Drawing rein on a hilltop, Borivat looked upon Merolate City.  It was only early spring, but the place appeared a bustle of activity.  Lines of men, carts, and blummoxes snaked in and out, the gates were thrown wide, and even from this distance, Borivat thought he could hear the shouts of laborers about their tasks, the clanging of metal tools, and the thundering of stonework.  Such energy reassured him; this was not a city ruined by conquest.  Yet at Prime Kiluron’s direction, it would never be quite the same city it had been before the Pifechan invasion.  The same energy that would rebuild it anew where thundercasters had destroyed it left Borivat feeling every moment of his old age.

               The caravan with which he travelled did not stop for him, parting around him and continuing towards the city.  Murmurs of relief and excitement accompanied them on this last stage of their journey.  By evening these people, thrown together by necessity and grown close in the trials since being driven from their homes, would be dispersed to their own microcosms in and around Merolate, most likely to never again gather in such a way.  It was a new beginning, a sign of renewal and regrowth and recovery just as surely as the green buds on the branches and the flowers pushing up from the ground, but to Borivat it felt like an ending.  So many things did, these days.

               “You appear a man lost in deep thoughts,” an old voice interrupted from behind Borivat.  “Are you not pleased by your Prime’s victory?”

               Borivat did not need to turn his head to know who had spoken to him.  Last in the caravan with which he had been travelling these past days, the Blood Priests, such as had survived the escape from the Isle of Blood, the flight from Merolate, and the desperate days of the Pifechan invasion, were now making their way past him.  There was a solemn deliberateness about their motions, nothing of the eagerness that marked the passage of the others with whom they travelled.  Though their red robes were unchanged, they appeared a people in mourning, kept always apart from the others in the caravan.  No one could have said whose choice that was, or if it was mutual.  Sometimes, Borivat felt he shared their attitude.  “Prime Kiluron has accomplished a great thing,” he answered High Priest Yorin’s question.  “Many, in truth.  He is a Prime who shall be well remembered.”

               Hooves clopped, and High Priest Yorin reined up beside Borivat, and looked long at the old adviser.  “Yet you dread returning to your home?” he asked.

               “Yes.”  It was a clipped answer, and Borivat grimaced.  Perhaps he should be diplomatic, but this conversation was not occurring in an official capacity.  In truth, Borivat did not know if he even deserved an official capacity any longer.

               To his annoyance, Yorin nodded in understanding.  “Age brings with it perspective.  Not necessarily wisdom – that lies in applying and interpreting that perspective – but perspective.  From the vantage of youth, one can look upon a mountain to move, and see only one rock after another, with no understanding of the monumental nature of the task at hand.  Not so men like you and me.  We have seen too often the mountains left half-moved by the young men, broken in the moving.”

               “The men, or the mountains?” Borivat asked, the question as bitter as he felt.  He did not want to speak with Yorin, but there seemed no escape from the conversation.  Most, he feared where the conversation would go.  Some regrets were his to bear, and the High Priest of the Isle of Blood had already been too involved in this one, far too long involved.

               Yorin chuckled.  “Hm.  Both, perhaps.”  He was silent then, and something that could almost have been companionship stretched between the two aged, mounted figures.  It made Borivat’s skin crawl.

               “Well, neither of us it is getting any younger,” he muttered, and prodded his horse into motion.  Yorin followed suit, and they rode together towards the ruins of their homes.

               For a city that had been conquered, then reconquered and liberated, Merolate was in surprisingly fair condition.  Its outer walls were largely undamaged, since the Pifechan attack had come by sea, and the castle had not been sacked at all.  Many homes and other buildings had been destroyed by the thundercasters, but those were already under repair.  Worst off were the docks, which was where most of the bustle of men and stone was directed.  It would be some time before Merolate’s harbor was a sanctuary again, and Borivat wondered if they would ever feel it was as secure, knowing what they now knew of what lay over the wide Cruman Ocean.

               A lad was standing at the wide-open gates in a baggy uniform, kicking the dust with boots that moved too much on his feet as he nominally watched for suspicious activity in the intermittent stream of people and goods flowing into the city.  He blanched upon spotting the red robes of the Blood Priests, stiffened further upon noticing the official sigil on Borivat’s cloak, and stood to an approximation of a position of attention.  “Ah, er, my lord…Sir, that is…” he stammered.

               The Blood Priests had stopped and were watching the boy intently, so Borivat rode up and bent down from his horse to present his personal seal.  “We’re an officially authorized party with special dispensation from the Prime to travel through Merolate.  I am escorting the Blood Priests to the Isle of Blood.”

               Relief was obvious in the boy’s voice as he pretended to inspect Borivat’s seal.  Just the pretext of a higher authority would have been enough for the lad, whose training had not prepared him for a procession of evil sorcerers come to his gate.  “Very good, Sir.  Welcome back.”

               “Thank you, Guardsman,” Borivat replied.  It spoke to how devastating the war had been, no matter how brief, that someone so young would be tasked with guarding the gates.  Everything about the city felt transient, a sense Borivat did not appreciate in a city as old as Merolate.  This was not some frontier boomtown, and yet it felt as likely to bust.

               They rode on into the city.  Even amidst the chaos of the return, the Blood Priests drew attention, but not the kind of attention that several dozen Blood Priests riding through Merolate in their red robes would have drawn in normal times.  They were noted, but they were as quickly dismissed as just one more aberration in a very strange world.  At least there were people in Merolate again, working to rebuild their lives and pick up the pieces that had been left behind in the flight from the Pifechans.  That reassured Borivat.

               Past the castle they rode, towards the docks, and the energy increased the closer they drew to the harbor.  Though Borivat longed to return to the castle, to take stock of his own rooms and begin putting his own, dry life back into order, there were still tasks remaining to him: one official, and one personal.  He wasn’t certain which was looming over him more heavily.

               At the docks, the evidence of the destruction wrought by the Pifechans was most acute, but so too was there the most evidence of Merolate’s regeneration.  New wooden docks were beginning to spear out into the harbor, with a few small boats already secured to them.  Stone was being replaced and reworked, and in the distance, near the mouth of the harbor, Borivat could just squint and make out people working to form new structures.

               “Remarkable,” High Priest Yorin observed, as the rest of his Blood Priests settled themselves into boats supplied for the purpose.  They would have to row themselves, and only six could sit in each boat, but the boats were sound and made from freshly felled timbers, supplied by Merolate and donated to the Isle of Blood.  “It is enough to make me think that perhaps the Balancers will also recover, in time.”

               Borivat just grunted and settled himself into the prow of one of the rowboats, deliberately choosing the seat upon which only one person could sit.  To his relief, Yorin sat on the opposite side of the boat, and four Blood Priests occupied the two middle benches.  When all were ready, they took up the oars, and pushed away from Merolate and out into the harbor, paddling awkwardly out towards the Isle.  Quiet conversation flitted between the craft, more optimistic than Borivat had heard from the Priests since the evacuation, though there was sadness as well.  Borivat had to swallow past a lump in his own throat.

               As the Isle came into view, Borivat sucked in a sharp breath; if Merolate had been relatively spared the usual ravages of invasion, the Isle had experienced the opposite.  The compound of obsidian buildings had been smashed, the towers collapsed and strewn over the island, and craters dotted the shore, even on the Isle’s more sheltered side.  As the boats drew closer, shards of obsidian in sizes from razor-sharp boulders to finger-sized bits like shattered glass could be discerned dotting the land like the detritus of a retreating glacier.  It almost seemed wrong that the craters no longer smoked, but were cold and inert.

               The rowers slowed as the boats approached the Isle.  Little remained of the always decrepit dock, so they beached the rowboats on the shore, leaping out and dragging them onto the sand.  Had Borivat been asked, he would have said that where the Isle was not jagged, forbidding rock it was black sand, but the sand was quite ordinary, and there was no trace of the perpetual mist that usually shrouded the Isle and its sanctuary.  Indeed, the island looked quite banal, save for the ruin, and even that appeared less ominous in the bright sunlight of the afternoon.

               Levering himself out of the rowboat, High Priest Yorin shuffled slowly up from the shore.  There was a road that led to what had been the main gates; it was mostly intact, save for a few craters marring its paved surface.  The other Blood Priests had congregated in a loose grouping near the shore, eyeing their old home and appearing wary even of approaching it.  Against his own feelings, Borivat found himself sympathizing with their plight.

               When Yorin had passed through the surviving Blood Priests, he turned back to face them.  “Like many of you, this place has been my home for so long that I barely recall where I lived before.  And though it does not look like our home anymore, though it is not welcoming us as it has, though it is haunted by sour memories and the taste of defeat, it is still home.  It is our home, and we must now set ourselves to the task of picking up the pieces and rebuilding what has been destroyed.  This is our nature, to balance such destruction with creation, though it be a long and difficult task.”

               It was not a speech that appealed to Borivat, but the Blood Priests were nodding.  Perhaps part of his distance was his dread for what he knew would come next.  High Priest Yorin bowed his head.  “There is much that we must do to render this place habitable even for tonight, but a more important task confronts us first.  Our friends, our companions, our siblings in Balance, gave their lives that we might live and carry on our solemn duty.  We owe it to them that we honor and remember their sacrifice, first and foremost, now that we have returned.”

               To the southern face of the island the Blood Priests went, and Borivat with dragging steps accompanied them.  He had not been there to witness the sacrifice of which Yorin spoke, but he had heard a little of it from Kiluron and Doil, and Yorin had told him personally of who had been martyred.  It was the only reason Borivat had come.

               “It is good that you are here for this,” Yorin said, walking behind his followers and alongside Borivat.  “You are of course not obligated to participate in our ritual, if you would be more comfortable being only a witness, but know that you are welcome amongst our number.”

               “I…” Borivat had known this was coming, had been dreading and anticipating it, and he still did not know how to respond.  Everything in him recoiled from participating in some obscene ritual, and yet.  Whatever their flaws, Marie had made a life and a home on the Isle, after Borivat’s own failures.  If this was how her memory would be honored, then perhaps it was the least he could do to overcome his personal revulsion.  He had regrets enough where Marie was concerned without adding another to them.  “Alright.”

               His answer appeared to please Yorin, who patted his shoulder and then increased his pace to walk amongst his Balancers.  Borivat continued to lag behind, preferring the unpleasant company of his own thoughts to that of the Blood Priests.  He was there only to honor Marie’s memory, and then he could get back to Merolate, and what was left of his role.

               That made him wonder how much he was really distraught about Marie’s death, and how much he was instead finding an excuse to mourn for his own failures.  When Kiluron and Doil had asked him to serve as the Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands, it had seemed a perfect compromise, a way to remain involved in the government, to continue to be present to advise and support the young leaders, instead of retiring so soon.  Yet if he had been truly qualified, he would have found a way to ensure that relations with the Pifechans during their visit would not have deteriorated into an invasion, or at least predicted that an attack was likely.  As unreasonable as it was, he blamed himself for not doing enough to predict or prevent the Pifechan invasion and its attendant destruction.

               At least there were no bodies of martyred Blood Priests to greet them when they reached the Isle’s far side, although Borivat tried not to think about what the Pifechans might have done with them.  He knew nothing of their funerary practices, but he did not want to believe that they bestowed a proper cremation upon their enemies.  Nor, for that matter, did he know precisely what was involved in Balancer funeral practices, aside from that they considered it customary to bury bodies.  He hoped the rest of their tradition was less obscene.

               One the Isle’s southern side, with the tide lapping against their boots, the Balancers gathered into a circle of width such that if each held their arms outstretched, their fingertips would not quite be able to touch.  Borivat hesitated, but Yorin gestured in welcome, and with trepidation and reluctance Borivat joined the circle.

               “Our friends are dead, and we mourn them.  But as the day follows the night, and the summer follows the winter, so to shall life follow death.  This is the way of Balance.”  The other Priests echoed High Priest Yorin’s last words, but it did not have the air of a ritual cant so much as it did a reassurance, and affirmation, maybe even a reminder.  Perhaps it was not always easy for even the Blood Priests to believe in the inevitability of Balance.

               “Remember our friends, that they might remember us,” Yorin continued.  “Know that in death they remain part of the Balance.”

               Then he removed a slim, obsidian knife from his robes, and Borivat’s stomach clenched.  He almost left then; the words had been nice enough, but he was not prepared to shed his own blood in some perverse religious ceremony.  Remembrance was enough for him.  Yet he could not bring himself to move.  Instead, he watched as Yorin grasped the blade of the knife in his left hand, and slowly clenched his fist around it, until blood dribbled down and fell upon the sand.

               No magic flared; no thunder rolled in the heavens.  Unclenching his hand, Yorin passed the bloodied knife to the Blood Priest to his left, who repeated the same gesture, letting her blood plop in hot, fat drops to the gritty grains before passing the knife on.  It would reach Borivat soon, and he had not moved.  If he didn’t move soon, the decision would be made for him; he wondered if that was what he secretly hoped would happen.

               He glanced to the side and found a Blood Priest holding out a bloody knife for him to take.  Borivat’s indecision froze him in place, but there really was no choice any longer.  He had to take the knife.  It sent a shudder of revulsion through him as his fingers wrapped around the hilt, and a couple drops of blood rolled from the tip.  Perhaps he could just pass the knife on to the next Priest.

               Everyone was watching him, but no one said anything, and Borivat still stood frozen with the knife held in his right hand like he was afraid to grasp it too tightly lest the hilt somehow accomplish the blade’s purpose.  This…this was illegal.  He shouldn’t have come, shouldn’t have agreed to be part of this ritual.  He started to extend the knife towards the next Blood Priest in the circle, keeping his head bowed and his eyes closed.  Somehow, doing the right thing seemed more shameful than participating.

               “Borivat,” High Priest Yorin’s voice seemed far away, and though all he said was Borivat’s name, it had the tone of a gentle prompting.

               The Blood Priest beside him did not take the knife, leaving Borivat standing with his arm outstretched.  He slowly brought the knife back to his chest, and mechanically turned it around, until he was clasping the flat of the blade with his index finger and thumb.  It was lighter and thicker than a metal dagger, and Borivat stared into its depths as if there were answers to find within the obsidian fragment.  He closed his eyes, and before he could think about it further, clenched his fist around the knife.

               It surprised him how easily the blade parted his skin, and soon he felt hot blood running over his skin, collecting by his pinky before leaping down to the ground in heavy drops that carved little craters in the sand between his feet.  His hand opened spasmodically on the tool, and it dropped with his blood to the ground.  He had to bend down and retrieve the knife, trembling all over to such an extent that the Blood Priest beside him could barely snatch it up as it wavered.  Borivat wrapped his hand in a handkerchief and then clasped it close to his chest, trying to hide the evidence of his weakness from the world.

               Around the rest of the circle went the knife, until it was returned to High Priest Yorin, who wiped the blade clean and returned it to his robes.  He held his hands over the drops of dried blood at his feet.  “All things have Balance, and the Balance of death is life.  This is the way of Balance.”

               Now, the blood that had been spilled at each of their feet began to stir, spreading out and forming a thin circle just within the circle of people.  There was a brief flare of light, and then it faded, vanishing entirely and leaving the circle of sand without a trace of what had transpired.  Yorin bowed his head.  “So it shall be.”

               The Blood Priests began to disperse, and Borivat was left alone.  High Priest Yorin met his gaze and nodded respectfully, and then left Borivat to himself.  He stood long by that circle, that was no longer a circle, just a patch of sand.  He wondered what the entire ritual had accomplished.

               Taking a deep breath, he was about to turn and walk away when he noticed a flutter of movement near his feet.  Bending down, he stared in wonder as a flower pushed its way up from the sand before his eyes, and more began to grow all around the circle, and within it, too.  Stumbling backwards, Borivat rubbed at his eyes, and still witnessed flowers blossoming all through the circle.  When the movement finally stopped, there were perfect flowers carpeting all the ground within the circle, except at the very center where a sapling had begun pushing its way into the night, already taller than the flowers.

               Borivat made his way back around the island, now rubbing his eyes for a different reason.  He shoved a rowboat into the water, levered himself into it, and pushed out to sea.  It was finally time to go home.

               From a rocky promontory a short ride south of Merolate Kiluron watched sweaty men dragging nearly cubical blocks of stone half again their own height to the edge of the sea to cast them into the depths.  They were forming pilings on a scale unlike anything Kiluron had ever encountered, the genesis of an engineering project that staggered his imagination.  Evry, amidst much grumbling and demands for her promised vessel, oversaw the work, surrounded by drawings and calculations that even Doil could not interpret for him.

               It was only one of the concerns that had kept him from finding more than a few naps in the scores of days since Merolate had been liberated.  Kiluron wished that he could take credit for that, but in truth it had been Doil and the Gruordvwrold who had brought them the victory that counted.  He did not let that worry him unduly, content to count his good fortune in seeing the Pifechan invaders driven off; he had done his part.  There were more than enough real worries to keep him occupied.  All around him the world was changing, and pillars of stone sunk into Merolate’s bay were only a symptom.

               “Do you think we’re doing the right thing, trusting her?” Kiluron asked.

               Standing beside him, Doil snatched at his hood to keep it from blowing back in the stiff breeze, and sniffled.  “I don’t know, my lord.  I wish that I knew enough to verify her work, but I don’t think there’s anyone this side of the ocean who could do that.  If nothing else, though, we can be confident that she is not working for the Pifechans.”

               “Unless they offer to take her back,” Kiluron replied.  He had no illusions about Evry’s loyalty.  In Vere’s words, the captured engineer was once a turncoat, always a turncoat, and could be counted on only to further her own interests.  Though Kiluron was confident enough that he understood those interests to put her in charge of the sea defense project, he still worried.  This was a once a century kind of project and required a preposterous level of resources and manpower at a time when Merolate was still reeling from successive disasters and needed those resources just to rebuild.

               Even after the morning’s tour, Kiluron wasn’t certain he understood what Evry was building for the Union.  After the last of the Pifechans left Lufilna and their ships returned into the east, Vere had analyzed the conflict and determined that the largest vulnerability was the ease with which the Pifechans could dominate the seas.  Building stronger port defenses was the most approachable solution, but Evry had scoffed at their plans for raising and lowering heavy chains strung across the entrances to bays and harbors, saying that the metal-clad Pifechan naval vessels would shear through such defenses.  What they needed, she claimed, were walls.

               Walls Kiluron could understand, but the design she had submitted was far more complicated.  It involved narrowing the mouth of the harbor, building huge towers, and even more massive gates.  Two sets of gates, in fact, operating in series and driven by a team of two dozen oxen each, walking on circular tracks within the towers that had a radius equivalent to twenty men standing fingers to fingers with their arms outstretched.  The gates were supposed to be heavy enough to repel any ship, and sound enough to hold out water.  More oxen drove pumps, but they were unlike any pumps in Merolate, and Evry claimed they were powerful enough to raise and lower the water level between the gates.

               All of it intimidated Kiluron, but he was determined not to allow Merolate to remain vulnerable to an attack like the one that had nearly destroyed the Union.  The Pifechans had retreated, but there was no telling if and when they might return.  A miracle of sorts had saved them this time, not one upon which he cared to trust the fate of the Union in a future conflict.  He still didn’t know what they had given up in the heliblode or how it might affect them in the future, and Doil’s letter to High Priest Yorin had garnered no answers.

               He returned to the castle with Doil by noon.  People whose homes had been destroyed, whose husbands and sons had been killed in battle against the Pifechans, who had spent almost half a year living as refugees in their own country, cheered and called out praises and salutations as he rode past them, and he did his best to return their enthusiasm.  Kiluron felt he had failed these people, but they felt he had saved them.  As Doil had pointed out more than once, they were both parts of right.

               Borivat was awaiting him outside the audience chamber; Kiluron thought the man appeared to have aged drastically, although the haggard and harried appearance that living in a state of occupation had lent to him had retreated.  One of his hands was wrapped in a bandage, and Kiluron caught Doil’s eyes going up at that, but Kiluron put it from his mind.  “The ambassador?” Kiluron asked.

               Borivat gestured towards the audience chamber.  “Awaiting your arrival, my lord.  Though ‘ambassador’ is not precisely the correct term for Ala’Durai.  She is most properly a chieftain or a king, and she achieved a consensus amongst the other leaders of eastern Nycheril to represent their interests here in Merolate.  That means she now speaks, with more or less authority, for most of the tribes with whom we have established consistent contact in Nycheril.”

               “Sounds perfect.”  Kiluron adjusted his cuffs and glanced at Doil.  “Anything else I should know before I go in there?”

               “Her coalition is thought to be unstable, and therefore her position also,” Borivat answered.  “The coastal tribes are dramatically different from the interior tribes, and there are elements of both paradigms within the tribes that supported her journey here.  You have a certain amount of power to determine if you continue to negotiate with her, or if someone else takes her place.  Someone else may be a weaker personality and therefore more amenable to Union suggestions, but may also have less control over the tribes.”

               Kiluron rubbed the back of his neck and took a deep breath.  “Alright.  I guess I’m ready.”  Borivat bowed, Doil nodded to him encouragingly, and the guard at the door swung it open for him, announcing him with full titles in a booming voice.  Kiluron resisted feeling like he was walking into some barbaric gladiatorial contest.

               The king awaiting him was wrapped in three cloaks and was warming her hands over the decorative candles placed upon the table, but her dark eyes showed nothing of weakness as she looked up to observe Kiluron’s entrance.  The whites seemed especially vivid against irises nearly as black as her pupils, and her face was broad, with prominent bones accented further by white painted lines and symbols.  Kiluron wondered what those markings meant.

               Stepping out from around the table, Ala’Durai approached Kiluron, letting her cloaks fall open as she walked so that they fluttered freely behind her.  As she approached, she drew a dagger of gold, and Kiluron’s hand drifted towards his sword, but the king stopped a pace away from him, and held out the dagger.

               “In peace do I greet you, Chieftain of the Lufils,” Ala’Durai said.  Her words were clear and bore only a trace of accent, though they were heavy with practice and deliberate thought.

               Accepting the proffered dagger, Kiluron hesitated, and then reached down and drew his ceremonial saber.  “In peace do I welcome you to Merolate, King of the Eastern Tribes.”  He wished that he had a better form of address for her, but this seemed appropriate.

               The woman’s smile was startlingly white and seemed not to convey quite the same emotion as it would in a Lufilnan.  With their greetings exchanged, Kiluron gestured that they should sit, and Ala’Durai did so with some discomfort, watching Kiluron carefully.  Perhaps they did not have chairs of the same type in Nycheril.  “How did you come to be leader of the tribes?”

               Ala’Durai grinned, and this expression was less ambiguous.  “Four of my cousins, I poisoned them with the blood of the green speckled blue frog.  Two I slayed in trial by combat before all the witnesses of the gods and of mortals.  Thrice was I bitten by the black-mouthed snake, and five times poisoned with the essences of the night-mare’s flower, and each time I survived.  In this way it was decided that my mettle was such as to make me equal to this task.”

               Kiluron swallowed and was further relieved that he had not mistook the woman’s intentions with the dagger.  “Well, you’re not going to get poisoned here,” he assured her, though he wondered if she would somehow find that offensive.

               “Already have I suffered agonies in this northern land, with its frigid air that bites and stings like the worst of the gods’ insects sent to punish the befouled.”  Ala’Durai did not say this like it was a problem; she sounded proud of it.  “I am eager to fight this battle with you.”

               Hoping that this was a question of an imperfect command of the language, Kiluron nodded.  “As am I.”  It seemed the appropriate response.  “Why have you come here, Ala’Durai?”  He thought he knew the answer, but he wanted to know what she would say.  It also delayed the uncomfortable confrontation that he had been dreading since yesterday.

               Ala’Durai’s answer was immediate.  “To demand a better arrangement.”

               So much for delaying the confrontation.  Kiluron crossed his arms.  “Our traders continue to compensate the tribes of Nycheril in accordance with the individual agreements entered into upon contact.”  He hated sounding so formal, but Doil had made him understand the necessity.  This was a sort of intimidation that had nothing to do with physical force.

               “The tribes have sent me on their collective behalf to demand a new agreement.  Or all shall cease trading with your ships.”  Ala’Durai did not sound intimidated.

               “Then stop trading,” Kiluron replied.  “We have trade arrangements across the Nycheril continent.  Your coalition is only a minor part of our trade with your continent.”  It was a lie, but there was no way for Ala’Durai to know that, since communication between tribes on different coasts of Nycheril was almost nonexistent.  The amount of communication that had gone into creating just Ala’Durai’s coalition was unprecedented and had only been enabled by the Union’s trading presence.

               There was a chance that Ala’Durai would declare an end to trade, which would be an enormous problem.  Merolate did not have other major trading arrangements in Nycheril and was heavily leveraging the resources it could gain from that continent to rebuild and recover from the Pifechan invasion, and the disasters that had wracked the Union in the previous year.  Kiluron did not think it likely, however, and neither Borivat’s nor Doil’s analyses had, either.  The kind of person who would travel all the way to Merolate and gain control of an unprecedented coalition of tribes would not be inclined to unwind trade with Merolate entirely.

               “Better for both of us would be a new arrangement,” Ala’Durai insisted.  Kiluron secretly agreed, but he also knew that Merolate was likely unable to afford whatever new resources Ala’Durai might demand.

               “We already provide fair recompense,” Kiluron replied.  “To offer more would only reduce the overall trade and harm both of our causes.”  He was trusted Doil’s understanding of economics for this to be the truth; it made little sense to him.

               Ala’Durai shook her head.  “We do not demand more resources.  We want people, knowledge.  Sell us some of your shipbuilders, so that we can have traders of our own.”

               It was not what Kiluron had anticipated, and he was forced to digress from the rehearsed points that Borivat and Doil had prepared for him.  His instinct, though, was that this could be a boon for Merolate’s trade.  If the Merolate Navy was no longer forced to devote as many ships and crews to trading with Nycheril, because Nycheril was coming to Merolate, it would free up more funds and resources to defend the Merolate coast.  “We’ll show you how to build ships,” he said.  “In return, I demand that you trade exclusively with the Merolate Union.”

               A look of confusion passed over Ala’Durai’s face, and Kiluron cursed himself; he had forgotten that the tribes did not yet know that there were other nations on Lufilna besides Merolate.  Fortunately, Ala’Durai did not press the point.  “I accept.”

               There were no pleasantries exchanged; she seized Kiluron’s saber and presented it back to him.  “In peace do I leave you, Chieftain of the Lufils,” she said.

               Kiluron accepted the saber and offered Ala’Durai’s dagger back to her in return.  “And in peace may you travel, King of the Eastern Tribes.”

               An escort saw the king out, and Kiluron walked out to where Doil was waiting for him.  “Where’s Borivat?” he asked.  “I figured he’d want to hear all about it.”

               Doil shrugged.  “He asked if you would meet him in one of the studies when you were done.  He was acting rather oddly, actually.”

               “Oh.”  Kiluron shrugged.  “Well, alright.  I’ll just tell you then; I think the negotiations went well.  Not exactly as we planned, but well.  I told them that we would teach them how to build ships so that they could come trade with us, instead of us only going down to trade with them.”

               Doil pursed his lips.  “Admiral Ferl won’t be happy about that, but I agree that it may be of benefit to the Union in the long term, especially if we can maintain a technological advantage thanks to Evry’s knowledge of Pifechan shipbuilding techniques.”

               Kiluron nodded.  “Exactly.”  He hesitated a moment and sighed.  “Well, I guess I better go find out what Borivat wants.  Wouldn’t do for the Prime to keep anyone waiting.”

               The aromas of glue, parchment, and dust were heavy in the study’s air, mixing with the leather upholstery of the chairs and the sharp tones of varnished wood that made up the bookcases and the framed maps.  They were odors that ordinarily reassured Borivat and calmed him, helping to center his mind, but they were having no such effects this day.  It was all he could do to keep from standing up from the leather armchair to pace restlessly about the little study.

               He should have been worrying over Prime Kiluron’s negotiations with Ala’Durai, which were pivotal to Merolate’s recovery from the Pifechan war, but affairs of state were resolutely failing to stick within his mind as anything but a passing shadow.  His selfish focus kept returning to his own concerns, his upcoming personal negotiations with the Prime.  Perhaps that was more evidence that he was making the correct decision, a choice that was best for him and for the Union, but he was still unconvinced.  Too long he had been in government service to leave it lightly.

               With his head bowed over his fragile fingers, Borivat tried to force his mind away from continual orbits about his decision.  It did not serve him well to debate over and over again the same matter.  He had done that long enough on the boat back from the Isle of Blood and in the following days, and had arrived at the same conclusion in each new iteration.  The world was changing too fast for an old man like him, and he was too embittered, too jaded by his past to adapt as the Prime needed.  Part of the maturity and wisdom that was supposed to come with age meant knowing when it was time to be finished.

               Not that his supposed maturity and wisdom had aided him much on the Isle.  The scab beneath his bandage from his impulsive participation in Yorin’s diabolical ritual was beginning to peel away to reveal fresh, pink skin in a line across his palm.  He didn’t think it would scar, but for now it remained a glaring reminder of his transgressions and his failures.  Whether he referred to his failures with Marie, or to his failures in the Pifechan invasion, or to his failures of morality in participating in the Blood Priests’ ceremony, even he could not quite say.

               So caught up was he in his ruminations that he almost missed Kiluron pulling the door open and slipping into the study.  Belatedly rising to his feet, Borivat offered a bow even as Kiluron waved it away, leaning the door closed and regarding Borivat with an unreadable expression.

               “My lord,” Borivat began, “I appreciate you seeing me.  I promise that I won’t take too much of your time; I know that you have many things to which you could be attending…”

               Kiluron, his arms crossed, interrupted him.  “Borivat, you can skip the pleasantries.  Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

               “Oh, yes.”  Borivat’s carefully crafted statements wafted away on the Prime’s casualness, leaving him floundering for words.  He should not be so flustered talking to someone decades his junior, even if that someone was the Prime of Merolate.  One more reason, he supposed, that he was making the right decision.  “My lord, with your permission I would like to tender my resignation from the post of Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands.”

               Kiluron blinked.  “Um, why?”

               This question, at least, Borivat had anticipated.  “My lord, I think that it is clear from my failures with the Pifechan situation, among others, that I am no longer able to provide an appropriate bevy of services to you.  It would be a terrible disgrace to my lifetime of service to this Union for it to suffer further damage as a result of my advancing years and receding faculties.”

               “Your failures?”  Kiluron appeared genuinely puzzled.  “How did you fail with the Pifechans?  You’re not the one who let a foreign army occupy Merolate City and gallivant across the countryside.”

               “I should have given greater credit to the possibility of a Pifechan return after our first encounter with them.”  It seemed so obvious to Borivat that he struggled to explain it to the Prime.  “Had I been more capable in that initial meeting, perhaps the entire episode could have been avoided, and all of the lives saved.  At least I should have been able to provide more substantial advice during the occupation.”

               Prime Kiluron was shaking his head.  “No one could have anticipated any of this.  We even took precautions, and they proved inadequate.  Ferl and Vere aren’t trying to retire over it or blame themselves.  Why are you?”

               “I think that you would be better served by someone younger and better able to adapt to this changing world.”  It wasn’t exactly an answer, but it made sense to Borivat.  He hoped that the Prime would understand.

               “I don’t understand.”  Kiluron frowned.  “You and Doil are the best advisers I have.  You’re overqualified for your minister post, if anything.  I’ve thought about trying to create a new post so that you don’t feel the need to limit yourself to foreign matters.”

               Borivat blanched.  “Please, no, my lord.”  He calmed himself.  “Prime Kiluron, I no longer feel that I can adequately serve you and this Union.  It is wisdom of a sort, I think, to know the appropriate time at which to retire, and that time has come for me, I think.  Perhaps it is past come.  I have not the strength of mind that I once had.  Perhaps since Prime Wezzix’s death, really…”  He trailed off, thinking of the incriminating scab upon his palm.  “Better, I wonder, to go the way he went, rather than fade away into infirmity.”

               “But…you’re not that old!” Kiluron protested.  “I mean, you’re old compared to me.  But compared to someone like High Priest Yorin, you’re practically a youth!  And he sure doesn’t seem inclined to retire any time soon.  Why should you?  I think you still have a lot to offer.  You’re a voice of experience and wisdom in our councils.”

               The list of reasons he had prepared seemed suddenly inadequate, and Borivat felt his chance slipping away.  “Please, my lord, let me retire in peace.”

               Kiluron stared at Borivat for a long moment, and then firmed his stance.  Borivat saw the answer in the Prime’s eyes before he began to speak.  “Borivat, you and Doil are the only people on the council of ministers that I feel I can really trust.  I can’t lose that, not now of all times.  I’m sorry, but…I have to decline your request.”  The firmness left his voice, and he sagged as he made to open the door.  “I’m really sorry, Borivat.  I hope that you can understand.”

               Borivat’s answer was quiet and resigned, although he tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice.  “Yes, my lord.”  Then Kiluron was through the door, and Borivat was alone again in the study, left to wonder how to pull himself back together.

               He sank back into the stuffy armchair and felt himself creaking as much as the leather in an unsubtle emphasis of his points, which had made so little impact upon the Prime.  Perhaps Prime Kiluron was simply too young to understand what Borivat feared.  If Borivat had presented his arguments differently, had made his case more clearly…he shook his head for his own benefit, and sighed aloud.  It was too late, now.  He doubted that Kiluron would be receptive to further conversation on the topic.

               Grumbling to himself, Borivat levered himself to his feet and forced himself to leave the study.  If the Prime would not let him retire, then he still had work that needed to be done.  Rovis had been spared the ravages of the Pifechan invasion; they would need to be placated or countered in some way, so that they did not seek to take military advantage of Merolate’s fragile state.  Old Sankt had predictably surrendered to the Pifechans; now that the invaders had departed, Merolate would need to ascertain how Old Sankt’s situation might have been altered.

               There was the relationship with Nycheril to consider, of course, another situation changing faster than Borivat felt he could handle.  Strange, that he had not felt that way before the invasion, but he had not anticipated the tribes forming a coalition, much less sending a leader to represent all of their interests in Merolate.  He had not been able even to summon the curiosity to ask Kiluron how his negotiations with Ala’Durai had gone.  Merolate’s relationship with the Isle of Blood was also altered irrevocably by Kiluron’s decision to stage an evacuation from the Isle, and Borivat could not begin to fathom what those changes might be.  He shied away even from thinking about it; thoughts relating to the Isle were too painful and raw.  He wanted to hate them, but every time he thought of the Isle he now thought of the perfect grove, born of blood, where the priests had honored Marie and the others.

               Realizing that his aimless steps had been taking him towards his own rooms, Borivat made a deliberate point of changing his direction and making instead for the castle library.  For once, he went there not for the books, but he was disappointed to find that Doil was not in the library, and that no one else there had seen him recently.  With a sigh, Borivat gave up his search, and retired to his rooms.  Perhaps tomorrow he would be able to find Doil and ask him to present his case to the Prime.

               Sunlight glinted out of a pale blue sky, but Doil ignored it as he crossed the courtyard.  There were more exciting things than spending time in the spring sunlight, although he recognized that he could not entirely justify his interest as a matter of his official duties.  Still, it was important work, and there were security considerations.  Evry could not be trusted, no matter how confident Kiluron pretended to be about his understanding of her motivations, and until someone in Merolate learned enough of the Pifechan ‘science’ to verify her work they would be blind to any treachery.

               Pausing in his steps to release a violent sneeze, Doil then hurried on his way.  The Pifechan ship Guardcaptain Vere had captured had carried documents full of neat, orderly text and drawings such that even the forms of the letters implied a level of technology beyond anything Merolate was approaching.  The paper itself was remarkable, thinner and whiter than the types Merolate used, and made of no material Doil or anyone else had been able to identify.  With the Prime’s assent, Doil had ordered a small team of trusted scholars to transcribe the documents into Merolate’s language for study.

               With a new focus on security, this work was taking place in a chamber within Merolate’s vault.  Wiping his nose on a handkerchief, Doil wondered if he was the only person in the castle excited to be leaving the fresh spring air in favor of the vault’s dark, oppressive confines.  He noted the absence of the heliblode and wished yet again that he had been able to learn more about just what he had bargained away to the Gruordvwrold, but his inquiries to the Isle of Blood had been fruitless; either they knew nothing, or they were not interested in sharing what they knew.  The latter seemed a colossal arrogance after what Kiluron had done for them.

               Elia, the translation project’s chief, waved to Doil upon his entrance without looking up from her work, and a few of her fellow scholars nodded to him respectfully.  They were an eclectic bunch: Elia and her husband Drogu were linguists, but Pilop was a natural philosopher, and Reshter was an architect.  The four of them had been sworn to secrecy, and now spent most of each day ensconced in a vault chamber, surrounded by wooden crates full of the salvaged Pifechan documents.

               When she had finished her current translation, Elia looked up at Doil.  “We’re nearly finished translating all of the documents, I think.”  She bobbed her head in an odd figure-eight pattern.  “It’s hard to say; there are a lot of words left untranslated, but at least some of them are certainly proper nouns, and the others seem to be technical words whose meaning we can’t quite derive.”

               “That’s remarkable progress,” Doil commended.

               Flushing, Elia bobbed her head again.  “It was easier work than I expected, honestly.  Their alphabet is remarkably similar to ours, and the language itself, as you noted in your paper after their initial visit, is also oddly similar.  It’s almost like both the languages of Merolate and Pifecha share a handful of common ancestors, with some uncommon ancestors thrown in.  Translating Nycheril languages is harder, if I’m honest.”

               Pilop and Reshter looked up from their private conference over a large, stitched-together translation.  The Pifechan paper came in sheets larger than any single piece of Merolate paper could be, so Drogu had been forced to create a sort of puzzle of paper for the translation.  “Even if she could translate those technical words, I don’t know that it would do us much good,” Pilop noted.  “These are not explanative texts; they’re manuals on the operation of the Pifechan vessel and its maintenance, how the crew is supposed to conduct itself, a few pieces of literature, extensive logbooks.  They’re not going to explain the principles upon which their technology is based, and I fear that it’s all quite beyond me.”

               Reshter frowned.  “Well, I guess that’s true, but I feel like I’m close to understanding the basics.  Couldn’t build one myself, I mean, but I think I can tell you how it works.  Somehow, this part here,” he indicated a sketch near the center of the collection of pages, “causes this part here to rotate, which connects to all of these other parts with all of these different shafts and gears and belts, and eventually it all goes out to those giant wheels on the sides of the ship and makes them rotate.  That’s how they move.”

               “It must have something to do with fire,” Pilop picked up the thread.  “Otherwise, why would they need these huge tubes leading up from the furnaces?  They’re like giant chimneys.”

               “Giant chimneys powering a ship,” Doil murmured.  “It’s remarkable.”  If he had learnt nothing else from the translations of the Pifechan documents, it was that he did not have the mind for applications of natural philosophy.  It seemed that no one in Merolate had such a mind, at least that he had yet found.  “I hate to add to your workload, but do you think you could translate and analyze these?”  He produced a bound stack of papers – the Merolate kind – covered in tiny, clumsy Pifechan script and blotchy diagrams.  “They’re copies I had made of Evry’s private designs for the sea wall.  I’d like to verify that it will do what it’s supposed to do, if we can.”

               Four pairs of hands snatched at the bundle, pulling out pages of notes and diagrams for study.  “Of course, Advisor Doil,” Elia replied belatedly.

               Smiling, Doil thanked them again, and then left the scholars to their work.  As much as he would find it fascinating to study the Pifechan language with Elia and Drogu, he had other matters to which he needed to attend, responsibilities beyond such pure scholarship.  He spared half a glance for the missing heliblode, and then he hurried to the meeting of the Prime’s council of ministers.

               Despite feeling like he was running behind, a sensation that was nearly constant since the return to Merolate, only Borivat had preceded Doil into the conference chamber.  Doil nodded to the older adviser as he made his way to his chair beside the Prime’s, where a stack of carefully scribed agendas had been left for him.  He reviewed them briefly before passing one to Borivat.

               “I…” Borivat began to speak but stopped.  Doil looked up from his writing and waited, curious.  “Could I ask you to speak to Prime Kiluron about something?”

               Doil frowned.  “You can speak to him yourself.  You know he always makes time for you.”  At first, that had irked Doil, but he had come to terms with their respective roles, and that Borivat was not attempting to supersede his role as Adviser.

               Borivat hesitated again.  “It…I think it would be better coming from you.”

               “Is this about whatever you wanted to talk to him about the other day?” Doil accused.  “That seems like something between you and the Prime.”

               “He did not take my request seriously,” Borivat admitted.  At Doil’s disapproving look, he hastened to add, “It is a personal matter, nothing regarding affairs of state or official business.”

               Suppressing his impatience, Doil gestured for Borivat to proceed.  “What is it you want me to ask him about?”

               There was an uncomfortably long pause before Borivat replied.  “I approached the Prime to say that I believe it to be time, perhaps past time, that I retire, as I am no longer adequately performing my duties as Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands.  He declined.  I hope that you will be able to reason with him in a way that I could not.”

               “Retire?” Doil repeated.  “But why?  I don’t understand.”  His eyes touched on Borivat’s bandaged hand.  “What have you gotten yourself involved in?”

               “It’s nothing to do with…with that,” Borivat protested.  “It has simply become clear to me that someone younger and more adaptable than I could better serve as the Prime’s minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands, and that the best service I can now render to the government to which I have devoted so much of my life is to step aside now before my inadequacies are the cause of any further tragedies.”

               Unconvinced, Doil’s response was forestalled by the arrival of Prime Kiluron, but if the Prime noticed the awkward silence that descended upon his arrival, he did not remark upon it.  The other ministers followed soon thereafter, and Kiluron began the meeting.

               “Lots to cover today, and I know that we all have a lot to do besides have this meeting, so let’s try to keep this on track.”  At some point, Kiluron had started becoming much more assertive in running his own meetings with the ministers.  Doil thought it was working better, although he worried that it made the Prime seem too close in status to the council.  “We’ll start out going around the room, and then there are a few topics that I want to hear your thoughts upon.”  He pointed to his right.  “Let’s start with Admiral Ferl.”

               The admiral nodded.  “All island outposts have been re-secured and resupplied.  A few that sustained damage from thundercasters will need to be repaired, when the resources can be spared.”  He said this last pointedly; Doil knew that he disapproved of the resource demands for the sea wall project.  “I would like to increase deep water patrols, but we do not have the ships to spare from Nycheril trade.”

               “That may change soon,” Kiluron interrupted.  “I’ve agreed that we should teach some of the Nycheril tribes shipbuilding techniques, so that they can come and trade with us.”

               “I see.”  Admiral Ferl frowned.  “Well, I suppose that will ease the demands on our naval forces.  There is also Rovis to consider, but I believe that Minister Borivat will have more information than I do on that front.  That’s all I have for now.”

               Despite his protestations of inadequacy, Doil noted that Borivat picked up smoothly from where Ferl had finished.  “The Rovis ambassador insists that her nation feels nothing but sympathy for Merolate’s current plight.  I doubt that they would directly attack us, but the greater concern is economic.  They may attempt to take over our lucrative trade routes with Nycheril.  Also of concern is Old Sankt; a militaristic faction appears to be gaining some greater influence there in response to the Pifechan threat.  However, I do not think direct action on our part on either of these matters is required at this time.”

               “Excellent.”  If Kiluron found this report awkward in any way after his meeting with Borivat, he gave no public indication of it that Doil could discern.  “Minister Inpernuth?”

               With his slippers upon the table, Inpernuth clasped his hands behind his head.  “Just wasting my time at another of these meetings.”

               “Why couldn’t you have gotten blown up by a thundercaster?” Olidryn spat.  “Maybe then we could convince the Prime to replace you with someone more competent.”

               “Ah, but since my competence would not be diminished, I don’t think the argument would change.  Alive, dead…it’s just semantics to me.”  Inpernuth snorted.

               “Your report, Olidryn?” Kiluron prompted, bringing the meeting back on task.

               Olidryn had the grace to appear chagrined.  “Apologies, my lord.  There have been a few instances of a strange humor in places occupied by the Pifechans during the invasion, but they have been short-lived and easily contained.  Of greater concern is the dearth of food supplies, but the spring appears promising in that respect.  Fighting a war in the winter is an expensive proposition under the best of circumstances.”

               “Unfortunately, you don’t always get to choose when you’re going to be invaded,” Admiral Ferl retorted.

               Accepting the rebuke, Olidryn passed the meeting over to Regicio, and then it was returned to Kiluron, who thanked the ministers for their reports.  “Now, onto our other matters of discussion.  Most importantly, I would like your input on how much effort we should put into recreating Pifechan technology and preparing to defend ourselves against another invasion.”

               “You know my opinion,” Admiral Ferl asserted.  “We’ve proven that we can defeat them.  We ought to focus on improving our tactics and our preparedness, not on imitating them.  Whatever dark magic they utilize, it is not something in which we ought to be dabbling.  It’s no better than Blood Magic.”

               Borivat noted the eyes upon him and looked uncomfortable.  “It…it seems likely that another invasion is only a matter of time.  Based on what little we know of the Pifechans, it does not seem likely to me that they will be long deterred by the fright they received here.”

               Kiluron nodded.  “But how long is long?”

               Gesturing helplessly, Borivat estimated, “A generation, perhaps?  Perhaps as little as a few years, perhaps as long as a few generations.  It is really impossible to say without knowing more about them.”

               “We know more than enough about them, if you ask me.  I hope to never see them again,” Olidryn noted.

               Doil interjected before the conversation could be further derailed.  “The translations and study of the Pifechan documents that Guardcaptain Vere captured with the ship are progressing well.  Perhaps we will be able to garner some insight upon the matter soon.  Some of the documentation appears to be manuals for naval and military strategy.  I suggest that we save further discussion on this topic until those translations are completed and examined, and return to the Prime’s original question: how should we distribute our resources?”

               Frowning, Regicio consulted his notes.  “This sea wall project, combined with repairs and aid to the provinces, is already straining the Union’s finances.  I submit that there is little more that we can be doing at this time.”

               This was the answer Doil expected, but he knew it would not please Kiluron.  “I know it’s expensive, and a lot of work,” Kiluron admitted, “but would it be better to be caught unprepared by another invasion?  We must come to some understanding, at least, of what we’d be fighting, even if we don’t replicate it for ourselves.”

               “What he said.”  Inpernuth’s words were as unexpected as they were supportive, but Doil wondered if perhaps Kiluron’s cause would actually be hindered by support from that particular quarter.  He was surprised again when Inpernuth elaborated without being prompted.  “Too bad none of us stuffy old politicians can actually manage to wrap our pathetically unimaginative minds around what we saw of the Pifechans.”

               Carefully unravelling the important points from the gratuitous insults, Doil spoke before the other ministers could object.  “What are you proposing, Inpernuth?”  If there was one positive thing to be said for Inpernuth, it was that he rarely bothered to waste words without a reason.

               Taking his slipper-clad feet from the table and leaning forward with uncharacteristic assertiveness and interest, Inpernuth looked at each minister in turn, before turning to direct his words to the Prime.  “The world is changing, and this government must change with it.  I propose that we amend the Merolate Charter to create a ministerial post responsible for advocating, explaining, enabling, and otherwise –ing-ing those changes to this…august body.”

               Not even the illusion of waiting for the Prime’s opinion was maintained before the other ministers were vociferously condemning this idea as preposterous.  Olidryn called it an assault on the stability of the Union itself.  Regicio condemned it as a wasteful and blatant quest to subvert the power of the Prime.  Even Admiral Ferl, who normally could be relied upon to maintain a distance and composure from these arguments, asserted that such a revision would be tantamount to a coup.  Of all the ministers, only Borivat was not expressing his disagreement; instead, he sat pensive, a look perhaps of resignation on his sad face.  Doil had to look away.

               Catching Kiluron’s eye, Doil tried to read what the Prime’s opinion of this proposal was, even as he tried to form his own opinion.  He remembered Borivat’s worries that he was no longer flexible enough to fulfil his role, and wondered if perhaps Inpernuth’s idea had merits, even if it was somewhat radical.  Then again, an invasion of Merolate was radical, and Kiluron’s sea wall was radical; this seemed the time to make radical changes, if they were truly necessary.

               “I suppose you already know who this new minister should be?” Olidryn was demanding of Inpernuth.  “Some sycophant of yours, no doubt?”

               “Should I be insulted or flattered that you think I have sycophants?” Inpernuth asked, all mock innocence.

               “What about you, Borivat?  Surely you don’t think this is a good idea?” Regicio inquired.

               Attention turned to Borivat, and the other ministers all appeared to wait upon his answer.  Doil wondered how the old Prime’s Advisor couldn’t see how much value he still had to the Prime and to these councils.  As was his tendency, Borivat allowed a silence to grow while he formulated his thoughts.  “While unprecedented, I do not believe Inpernuth would have proposed this if he were not confident of its legal underpinnings.  This body does not specialize in…in innovation.  In my opinion, it would be worth exploring this idea further; however, I of course defer to the Prime and the Prime’s advisor.”

               “I am…cautious,” Doil admitted, “but I do think that we should not dismiss the idea without further study.  Prime Kiluron?”

               “I think it’s a great idea,” Kiluron declared.  “Everyone, look into it further for our next meeting.”

               The remainder of the meeting was comparatively banal, and Doil hurried from the chamber when it was finished before he could be obligated to give Borivat an answer about talking to Prime Kiluron about his retirement.  Not that he could delay the conversation forever.

               After its initial spasm of growth, Marie’s sapling gave no sign of its extraordinary genesis.  Its bark was not red, it did not grow in any unnatural way, and it appeared for all eyes as nothing more than an ordinary sapling, quite unremarkable save for the perfect circle of flowers surrounding it.  Most startling was its contrast with its surroundings, which were still bleak and desolate.  The Blood Priests had made scant progress repairing their temple and were living beneath makeshift tarpaulins and tents scattered around the cratered courtyard.  Only careful piles of guarded artifacts and books evidenced the more permanent return of the Isle’s proprietors.

               Head bowed, Borivat knelt before Marie’s sapling and dug his fingers into the fine sand at the edge of the circle of flowers.  He remembered sneaking to the Isle under cover of darkness, trembling with adrenaline for the treason he was committing, even though it be in unsanctioned service to the Prime and the Union.  Now, the sun was shining, and no mist concealed the Isle from view.  It seemed hardly a place of evil at all, though Borivat still regarded the whole place warily.

               Perhaps it was in part that he had come this afternoon for his own, personal reasons, without any agenda or need to solicit the ever-costly help of the Blood Priests in some urgent matter.  He wondered what Marie would think of that; he had certainly never so nonchalantly visited the Isle to visit her in life.  He could justify that as being in the time of a different Prime, and that relations with the Isle had been different then, but it all rang hollow, as he came now to visit her in death.  Another choice he had made, another mistake.  Those years were gone, now.

               No Blood Priests came to interrupt Borivat’s meditation, which he appreciated.  He did not need High Priest Yorin’s whispery, hard wisdom that twisted his head in knots and made him question his own convictions.  There were enough questions to which he fruitlessly sought answers without those interjections.

               It was strange to think how life could have gone.  Perhaps he could have left his post in Merolate and joined Marie as a Blood Priest on the Isle.  It would have been a scandal, but Prime Wezzix had not yet been Prime when Marie was first taken to its dark halls; another advisor would have been found.  Instead, it had been years before he had convinced himself even to correspond with her by letter.  Then someone else would have been Prime Kiluron’s minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands, someone else would have failed to foresee the Pifechan invasion.

               Yes, the more he thought about it, the more that he realized that he could not blame himself for the Pifechan invasion.  Certainly, the documents Doil was having translated made it clear that the Pifechans were not shy about conquest, especially of those they viewed as being comparatively primitive.  There were better steps he could have taken, but nothing that would have averted the attack entirely.  Yet that did not change that he was too inflexible, too unimaginative in his old age.  He had seen too much.  Kneeling as he was before Marie’s memorial made that abundantly clear.

               Yet the other ministers were no better.  The condemnation of Inpernuth’s proposal had brought that truth into sharp relief.  And they seemed to lack even the wisdom to perceive their own shortcomings.  That, more than anything, had been what convinced Borivat to speak in favor of the idea.  If nothing else, it would bring younger blood into the Prime’s circle of advisors.  Even Doil, for all that Borivat was proud of his protégée, had a mind that was more like Borivat’s own than it was akin to those of his contemporaries, or like Kiluron’s own.

               That prospect tempted him, made him want to change his mind and decide instead to stay on.  It seemed a solution to all of his doubts if there was someone to provide that counterpoint.  It was also a siren’s song, playing on his fears of fading into irrelevancy.  After a lifetime at the center of Merolate politics, living through the reigns of three Primes and helping to advise two of them, he could hardly imagine what his life would be like if he was no longer in that position of influence.  Certainly, he could not return to the scholarship of his reckless youth; the disaster with Esaphatulenius had ensured that much.  Outside of the Merolate castle, he did not know what he could usefully contribute.

               Still, that was no reason to stay; it was merely a reason not to go.  He sighed.  It was so easy to find reasons not to go.  In truth, he did not want to go.  But this wasn’t about doing what he wanted; it was about doing what he needed to do, what was right for the Union that he loved and served.  How he wished that those could still be the same.

               Gathering his cloak, Borivat rose stiffly from the memorial, dusted the sand from his knees, and made his way back to his little rowboat.  He rowed back to Merolate without having come any closer to a resolution, and had made no further progress as he stepped from his boat and began walking back towards the castle.

               “Mind if I join you?”  Doil had already fallen into step beside the startled Borivat.

               “How did you know where to meet me?” Borivat asked, then he held up his hand to forestall the answer.  “No, I don’t think I want to know.”

               They walked in silence for a time.  “I’ve been thinking about what you were saying, about retirement.”

               “So have I.”  Borivat wished that he had something more concrete to offer, some new argument to help persuade Doil to intercede with the Prime.

               “I’ve decided to help you, as you asked,” Doil said after a long pause.  “I’ll ask the Prime to reconsider.”

               Borivat should have felt relieved, but he felt instead a tightening in his stomach, a sudden fear of what might come next.  He started to open his mouth, unsure even what he wanted to say, but Doil was continuing to speak.  “I still wish you would stay,” he was saying, “I don’t know if you realize how much respect you garner in the council of ministers, and how much Kiluron respects your opinion.  How much I respect your opinion.”  Doil took a deep breath.  “But I don’t want you to be forced to continue doing something that you no longer believe is your calling.  If you really believe that it is for the best that you retire, then I won’t impede you.”

               Again, Borivat opened his mouth, but wasn’t sure how to respond.  He suddenly wanted nothing more than to tell Doil that this was not what he wanted at all, that it had all been a mistake, but that was selfishness, and this was not the time for selfishness.  “Thank you, Doil.”  He hesitated.  “I’m quite proud of you, you know.  You make a fine advisor for Prime Kiluron.”

               “There’s nothing that I could say to change your mind?”  A tiny hint of pleading had entered Doil’s voice.

               “I…Doil, it would be too easy to change my mind,” Borivat admitted.  “When I’m honest, I’m afraid of what comes next, of what I will do when I’m not a part of the government.  But this isn’t about me.  This is what is right for Merolate.”

               Doil squeezed his eyes shut.  “I wish I could understand,” he said.  “There will always be a place for you, should you decide that you were mistaken.”

               “Thank you.”  Borivat watched as Doil hesitated for another moment, and then hurried ahead, disappearing into the crowd on his way to the castle.  There was nothing more to say, nothing more to be done, and Borivat wondered if Doil would be successful in persuading the Prime to change his mind.  With this step taken, the decision seemed all the more real, and he found himself wondering if he had made a terrible mistake.

The end of Blood Magic S3:E1: Shards of Glass. 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 goes live on February 28th, 2022.

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