and Doil could produce, he realized that only in identifying the cause, the actual contaminant, could they hope to abort its spread.  With this mindset, therefore, he plunged back into the library, but this time not for heavy tomes on botany, or thick texts describing medicinal lore.  From deep in the archives, he sought a particular report: Vere’s report of his experiences on his expedition to Nycheril.

               Since it was prepared by Vere, the report was written in verse, with extensive footnotes to elaborate upon topics that might be only mentioned, or poorly defined, in the poem itself.  Shaking his head at a guardcaptain who could transform a military report into some kind of epic poem out of an earlier era, Kiluron settled himself into his chair, and began to read.

Walked I alone with the company of others1/When wrecked our ship became on the coast of Zori2/In the land from whence came our mothers and fathers3/Yon Nycheril, and this be the epic story.
A guide we gained, for the Zori knew our people/To lead us south and west to lands unknown at home/Most moistly verdant was that coastline, and peaceful/With fruits growing aplenty of the forest loam.

               From there, Vere launched into an extensive catalogue of the edible fruits and peculiar, amphibious creatures that populated the coastline of the territories more or less claimed and controlled by the Zori tribe, though such matters were difficult to describe as definitively as the national borders of Lufilna.  Doil moved down the scroll and turned to different pages until he reached the first description of Vere’s arrival in the continent’s interior.

In darkness we walked then, though the sun did shine high/and bright, that the air became like a forge all doused/ in the quencher, for tangled the path did there lie/through mighty trees that soared to heights to make men moused.
Upon the second day, our guide abandoned us/to the mercies of the jungle: too wild for/him the land there was.  Trees were thick with vines and moss/And cloaked the rugged land our traverse had in store.
Cirkos led us then, a company of seven/able bodied men, and seventeen who walked in/pallor26 like death, or could not walk at all even/An illness struck them from the bugs as curse for sin.
We could not stop to rest or treat our weary men/Alone, and dying in that stinking, murky fen.

               Though it seemed a terrible thing, Doil perked up at the mention of an illness, but he realized quickly that this was not the illness that was afflicting Merolte.  He continued on until he reached the report on Vere’s captivity.

Taken we were by a tribe from the land’s center/In a pit we were held, mud to our knees and bars/Leering above.  Asking ‘why’ received no answer/Through a gap in the leaves we could see twinkling stars.
They named us thralls, though to whom or what was not said/Night and day we were guarded by blunt-armed42 natives/Much talk was there of the north, and a sense of dread/that seemed misplaced for men they had taken captive.
Many times Cirkos demanded a chance to treat/Or even a mere attempt to communicate/For each such entreaty we were brutally beat/Though no blood was drawn in all of their pounding hate.
Long now have I thought upon their opaque motives43/In reflection, meditation, and o’er votive.

               That was typical Vere: spending an entire sonnet musing over the reasons for the captivity before bothering to describe what actually happened.  Sometimes, Doil wished the man would just report the events, and leave the interpretation to someone else.  He continued with the next sonnet.

Trials were set forth for us deep in the jungle/In a blue crater lake embraced by high mountains/Whatever the trials, I feared we would fumble/From cliffs spilt waterfalls like colossal fountains.
One cliff was carven in the likeness of a face44/With water rushing from caves like torrents of tears/The façade was otherwise unlike our own race/Many of us then felt stirrings of ancient fears.
A lull there was until the sun had reached its height/Before ushered we were unto the face’s brow/From that lofty perch we could witness a vast sight/Shamans45 intruded to tell us what they allow.
Stripped to naked we were there upon the cliffside/With a twist and a shout I was the first to dive.

               For fourteen sonnets Vere continued to describe the physical trials he and the other captives underwent amongst that Nycheril tribe, often in vivid and painstaking detail.  Doil skimmed these portions, searching for references to toxins or poisons, but found nothing.  Between toiling through Vere’s poetic reports, and the fact that, contrary to what Vere had indicated, Aiga was proving little help in this aspect of the research, Doil was glad that the guardcaptain was absent from the study in which he had ensconced himself, with little respite.  Grumbling to himself, he dug into the next batch of Vere’s sonnets.

When completed were the trials of the body121/We were returned to the pits where we were before/A rest we were granted, as most weary were we/Though a rest disturbed by what might still be in store.
We next were subjected to trials of the mind122/Unto rough frames of green branches we were secured/Once our limbs were affixed in this spread-eagled bind/The trials proceeded, and we only endured.
Fig and duntuli123 made up the first concoction/Most pungent it was, for the fruit was all rotten/This was forced down our throats with a violent motion/The effect on our minds: to fill them with cotton124.
Visions I began to see125, set behind mine eye/This then was the start of when I thought I would die.

               A flash of excitement broke through Doil’s frustration and exhaustion, and he pulled the pages towards him, now reading more thoroughly from Vere’s sonnets, seeking to parse every secret, looking for any clue.

After the first putrid draught, more potions followed/Tinctures of beldril126, caltrin127, jergot128, and palvick129/Our noses plugged, we only swallowed and swallowed/Though the foul-smelling brews made us retch and be sick.
What little we kept down was more than sufficient/to render us prey to all manner of visions130/Our limbs obeyed us not, and the officiant131/sat by and recorded our hallucinations.
Black like pitch then grew the beds of my fingernails/My skin became yellowed, and my eyes very pale/I trembled and shook, though not from fear did I quail/as I fought through the poisons and dared not to fail.
Two of us132 perished in that phase of the trial/To write of these matters still calls up some bile.

               There were, naturally, thirteen more sonnets describing the various poisons to which Vere was subjected, with vivid and grotesque symptoms.  All were derived from fruits and leaves that grew in Nycheril’s inner jungles, such that Doil began to understand why it was viewed by the coastal tribes as such a hostile place.  Yet none of the symptoms matched those experienced by Merolate’s plague victims, and the next block of Vere’s report transitions to the venoms with which he was injected, from snakes and lizards and even birds.  His excitement crumbled, and only long-ingrained respect for writing kept him from crumpling the report and throwing it aside in frustration.

               He settled for shoving the current page away, which only revealed more pages of contrived sonnets.  Vere might enjoy poetry, but Doil thought little of his skill in crafting it.  These particular sonnets seemed to be little more than a mycelial index for Nycheril’s interior.  Shaking his head, Doil left the report lying there upon the table, tended Kiluron as best he could, and then buried himself in his bed to hide from the next day’s unchanged horrors.

               Despite his frustration of the previous night, Doil dragged himself back to the study the following morning.  His dreams had featured a Merolate writhing with snakes and dense, thorny vines, and a smirking, faceless figure forcing poisons down a line of prisoners’ throats.  From his position at the far end of the line, Doil was obliged to watch as Kiluron, Borivat, Vere, and everyone else he knew in the city was sent twitched and writhing to the ground.  Just before the faceless figure reached Doil, Vere looked up from his seizure, and said “The answer, of course, hides ever in plainest sight.  Even an imbecile could bring its truth to light.”

               Then the poison had been forced down Doil’s throat, and he had awoken in spasmodic coughs, feeling like some slick substance was still coating the inside of his mouth.  It was obvious enough what the dream reflected, and it contained no miraculous answers to Doil’s problems.  There was no substitute for continued research, however much Doil wished to never read another of Vere’s sonnets ever again.

               Finding where he had left off, Doil began to toil through more sonnets.  He read twenty-eight more sonnets about the mental trials Vere underwent, and then another twenty eight sonnets covering the spiritual trials.  Then there were the fourteen sonnets describing Vere’s escape from captivity, all before he even reached the page he had uncovered before giving up the previous night.  It was, as he had seen, nothing but a list of fungi.  He started to skim it, but there were too many footnotes, and too many invented fungus names rhymed with each other.  With a sigh, he flipped to the footnotes.  Two footnotes in, he sat up straighter in his chair, his eyes widened, and he started reading more carefully.  Then he ran to find Aiga.

               A servant handed Aiga another basket of herbs she had requested, and she took them with a murmur of thanks, hurrying over to the stove she had ordered set up in the corner of Merolate’s great hall.  It still felt odd to her to accept medicines she had not picked herself, but everything about her life now was so much bigger, bigger, bigger than she had ever before imagined.  Makeshift sleeping pallets had been set up in long rows and columns, completely filling the hall, and every one of them hosted a patient.  With so many, there was no time for her to pick her own herbs and roots and berries.

               Maybe even stranger was the way the servants and even the guardsmen treated her like some kind of noblewoman, bobbing curtseys and bows whenever they interacted with her, and leaping to obey whenever she made the most offhanded request.  Her mother would have scoffed, said she was out of her depth and to return to what she knew.  Her mother would have never allowed her to go to the city in the first place.  Aiga didn’t care; she was helping people, and on a scale she could no more have imagined than she could have imagined being too busy to collect her own ingredients.

               It might have been satisfying, except that all of her efforts were inadequate.  Potion after potion failed to purge the contaminant from the systems of the afflicted.  Hundreds of the sick came through the hall, and hundreds of healing draughts had offered only temporary relief of symptoms.  In the stronger patients, that was enough to give them a chance to recover, but there were many still who died.  There was a whole team of servants dedicated to carting the deceased from the hall each morning and evening, making room for new patients, new people waiting to die.

               She was so busy, busy, busy that she had taken to preparing a tea of cochan bark for herself twice, sometimes even thrice a day, though she knew the stimulant could be dangerous in large doses, and addictive even in small ones.  There seemed little choice, if she were to hope to treat even half of the patients who were coming to see her.  It was a far cry from the deserted castle she had found when Doil had first brought her into the city.  In all the noise, she still found the time to check on Kiluron at least once each day.

               The Prime’s state was still worsening; she could see that much after five days.  The catatonic state into which her tincture had consigned him slowed his functions almost to the point of death – the untrained often thought people treated in such a way really were dead – but they still had to continue, or else he would truly die, and as long as they continued, whatever contaminant was killing him would only be slowed, not stopped.  She treated his symptoms, too, but she feared to mix too many other medicines with the hurnbottom, weltinberry petals, and hithick bark broth.

               Going to the corner stove, Aiga trimmed the herbs that the servant had brought her, and added them to the constantly simmering tea kettle.  It was a simple brew that helped relax the sick; she had taken to dosing everyone with it as soon as they were brought inside, since it could do no harm.

               At first, she had spoken with every patient who was brought to the hall, learning their names and their families and their professions, but she could no longer speak to them of such personal matters.  Too many were dying, dying, dying, and it was so much harder when she knew just how those deaths would ripple outwards, deaths caused by her failures.  Each one seemed to call up a little voice in her head, telling her that if she had just been willing to give more of herself, she could have saved them.  Her mother had always said she would stop feeling such losses so closely, but she never had.  Doubtless it was one of the many ways she had failed her mother.

               Running feet echoed through the hall, and she turned to find Doil in a state of uncharacteristic excitement coming towards her.  Even in her limited interactions with the Prime’s Advisor, she had realized he rarely presented any attitude but reserved.  Now, breathless, he waved for her to listen.

               “We were all wrong!” he exclaimed.  “Me, Vere, everyone.  It’s not a humor, and it’s not a poison or toxin.”

               “Then what is it?” Aiga asked, though she wondered how this would help her to treat her patients.  Knowing what was causing the illnesses seemed incidental to her, compared to finding a treatment.

               “Fungi,” Doil answered.  “The symptoms are the result of a fungus trying to grow in a person.”

               Aiga frowned.  “A mushroom?  I think I would have noticed if anyone had mushrooms growing in them.”

               Doil shook his head.  “It’s not that simple.  This is a fungus from Nycheril that incubates in mammalian hosts and develops a distributed mycelial network.  In a small percentage of human hosts, it can successfully coexist, completely indiscernible except under very specific conditions, but in most it is deadly.  Either way, it survives long enough to release spores through the mouth and nose.  That’s how it spread here, and that’s why we haven’t been able to figure it out.  It’s native to Nycheril; Vere wrote about it in his report on his expedition there.”

               It took Aiga several moments to process Doil’s words, and even then there were parts she did not understand.  “So…does that mean all we need to do is to kill the fungus?”

               Doil’s excitement faded with his confidence.  “I think so,” he admitted.  “I don’t know, exactly.  On Nycheril, they exile people as soon as they start showing symptoms, and I think the humid air prevents the spores from spreading as far.”

               “Well, it’s worth trying,” Aiga decided.  She began listing ingredients she would need, based on what she would use to combat any other fungal infestation.  She remembered her mother telling her about a man who had died with a mushroom the size of a fist growing in his stomach, and shuddered.  “Much better than the alternative.”

               In three days, she tried fifty different potions, before she finally found one that worked.  The woman she had treated with the successful drought actually kissed Aiga’s hand before hurrying from the hall to show her recovery to her family.  It was some relief when Doil took over the logistics of producing and administering the potion to everyone in the city who displayed symptoms.  That left Aiga free to turn her attentions on the real reason she had come to Merolate.  She personally administered the cure to Kiluron after weaning him from his catatonic state.

               “Work, work, work,” she whispered, not sure if it was a description or a plea or a prayer.  Then she sat back with nothing to do but wait and see if Kiluron would recover.  No one else she had treated had been so far along in the course of the disease.

               By the following morning, Kiluron’s condition was unimproved.  In fact, he seemed even worse than before, and Aiga worried that she should never had taken him from his coma.  She could barely find his pulse, and he was sweaty and feverish.  Having come to check on the Prime, Doil shared Aiga’s concern.

               “It didn’t work?” he asked, unnecessarily.

               Aiga could only shake her head.

               “There must be something else we can try,” Doil insisted.  “A larger dose, perhaps?  We could try changing the formula slightly, or maybe there is another, similar formula you have used before that you could modify, as you did to create this one?”

               Shaking her head again, Aiga fought down the growing tightness in her throat.  “A larger dose would kill him,” she whispered.  “And he wouldn’t survive long enough for us to develop and test a different formula.”

               “Well, that’s not good enough!” Doil snapped.  “We have to try something else.  He…he’s the Prime.  There’s no sub-Prime, no clear line of succession.  If he dies now, Merolate…” he took a shuddered breath.  “We can’t let him die.”  He looked at Aiga, and through the words about succession and geopolitical stability, Aiga saw the same look she had seen in so many others, both in her own work, and when she had worked with her mother.  It was the look of someone who could not imagine a world without the person who was dying, could not imagine their own life without them.

               For a long time, Aiga could only stand in silence, staring at the dying body on the magnificent bed.  Doil had backed away and was pacing, trying to collect himself.  “There…there is one last thing I could try,” she said.

               Doil’s response was immediate.  “Anything.  I’ll collect whatever resources you need.  Give me the formula, and I’ll have the servants back with what we need before noon.”  When Aiga gave no response, he continued.  “I promise that there will be no retribution,” he said.  “I – I’ll see that the Prime signs a complete pardon for you, an official authorization for your use of magic.  You can have your pick of reward from the vault – you’ve done enough to merit that already, really.”  Still Aiga was silent.

               “There’s nothing you can do to help.”  She took a shuddering, shuddering, shuddering breath.  “This is something I must do alone.  If you would leave us, please?”  She scrubbed her eyes with her wrists, unsure even for whom she was crying.

               “I – alright.”  Doil hesitated, though it was no longer from fear of leaving her alone with the Prime.  “How will I know when I can come back inside?”

               Swallowing seemed the hardest thing she had ever done.  “You’ll know.”  Her voice was barely even a whisper, and it was an immense relief when Doil finally, after hesitating awkwardly by the door, left her alone with Kiluron.

               In the resulting silence, Aiga struggled to master herself, and managed to contain her sobs, though her breathing was still unsteady.  She walked forward and looked down at the Prime’s face, and then out the window.  “Well, Mother, isn’t this the ultimate irony?” she asked the empty air.  “The ultimate failure?  Not only could I not kill the Prime, as you demanded, now I…” she choked off, unable to verbalize it, afraid that if she did she would not be able to follow through with what she knew she must do.

               There was, of course, no response from her mother.  Her mother was dead, dead, dead, though her shadow still loomed large over everything Aiga ever did.  She was not the witch her mother was.  Still, her mother had never sacrificed herself for anyone.  That had been too much for her, that ultimate expression of who and what a witch was supposed to be, and so she had wasted her own death.  That seemed little better than the blasphemy Aiga intended.

               Pushing back the bedsheets, Aiga drew her knife, the one Kiluron had given to her, and pressed it to the Prime’s chest.  In a swift motion, she cut away the cloth, baring the pale, clammy skin.  It felt alien and cold when she pressed her bare left hand there.  Her right hand trembled so that she almost dropped the knife, but she pressed the tip against her own breast to steady it.  There could be no mistake; she would not have the courage to do it twice.

               Her heart pounded beneath the tip of that knife, the vibrations amplifying her unsteadiness and making her breathing almost as irregular as Kiluron’s.  Twice, she thought she was ready, but then her courage faltered and she was left panting and sweaty, standing alone in the room with a dying man.  A man who had saved her life.  A man for whom she would now give her own.  With a final, deep breath, Aiga closed her eyes, and focused her will.  Her trembling ceased, and with a single, sharp motion she delivered the knife to its final sheath.

               When the door could be heard opening behind him, Doil whirled around from his restless pacing, and stared in shock at the figure who had opened the door.

               “Well don’t just stand there looking like a netted fish!” Kiluron shouted.  There was blood all over his bare chest.  “We need a healer, immediately!”

               Words formed in Doil’s mind, but failed to reach his lips.  “I – where’s Aiga?  She was supposed to be with you…” he took in the blood, and paled.  “She didn’t?”

               “I said get a healer!” Kiluron ordered.  He gestured back towards the room.  “She…she’s in there, but she’s…”

               Kiluron’s unexpected vigor, as if he had never even been sick, the blood on his chest, his confused rantings, Aiga’s odd behavior…too late, Doil put the pieces together, and rushed past Kiluron into the Prime’s chambers, earning himself a curse from the Prime himself, who was still shouting for servants and healers.  Reaching the Prime’s bedside, Doil dropped to his knees on the bloodied carpet where Aiga had fallen, and touched the pale neck.  “My lord,” he whispered, “my lord, it’s too late.  She’s already gone.”

               Deflated, Kiluron sunk onto the bed.  “That’s not good enough, Doil.  Why?  What happened?”

               “She saved the whole city,” Doil said.  “The whole Union, really.  She cured the plague, but you were too far along…” he forced himself to meet Kiluron’s eyes.  “I remember reading about healers in the oldest days of Lufilna, before the Balancer faith existed at all, who could bring someone back from the very brink of death by sacrificing themselves.  I think Aiga balanced your life with her own.”

               There was a hollowness in Kiluron’s voice when he eventually replied.  “I don’t deserve that.”

               It took almost as long for Doil to answer.  “That is the nature of being Prime.  Your life means more than the life of a mere man to many, many people.”

               That did not sit well with Kiluron, but after a few moments he peered more closely at Doil.  “Are you alright?  You look completely exhausted.  At least the plague is cured, right?  That’s didn’t take very long at all.  It’s only been a couple of days.”

               Doil stared at him.  “My lord, you’ve been on your deathbed for over twenty days!”

               Kiluron blinked.  “I have?  Doesn’t feel like it.”  He squinted.  “Are you trying to play some kind of a joke on me?  Because this really doesn’t seem like the time…”

               “No,” Doil protested, “you really have been unconscious, in bed, for that long.”

               “Oh.”  Kiluron paused again.  “Well, I guess I have a lot of catching up to do.  But there’s something we need to do first.”  He looked down at Aiga.  “I want her cremated with full honors,” he said, “as a here to Merolate.”  He looked over at Doil.  “Can we do that?”

               For once, Doil did not hesitate.  “Yes, my lord.  I think that is wholly appropriate.”

               It was a relief for doil when he finally was able to go to bed that night, and for the first time since Kiluron had taken ill, he slept unbothered by worries about contaminants, the Union, or his friend, the Prime.

The end of Blood Magic S2:E7: Contaminant, Part Two. 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 August 31st, 2021.

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