A sheet of clouds unrolled towards the vanishing point of the rising sun like a glowing, bloodied carpet spread across the sky.  It was like a perspective painting.  Combined with the salty sea spray and the tang of ocean wind, it was a beautiful dawn.  Captain Tildain gripped the rail and grimaced; behind him, the single smokestack belched soot into the sky, and the stench tickled his nostrils and blocked the smell of the ocean.

                “Red in the morning: sailors take warning,” he muttered.  The smoke rising behind him was like a beacon, though he knew the crew would soon shut down the engine and switch to sails.  The Frigold was a hybrid vessel, but most of its speed came from the steam engine; it was too heavy to make good headway under pure sail.

               Ostensibly, the Frigold was a cutter, but it was not the slim, speedy ship Tildain associated with that class.  Its wooden frame was plated with steel, it was too heavy to turn adroitly or make good speed without its paddlewheel, and it was too small to carry enough coal unless they could stop at port every night.  Doubtless some engineer who had never sailed before or seen the ocean had designed her.  Now that they were out on the open ocean, the limited range was a severe problem.

               Plus, they were undermanned, with only half of the ship’s usual complement of sixty souls.  Tildain sometimes wondered if he should have waited until he gathered more people he could trust, but there was no time for such regrets, and the circumstances of his departure had hardly allowed for other choices.  He dreamt of that horrible night sometimes, and the afternoon which preceded it.

               A woman came to stand next to him near the prow, facing away from the rising sun with her golden hair loose and blowing in the wind of their passage.  She still wore her uniform, with the commander rank on the shoulders, but the top two buttons were undone, the boots were scuffed, and both the gloves and the cover were nowhere to be seen.  “Captain,” she greeted him.

                “Gema,” Tildain grunted.  He was not displeased by her company, just irritable in the morning.  The galley had no coffee.

                “Those privateers almost had us last night.  You think we lost ‘em?” Gema asked.

               Tildain shrugged.  “Think so.  They won’t want to burn more coal after that race we ran, no matter what the bounty on us is.  I’m more concerned if the Headmaster sends the navy after us.”

               Gema frowned.  “For us?  Seems excessive.”

                “It would be a matter of pride.  And, perhaps, security.”  Tildain looked towards the west.  “They must have figured out where we’re headed by now.”

               Gema nodded towards the horizon.  “You think they’ll take us in?  I heard they’re savages who ride dragons and practice human sacrifice.”

               There was a pause before Tildain replied.  “I don’t know, Gema.  But where else are we to go?  Where else can the Headmaster not reach us?”

                “I’m not doubting you.  I just…worry.  This feels like my fault, and we know so little about what’s beyond the double zero.”  Gema sighed.  “I probably shouldn’t have punched that guy.”

               Tildain snorted.  The scene of his first officer decking an admiral in his own office had to be the most classic Gema he could imagine.  “It was always going to come sooner or later.  Perhaps we had to leave sooner than I planned, but that may prove for the best.  Regardless, it’s not your fault.”  A faint smile played with his mouth.  “Besides, that admiral deserved it.  I’ve been tempted to hit him myself a time or two.”

               A laugh from Gema.  “Any orders for the day, Captain?”

               Tildain shook his head.  “Just maintain full sail.  Weather looks good, but we’d best keep an eye open; it’s a red dawn.”

                “Superstition?  From you?”  Gema chuckled.  “I’ll tell the crew to watch out for gremlins, don’t you worry.”  She walked off, and Tildain shook his head.  Maybe it was superstition, but something felt off about the day, and it made him nervous.  Then again, he hadn’t felt properly restful since fleeing the harbor, and fighting pirates all night had left him jittery.  He returned to his cabin for his turn to rest.

               Sleep didn’t come, so Captain Tildain gave up on lying in the uncomfortable bunk.  His gaze lingered on the music stand in the corner of his cabin, but there was no instrument; in the rush of departure, there had been no time for him to grab his cello.  Perhaps there would be an instrument he could learn when at last they found sanctuary.

               At least there were books: books on naval strategy, books on naval history, books on Pifechan history, books from the Headmaster’s reading list, and the most important book.  Tildain picked up the worn, stained copy of Reflections, opened it to a random page, and began to read.

                ‘Not stones in the river are we, to stand firm and impede its flow, for only sand would we become, worn down and ruined,’ he read.  ‘Rather are we the gentle fishes that swim in the river of time, sometime to and sometimes fro, and thus may we find peace.’

               It took more verses, and the worry never quite dissipated, but eventually Captain Tildain fell asleep in his chair, with the book fallen open upon his face.  He did not stir until the bell tolled the change of the watch, at which prompting he scrubbed his face, changed back into his uniform, and strode out onto the deck.  Wearing the uniform still felt proper, even after what transpired; it conveyed a sense of order into the chaos of their flight.

               Commander Gema offered him a casual salute as he approached, which he returned.  “No sign of any gremlins, Captain.  I’ve plotted an estimate of our progress on the chart.  Wind remains steady from the northeast.  Lookout reports no signs of pursuit.”

               Tildain nodded and glanced up at the darkening sky.  “Thank you.  I’ll try to fix our position with the stars tonight.”

                “Did you get some rest this time, at least?” Gema asked.  It was the question of a friend, not a first officer.

                “A bit.”  Tildain shrugged.  “I’ll breathe much easier once we’re across the double zero.  Even if the navy is in pursuit, I don’t think they’ll follow us there, not so soon after the last expedition’s failure.”  He straightened.  “Your turn to sleep.  I have the watch.”

               His first officer stifled a yawn as she nodded and made her way to her own cabin, leaving Tildain to watch the darkening sky.  Unlike the morning’s crimson, the dusk was all yellows and purples.  Beautiful for aesthetic reasons, but Tildain would have delighted more in red.

               The Frigold ran dark at night; dangerous, but not as dangerous as being spotted by pursuers, and after the pirate encounter the previous night Tildain was inclined toward added wariness.  High in the crow’s-nest, the lookout watched the black waves while Tildain examined the sky.  Once he’d taken measurements with his sextant, he consulted the calibrated clock in the map room, and made notations on the chart, adjusting from Gema’s estimate of their position.

               Navigation finished, Tildain returned to the deck to make his rounds, checking on each of the fifteen on-duty crewmembers in turn.  With so few, everyone had to manage multiple jobs, which only really became a problem when a crisis arose.  He eyed the surrounding ocean, but there was nothing to see from the deck; it was like the world stopped at the edge of the murky darkness surrounding his vessel.

                “Light aft!” called the lookout in the crow’s-nest.  Tildain looked up, then in the indicated direction, but he could see nothing yet.  He did not doubt the lookout, though.

               After a moment’s thought, Tildain snapped out orders.  “Furl the sails, extinguish all lights in and out.  Close the shutters over all glass and metal.”

               Tension was thicker than the darkness as the ship slowed with the furling of the sails, minimizing both their cross-section and their wake – anything to keep the searching vessel from finding them.  Soon, Tildain could see the beam of light from the other vessel, and he muttered a quiet curse; it looked like a naval search pattern.  He closed his eyes and hoped they would pass by in the night.

               Closer and closer the vessel came, and the lookout noted two more vessels on patrol in the area.  Tildain didn’t know how they could have narrowed down their location so accurately; he’d deliberately plotted an unconventional course from the harbor, not taking them directly for the double zero.  For this many ships to be nearby, the navy either knew almost exactly where the Frigold was, or they had the entire central fleet searching for him and his crew.

               Fumbling through the impenetrable darkness, Tildain made his way by memory and touch down to the engine room.  “How fast can you get the engine running?” he asked.

                “From cold start?”  Richita frowned.  “Gimme five minutes at least.  Thirty minutes to full speed.”

                “Wait for my signal,” Tildain ordered.  “But be ready.  We may need to get away in a hurry.”

               Richita nodded solemnly; she seemed so young to Tildain.  “Aye, Captain.”

               If Richita seemed too young, Brinch was a grizzled old man who couldn’t quite leave the sea.  He eyed Tildain as soon as the Captain found him; Tildain could tell even in the darkness.  “I’ll have the guns ready, lad.  Don’t worry.”

                “Thanks.”  Tildain paused before returning to the main deck.  “I hope it won’t come to a fight, and not merely because I fear we will lose.”

               Everyone was ready.  The ship was now come to nearly a standstill, rocked back and forth by the waves, drifting gently in the current, a passive bit of flotsam.  Tildain gripped the rail as he stared out at the three vessels sweeping their searchlights across the nocturnal ocean.  Those lights normally seemed so small in the vastness of the night, but now they were like glowing, all-seeing eyes.

               On port and starboard, the flanking vessels began moving past the Frigold, their lights not quite reaching far enough to spot their quarry.  Only the ship to aft kept Tildain from breathing a sigh of relief; it was sweeping back and forth, its engines humming and its twin paddlewheels thrashing the waves.  Tildain tried in vain to calculate if its course would bring it close enough to see the Frigold.  The calibration clock’s ticks seemed too loud, like Tildain’s heartbeat, as he watched through narrowed eyes.

               The vessel swept by them close enough that the light glanced over their aft hull, and Tildain could read the vessel’s name emblazoned on its hull: it was the Olvidan, a battleship with enough firepower to combat a lesser fleet, and nigh indestructible.  Tildain held his breath as the vessel continued on its sweep without changing course.  Perhaps they hadn’t seen.  Perhaps, blinded by their own lights, the lookouts had failed to spot the silent, darkened Frigold.  Hope lodged in Tildain’s breast.

               Only to die when the Olvidan began to swing ponderously around much sooner than its sweep should have allowed.  Dimly, Tildain heard its attack bells clanging; he just hoped that the other ships were far enough away that they would not return for the fight.  He forced a swallow down his dry throat.  “Battle stations!” he shouted.  “Sound general quarters!  Bring the engine to hot!  All hands, prepare for combat!”

               In response to the Olvidan’s, the Frigold’s bells began clanging their own message as the ship came alight.  Their opponent was still coming about, operating on the far edge of the standard range for naval guns.  Most gunners wouldn’t be able to make that shot accurately, and the first reports from the Olvidan’s guns splashed wide of the Frigold.

                “Do we return fire?” Brinch called.

               Tildain hesitated.  Firing on pirates was one thing, different from firing on the navy from which they’d almost all come.  There might be friends on that vessel; there were certainly sailors with whom he’d served.  He licked his lips.  “Fire,” he ordered.

               A roll of thunder shook the cutter, and Brinch’s shot was on target; the ball smashed into one of the Olvidan’s guns, jamming it in place and shredding the gunner.  But the Olvidan was armed with dozens more guns to the cutter’s five, one of which could not point aft.

                “All ahead!” Tildain called, but the engines were still starting.  He saw smoke beginning to cough out of the smokestack, but slowly, so slowly.  The double zero was too far away, anyway; they could not count on reaching it for their safety.

               Like a rolling drum from a marching band, the guns on the Olvidan replied.  Many still missed, but one strike blew off the Frigold’s masthead.  Another smashed through a window in the aft section.  Brinch let off another volley, but the strikes had little effect on the Olvidan.  The Frigold’s only real chance was to outrun the battleship, but the engine still had to warm up; Tildain could feel the paddlewheel beginning to hum beneath the decks, but it was only churning the water.

               Gema ran up next to Tildain.  “They actually fired on us?  I didn’t think they’d go that far.”

                “They didn’t even signal.”  Tildain had watched for some sign, a semaphore message, anything, but there had been nothing.  He wondered if he knew the Olvidan’s captain.  “It’s still twenty-eight minutes before we have full speed.”

               His first officer emitted a stream of curses.  “What’s the plan?”

               Tildain shook his head.  “We can’t go toe to toe with a battleship.  Our guns can barely scratch its armor.  Our only chance is to hold out long enough to run.”

                “Any terrain advantages?”  Gema asked, even though Tildain knew she already knew the answer.  There was nothing but open ocean all around them.

                “Bring us about!” Tildain ordered, shouting to the helmsman.  “Run us directly at the Olvidan’s facing side!”  It wouldn’t do much, but it would minimize their profile, make them a smaller target for the battleship’s gunners.  Maybe it would buy them a little more time.

               Gema braced against the rail.  “You’re going to ram a battleship?”  She sounded either incredulous or awed.

               Tildain shook his head.  “No.  Though I wouldn’t take it amiss if the captain thinks that’s what I’m doing.”

               From the prow, the Olvidan grew larger and larger.  Even from a distance it was obvious the battleship was far larger than the cutter, but by just how much loomed out of the night as they drew closer.  Sometimes it seemed impossible that such a large vessel could be built and remain afloat, especially as it towered over the cutter’s smaller form.  Projectiles whizzed to either side, narrowly missing the Frigold and sometimes smashing into the deck, sending splinters flying and deforming metal; Tildain just hoped that his crew wasn’t injured.  He waited until their splintered masthead was about to brush against the Olvidan’s hull.

                “Turn us now!  Rake starboard!” he shouted.

               Richita did not have the engines to full efficiency yet, but they were beginning to have some effect.  The rudder swung to its limit beneath the water, and the paddlewheel whirled, shoving water along the rudder’s deflecting blade to turn the vessel.  Everyone leaned and clung to rigging or rails as the Frigold leaned on its keel so far it seemed about to tip over; Brinch fired all guns throughout the maneuver, raking the battleship and raining splinters down on the cutter’s deck.  Then they were running alongside the Olvidan, gaining speed and moving in the opposite direction.

                “Aren’t we going the wrong way?” Gema asked, wiping seawater from her face.

               Tildain nodded.  “Better than running straight into those other two ships.  They must have heard the gunfire by now.”

               Gema nodded.  A few shots from the battleship’s aft guns trailed them, but even at lower efficiency the cutter was moving, and the battleship was moving in the wrong direction to chase them; it would take far longer to turn the massive vessel than it had taken the cutter with Tildain’s aggressive maneuver.  Tildain wondered if it would be long enough.

               A gunshot that almost took off his head answered his question minutes later, and all Tildain could think was how relieved he was that the shot missed the mast.  Instead of turning one hundred eighty degrees about, the Olvidan’s engineer simply reversed the paddlewheel rotation, so that the ship was now plowing backwards through the water.  The hydrodynamics were all wrong, but it was managing to gain on the Frigold while the cutter’s engine was still warming.

                “Evasive maneuvers!” Tildain roared.

                “Which pattern?” the helmsman called back.

                “None of them.  Improvise!” Tildain replied.  “They know all the patterns.”

                “Aye, Captain!”  The ship lurched hard to port, then veered starboard, tracing an erratic zigzag across the sea’s surface.

               Tildain seized the speaking tube that connected the bridge to the engine room and shouted into it.  “Richita, we need that engine.”

                “I’m pumping extra air in to increase the combustion temperature,” she gasped.  “We’ll have full speed in fifteen minutes, but I can’t do better than that.”

                “We’ll have to make it work.”  Tildain’s expression was grim as he looked back at the pursuing battleship, still plowing backwards through the waves.  More gouts of water spat up on either side, and the ship was gaining; the Frigold’s evasive maneuvers were slowing it down compared to the Olvidan’s straight path.

               Squinting, Tildain tried to estimate their actual speed compared to the Olvidan.  If they were faster, he would consider risking raking shots to get back to driving in the right direction, towards the double zero.  He tried not to think about what would happen if they ran out of coal.  Licking his index finger, he stuck it into the air, trying to feel the prevailing winds over the wind of their passage.

He made his decision.  “Bring us about, one hundred eighty degrees,” he ordered.  “All possible speed past the Olvidan, and unfurl the sails once we’re past them.”

               The crew repeated his orders, and the Frigold began to turn again, arcing as far wide of the Olvidan as the helmsman could manage without losing too much ground.  Even so, guns thundered, blasting the wide target the Frigold’s port side presented as it rushed past.  Tildain felt the hits rocking his ship, heard the crew responding to control the damage, and gritted his teeth; they weren’t moving fast enough, and the Olvidan was already reversing its paddlewheels again to remain alongside them.

                “Captain, we’re taking water!” Gema reported.

               Tildain didn’t bother to think about it.  “Collapse the bulkheads, seal off the area.”  His first officer nodded and ran off to relay his orders.  The world was illuminated only in the intermittent flashes of gunfire, but at least there was no sign yet of the other two ships.

               A fire burned belowdecks; Tildain could smell the smoke drifting up and hoped that it wouldn’t spread before the crew could address it.  Unlike the all-metal battleship they fought, the cutter had a wooden framework beneath its metal plating.  Smoke poured out of the smokestack, too, and the deck vibrated and whined as the engine strained and the paddlewheel churned.

               They pulled ahead of the Olvidan.  It didn’t put them in the clear, but the ship could no longer hammer them with an entire bank of guns.  The helmsman continued evading, and the Frigold began to draw ahead of her pursuer.

               Gema rejoined him.  “Think we’ll make it?” she asked.

               Tildain’s face remained set, even as he twisted to look back at the hulking battleship that stalked them.  “We’re not clear yet.”  All it would take was one, well-placed shot from the Olvidan to end the fight, and they were still close enough that gunners who weren’t at Brinch’s level stood a chance.

               A projectile came so close it scraped paint off the hull’s starboard side.  Another one blew through the aft section and tore open Tildain’s quarters, sending pages and glass flying.  Two more tore through the mainsail, but they missed the mast, and there were spare sails in the hold; it only slackened their speed a bit, and they continued to open the gap between the Frigold and the Olvidan.

               As the space between them widened, the Olvidan’s shots began to miss them by wider and wider margins, and their captain finally ordered a ceasefire, doubtless not wanting to waste more shot and liquid fire.  Tildain could almost sense the frustration and enmity emanating from the Olvidan.  He could have breathed his sigh of relief then, but he held it in until the Olvidan vanished into the night behind them, and the Frigold was again alone on the open ocean.

                “Keep us all ahead full,” he ordered.  “That was too close.  We need to reach that double zero.”  There was still a long way to go.

               With a flourish that managed to spill ink over his table and necessitated him carefully sponging it away from the varnished wood and the pearly paper, Kiluron put his signature on the finished letter to Governor Parl.  Across the room, hunched over the large table and surrounded by papers and books, Doil looked up from his work.

                “Finished?” he asked.

               Kiluron nodded and held out the letter.  “I used your justification, just changed the wording a bit.  I think Parl’ll like my version better.”

               Doil took the finished letter, glanced over it, and handed it back.  “You misspelled ‘espionage.’  It’s spelled ‘espionage,’ not ‘espeeonaje.’”

                “Semantics,” Kiluron muttered, but he scraped the ink away and made the correction.  “Better?”

               After flicking his eyes over the rest of the letter, Doil nodded and placed the completed missive into the pile of similar papers.  Kiluron leaned back with a sigh.  “I think that’s all of them?”

               Doil had to pause and count the letters.  “Yes, we have accounted for all of the governors.  I’ll seal these and impart them to the representatives for delivery.”

                “You mean the spymasters,” Kiluron corrected.  “No need to deceive ourselves here.”

               Doil paused.  “We are not sending the representatives to spy on the governors or their provinces.  We are merely attempting to maintain better and more consistent sources of information in each of the provinces in order to forestall any future unpleasantness, such as the rebellion that occurred in Corbulate.  Thus, the representatives are in the best interest of the governors, and they will enable Merolate to better respond to the needs of the provinces in a timely fashion.”

                “Thanks for quoting the letter I just wrote to me,” Kiluron remarked.  “I know all of that.  I even agree that this is necessary.  But they are spies.  Everyone we’ve selected has been explicitly tasked with forming a network of informants in their respective provinces.  What kind of a role is that, if not a spy’s?”

               Doil frowned but did not pursue the point.  Kiluron took that as a victory and crowed about it in a suitably dignified fashion before he turned his attention to the next item on his task list.  It was nearing midday, but he couldn’t tell by looking out the rain-soaked window; the clouds made it almost as dark as if the sun had never risen.  It was a cold rain, too, but the fire blazing in the hearth kept his chambers cozy while he and Doil worked.  Almost, Kiluron found it pleasant, though he wouldn’t admit that he found anything related to paperwork pleasant to his Advisor.

               With the letters finished, Kiluron turned his attention to a distressing pile of applications and profiles.  He scratched his head as he realized how long it had been since he went through any of these.  Between handling the rebellion in Corbulate, and overseeing recovery efforts from the Ipemav crisis, there had been scant time to worry about Borivat’s replacement or the future sub-Prime and Advisor.

               He felt a little guilty about that, especially stringing Borivat along while they searched for a suitable replacement so that the old Advisor could retire, but it wasn’t a high priority compared to other Union business, and Borivat himself only brought it up rarely, to the point that Doil thought he might not be entirely convinced of his own desire to retire.  That would have been fine with Kiluron, since he had no interest in having his minster for Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands be some crazy advocating for the Union to abolish all borders.  That application went straight into the fireplace.

                “Maybe we should find a witch to interview,” he mused.  “We don’t have any of those as ministers, although I kind of think it would be more appropriate to have one in charge of health and sanitation.”

               Looking up from his work, Doil frowned.  “I don’t think…oh.  You’re not serious.”

                “Nope.”  Kiluron shook his head as he smiled.  “Your expression was amusing, though.”

               Back to work.  Kiluron glanced through a few of the profiles presented for the sub-Prime role, but he didn’t know quite what he was looking for; most of them evoked his sympathy, and he wanted to help all of them, but he couldn’t necessarily see making any of them sub-Prime.  Maybe he was still having a hard time seeing anyone at all as his sub-Prime.

               Bored, he looked up at Doil again.  “So…Arval and Evry?”

                “What?”  Doil sighed and looked up from his own work.  “What about them?”

               Kiluron rolled his eyes.  “You think they’re going to be a thing?”

               Doil coughed, choking on a swallow of tea.  “Um, I cannot claim to have given the matter any thought.”

                “Not at all?” Kiluron pressed.

                “Certainly not,” Doil confirmed.  “I would be very concerned should something of that nature develop, however.  The implications for the Union’s security are unsettling.”

                “Well, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.  Last I heard, Evry about shouted Arval straight overboard.”  Kiluron smiled.  “It was funny, actually.”  He allowed both of them to get back to their work as the conversation subsided again, still chuckling.

               Their next interruption was a knock on the door.  It wasn’t an urgent knock, so Kiluron didn’t tense too much – he’d learned what ‘there’s another catastrophe that means we’re all going to die if you don’t do something right now’ sounded like in door knocker terms – but he noted Doil’s flash of annoyance.  “It wasn’t me this time,” he protested, and then he raised his voice.  “Come on in!”

               Guardcaptain Ulurush walked inside, holding a diminutive slip of paper.  “Sir, a message just came in from one of the new mailer pigeons.  It’s from Outpost East.”

                “Outpost East?”  Kiluron frowned.  “I assume from your calm demeanor that they are not reporting a second Pifechan fleet invading the Aprina Basin?”

                “Correct, Sir,” Ulurush replied.  “They report spotting a single vessel from a great distance.  It wouldn’t have been of note, but its configuration did not match any vessel on record, and it appeared to be adrift.”

               Doil spoke up from behind his pile of papers.  “Did they attempt to make contact?”

               Guardcaptain Ulurush shook her head.  “The message had to be short, Sir, but I don’t think so.  Most likely they lost track of it before a boat could be launched.”

                “This does not seem to be a matter to bring directly to the Prime,” Doil reprimanded.

                “No Sir,” Ulurush agreed.  “Admiral Ferl and I discussed it.  We want to send a search vessel.”

               Kiluron glanced at Doil, who gave a slight shrug.  “Alright, then.  If you and Ferl both think it’s important, go ahead and send out a vessel.”

                “Yes Sir.”  With a salute, Ulurush turned on her heel and marched out of the room.

                “Least we can do,” Kiluron defended himself from Doil’s skeptical appraisal.  “If they’re really adrift, they might need our help, whoever they are.”  He did not add aloud that he worried it could be some kind of Pifechan ploy.  For all that the Ipemav crisis had been terrible, it was the Pifechans who gave him nightmares.

               At least the applications were mildly entertaining.  Kiluron rifled through sheet after sheet, making a pile of those who he thought were worth interviewing with Doil and Borivat, and a pile that were not worth pursuing; most went into the latter.  He sighed, but his concentration was gone with thoughts of the Pifechans.  Eventually, he gave up and forced Doil to go get food with him.

               It was a rare day of autumn sunshine when two ships made their way into Merolate’s harbor, past the skeletal structure that would eventually be the new harbor defenses Evry designed.  One of the ships was a lateen-rigged xebec designed for exploration; its Captain Grelt participated in several Nycheril expeditions and even sailed almost as far as Rockland.  The banner of Merolate’s navy fluttered proudly from its mainmast, but it was not the Perigrinator that drew eyes and sent people scurrying from the docks while Ulurush’s guards converged.

               That was the second ship.  No banner fluttered from the remains of its single mast.  Its tattered sails could barely catch the wind even if they weren’t hung from a stub; most of its motion came from the tow rope connected to the leading Periginator.  No smoke coughed from its smokestack, and the metal plates on the hull were torn and twisted, so that the vessel’s name was almost illegible in its foreign characters.  It bumped against the docks as guards watched it warily, though its guns were silent and there was only a single man visible on the deck.

               Captain Grelt saw his own vessel docked before leaping down to the docks, ignoring the sailors still placing the gangplank.  He saluted Guardcaptain Ulurush while Admiral Ferl, Borivat, Doil, and Kiluron rushed from the castle.

                “Wasn’t a fight,” Captain Grelt reported to Ulurush.  “Their captain surrendered as soon as we got close.  Had little water, almost no food.  I think they were adrift for days before we found them.”

Ulurush nodded and glanced back at Merolate’s approaching leadership.  Kiluron stopped a few paces from the undoubtedly Pifechan vessel and stared up at the man wearing unfamiliar clothes – not a uniform – on the deck.

               Seeing the weapons aimed at him and the hostile gazes, the Frigold’s captain cleared his throat.  His words sounded rehearsed, but they were words anyone in Merolate could understand; Kiluron supposed they had plenty of resources to learn the language after their invasion.

                “I am Captain Tildain!” the foreign captain shouted, waving a hand.  In his other hand he clutched a palm-sized book with a torn cover and pages clumsily refastened together.  His face was dirty and unshaven, his cheeks sunken.  “I and my crew request political asylum with the Merolate Union!”

               Since determining to seek sanctuary in the distant lands beyond the double zero, Captain Tildain knew there would be danger.  Defying the Headmaster was a dangerous proposition on its own, evidenced amply by the battle with the Olvidan.  Then there was the lengthy sea voyage in a cutter not designed for such long-duration travel.  Their supply of coal ran out the morning after fleeing from the Olvidan, leaving them to crawl across the water under pure sail.

               By some miracle, or the sheer size of the ocean, they made it across the double zero without encountering further conflict with the central fleet.  Their supplies were running low, though, and no one knew if the Merolate outpost identified on maps from the failed invasion was still occupied.  Captain Tildain directed their course there, but a storm swept up, breaking their mast and shredding their sails.  With useless sails and no fuel, they could manage little better than a drift.

               They were down to a single barrel of water when Captain Grelt and the Periginator found them.  Captain Tildain wondered how differently that encounter might have gone if the Frigold were not so obviously incapacitated; Captain Grelt’s sailors treated Tildain’s crew like vipers, despite Tildain’s assurances of their peaceful intentions and his people’s emaciated appearances.  Only thanks to shared supplied from the Periginator were they even alive when they drifted into Merolate’s harbor.

               All of that danger led to this moment, with no guarantees and no assurances.  Captain Tildain always knew that requesting asylum with a virtually unknown nation that his own nation recently invaded was a long shot, longer than the ones Brinch could make, but it took looking down at almost three score guards and their glaring leader for him to realize just how much of a risk he was taking.

               Still, he had not come so far to lose his courage in this moment.  Clutching his half-ruined copy of Reflections in one hand, he raised his other in a universal greeting and silently rehearsed the words he’d practiced again and again in a tongue that still felt foreign to him.  “I am Captain Tildain!” he shouted, directing his words mostly at the young man in the center who he thought was the leader.  Even after reading the reports, he was younger than Tildain expected.  “I and my crew request political asylum with the Merolate Union!”

               Silence greeted his words.  Extended silence, until Tildain began to wonder if he’d somehow used the wrong dialect or if the translators were wrong about Merolate’s language.  He swallowed, wondering if he should try again, but he was having trouble putting together more phrases in the foreign tongue.  Finally, the young man took a step closer to the Frigold.

                “I am Prime Kiluron of the Merolate Union.  What does Pifecha want?  We drove you out once already.”  Hostility was thick in the Prime’s voice.

               Tildain hesitated, translating the Prime’s words in his head and trying to formulate his own response.  Even if he could use his native language, he did not know how he would convince the Prime of his intentions.  “We are not here to invade.  All we want is…refuge.  Refuge from the nation we left behind.”

               Prime Kiluron turned his head as another figure, about the same age, whispered in his ear.  He straightened.  “I…Merolate will consider your request.  We’ll provide you with food, drink, and any medical supplies you need, but you will stay on the ship until we’ve made a decision.”  The Prime stared at Captain Tildain for another minute before he turned and walked away from the docks.

               It took Gema yelling for silence for Captain Tildain to even hear himself think when he descended from the main deck after his conversation with Merolate’s leadership, such was the clamor from the crew.  By some miracle, almost everyone who left with him from Pifecha was still alive; only two died on the crossing, both injured beyond Doctor Hintares’ skill to heal during the battle with the Olvidan.

                “Merolate’s leader is considering our request,” Tildain informed them.  “In the meantime, he’s promised us food, water, and any medical supplies we need.”

               Richita frowned.  “Doesn’t this guy recognize asylum rights?  We really are in a backwater.”

               Sympathetic mutters sprang up, which Tildain hastened to quell.  “I am confident that our plea will be accepted once we have the opportunity to present our case.”  He was not so confident as he projected, but he put as much conviction as he could into his words.  “We knew that coming here was a risk.  We knew that the history between our nations might complicate matters.  For now, we are here, we are alive, and we are free of the Headmaster and Pifecha.  That is enough for which to be grateful.”

               However merited it might be, the skepticism subsided; in truth, the greatest disappointment was not being allowed off the ship.  After so long at sea, everyone was ready for terrestrial accommodations, especially the portion of his crew not composed of career sailors.  For now, Tildain could not give them that, but they would survive.  Freedom was so close.

               A very nervous group of guards delivered several crates of food and barrels of water to the deck that evening before retreating to the docks.  Overseeing the loading, Tildain could see at least thirty guards still standing watch on the Frigold, and, were he alone, he would have hung his head at the distrust.  The Headmaster should not have invaded this place, no matter what pretext was offered.

               “Do you think they’ll agree?” Gema asked, coming to stand alongside him and pitching her voice so that only he could hear.  “They seem very hostile.”

               “More nervous than hostile, if I’m reading them appropriately,” Tildain corrected.  “Suspicious, too.  If only we could blame them.”

               Gema nodded.  “You didn’t answer my question.”

               “No, I suppose I didn’t.  Do you want me to?”  Tildain gripped the battered copy of Reflections a little harder and stared towards the castle to which the Prime had retired after their brief dialogue.

               Gema paused halfway into starting her reply.  “I suppose I’m more interested in your plan if they don’t grant us asylum.”

               Tildain turned from the prow to look over the Frigold.  It felt strange to stand on its decks without his uniform, but he was a defector, now.  Wearing the uniform of his former allegiance would be more wrong.  “I don’t think they’ll kill us outright, if that’s what you mean,” he reflected.  “If they don’t imprison us, perhaps there are other nations here that would consider our request, or some quiet spot out of the way where we could set up a place for ourselves.”

               Maybe he should have said something more encouraging, but Gema would understand.  “I’ll keep that to myself, then.  The crew is in better spirits, now that our supplies are replenished.  Is there anything you need before taking the night watch?”

               Tildain shook his head.  “That’s alright, Gema.  Get some sleep, and we’ll hope for an answer in the morning.”

               Alone, or as alone as one could be aboard a ship, Tildain stood near the prow, leaned against the rail, and looked out at the city to which they’d come, crossing an ocean and braving the fire of their former compatriots to make the journey.  It did not seem so different from their home port.  Oh, there was less glass, more stone, and the streets were darker at night, but the docks looked like docks, the people like people.  Coming here was not so much like stepping back in time as it was simply coming to a different place.

               If the Prime did not grant their asylum claim…well, Tildain would be very surprised if he was proven that wrong in his assessment.  Before commandeering the Frigold after Gema’s incident, Tildain reviewed every report he could obtain on the far side of the world.  Captain Tarshion’s report was especially enlightening, to the point that Tildain believed he’d identified where the other captain went wrong in negotiating with the Prime.  He was determined to not make the same mistake.

               Yet, it was so easy.  Even stripping away the ‘lessons’ from the Grinou expedition with which Pifechan officers were indoctrinated, it was too easy to start perceiving Lufilna’s civilization as primitive, lesser than the Pifechans.  That perspective, however, assumed a judgement based purely on technological capacity.  To Tildain, a civilization’s culture and philosophy were far better indicators of its potential primacy.

               A woman marched up the docks in the morning; her insignia marked her as a leader amongst the forces guarding the Frigold.  “Captain Tildain,” she called, “Prime Kiluron requests your presence.  Please follow me.”

               Shaking off his latent exhaustion from keeping the watch all night with the rush of nerves, Tildain nodded towards Gema.  “You have command,” he said, before he descended to the docks.  The officer, who carried a spear and stood out amongst the rest of her forces, looked him over for weapons before marching him towards the castle.

               She said nothing more, so Tildain was left to attempt to fill the silence and practice his shaky command of the local language.  “What’s your name?” he asked.  It seemed a safe enough question, and he knew the words to ask it.

               “Ulurush.”  The reply was terse, and did not evoke further conversation, nor did Ulurush look towards him.

               Tildain tried, anyway.  “How long have you been an officer?” he asked.  He’d seen her with the Prime the previous day, and she seemed important, for all that she struck him as young.

               He received no answer to his question, and they reached the castle before he could make another attempt.  Though he tried to reassure himself that Ulurush was merely possessed of a taciturn nature, it did little to decrease his nervousness.  Another guard at the door announced him, and then he walked into…a conference room.

               There was no other word for it.  Yes, tapestries adorned the stone walls, and yes, there was a varnished, wooden, triangular table, but this was no throne room, nor audience chamber.  Four people were already seated inside, and they all turned to look at him as he stood in the doorway.  Wishing that he had half the eloquence in the local tongue that he possessed in his own, he offered a bow to the Prime.  “Thank you for seeing me…” he searched for the proper mode of address and faltered…”your majesty.  And thank you for the supplies you provided my crew.”

               The Prime exchanged an amused look with the man sitting beside him, who turned to Tildain and spoke in Tildain’s language; Tildain almost had to grab a chair in astonishment, though he berated himself for the incredulous reaction.  “I’m Advisor Doil.  The typical address for Prime Kiluron is ‘my lord,’ though as you are not his subject, I think it would be appropriate simply to call him ‘Sir.’”  Doil continued before Tildain quite recovered.  “I’ll also introduce Admiral Ferl, the Minister of Public Defense and Civil Order, and Minister Borivat, the Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands.”

               Since Advisor Doil indicated he should sit, Tildain did so, nodding to each of the ministers in turn as they were introduced.  “Thank you.  I…didn’t realize that anyone would know my language.”  Speaking in his native tongue was like a cool drink on a summer day.

               “None fluently, but I can manage,” Doil replied.  “We’d appreciate it if you could speak in our language, but if you have something to say that you cannot translate, I will do my best.”

               That seemed fair, so Tildain nodded.  He spread his hands on the table and switched back to Merolate’s language.  “What can I tell you?”

               Minister Borivat leaned forward first.  “Please explain this concept of ‘asylum’ as you invoke it.  While I know the word, I do not know what it might mean in this context.”

               “I…” Tildain hesitated.  Of all the questions he’d considered, this one took him aback.  It was such a fundamental concept in Pifecha, for all that it was almost never invoked.  “Political asylum is the promise of shelter for someone who is, who is…” he fumbled, and switched to Pifecha’s language, looking hopefully to Doil.  “It is a promise of refuge from persecution by a hostile power for someone who is politically misaligned.”

               After Doil finished translating as best he could, Borivat nodded.  “An interesting concept.  And this is considered a standard practice in your nation?”

               “It’s not been invoked for a long time,” Tildain admitted, “but yes.”

               Glances passed around Tildain, and he expected the Prime to say something, but Admiral Ferl was next to speak.  “You came into our waters in a military vessel, albeit damaged.  What is your relationship to the Pifechan military?”

               Somehow, Tildain was surprised by how hostile his reception was; he probably shouldn’t have been, but in his head, like much of his hodgepodge crew of malcontents, he’d imagined the asylum claim as the end of the journey, when it was more like the midpoint.  Regardless, there was no benefit in dissembling.  “My crew and I have…disagreements with the Headmaster – the ruler of Pifecha.  Exactly why varies, but in one way or another we are all out of favor with the administration and, when circumstances became intolerable, we fled to the only place we thought was both distant enough and strong enough to shelter us.  While many of us did serve in Pifecha’s armed forces, we have forsworn that allegiance and would be considered defectors and traitors were we ever to return.”

                “And the damage to your vessel?” Admiral Ferl prompted.  “Should we expect a Pifechan fleet to show up demanding your extradition?”

               Thinking about the battle with the Olvidan, that a fellow captain had so readily fired upon him, still hurt Tildain.  “We engaged with privateers and the Pifechan navy during our escape, but we were not pursued past the double zero.  I do not anticipate that any Pifechan ships will press that border for at least several years, regardless of our presence here.”

                “Are you seeking to become citizens of the Merolate Union, then?” Doil asked.  “Or are you merely interested in the shelter that we can provide you?”

                “We would contribute, certainly,” Tildain offered.  It was a non-answer, but he could give nothing better right then.  “We are not here just to presume upon your hospitality.”

               Advisor Doil nodded, and the questioning continued.  Tildain answered as best he could, fumbling with the language and worrying over his words, but he kept glancing at the Prime, who sat at the head of the table and did not ask questions or make comments.  His expression was stiff, like a mask, and nothing Tildain said affected it.  He returned to his ship after the questioning with no idea whether Prime Kiluron was more or less inclined to grant his request.

               Before meeting with Tildain, Kiluron glowered so much that Doil insisted he compose his expression to something approaching neutrality, so instead of targeted disgruntlement and suspicion he radiated general grumpiness throughout the interview.  He said nothing while Tildain conversed with Ferl, Borivat, and Doil, and said little more after Ulurush escorted Tildain back to the Frigold.  The more reasonable Tildain sounded, the angrier Kiluron became, but he kept his ire controlled until only Doil was left sitting with him.

                “Your thoughts, my lord?” Doil asked.  An innocuous question, but one that prompted an explosion.

                “What’s there to think?” Kiluron demanded.  “We can’t trust anything he says.  Even if he means it, it’s obviously a trap to give Pifecha another pretext for invasion.  It brings nothing to Merolate; we don’t need whatever ‘contributions’ he thinks he can bring.  Put them on a ship and send them back where they came from!”

               Doil hesitated before voicing his reply.  “If Tildain and his crew return to Pifecha, they will most likely be executed as traitors.”

                “Saves us the effort of doing it!” Kiluron snapped.  “They’re Pifechans!  Same as the ones that conquered this city less than a year ago.  We can’t trust them.”

                “My lord, this isn’t like you,” Doil frowned.  “I thought you were more trusting of Evry than I am.  And I would have thought that you’d be the first person to assert that not all the Pifechans are alike, and that maybe these aren’t like the ones who invaded.  Is that not what you are always reminding people about when it comes to Blood Worshippers and witches?”

               Kiluron slammed his fist into the table, which barely moved the heavy mahogany.  “Maybe I’m tired of it!” he shouted.  “They’re arrogant, they’re aggressive, they’re, they’re…something else bad that starts with an ‘a’, and I’m tired of dealing with them!”

               Doil folded his hands.  “Tildain does have a certain arrogance about him, I will admit, but he seems sincere in his reasons for being here, and his convictions.  I think we should seriously consider his request for asylum.”

                “It’s different,” Kiluron insisted.  He struggled for the right words, his emotions clogging up in his throat to block them.  “Ipemav, Gälmourein, Guardians, Blood Magic: I don’t feel guilty when those things happen.  They’re like natural disasters, things that we just have to deal with as best we can.  The Pifechans are different.  They’re another nation, and it’s supposed to be my job to keep Merolate secure from those kinds of threats.  And I failed, and if they come back, I’m afraid I’ll fail again.”

               There were any number of responses Kiluron might have expected from Doil, but his Advisor didn’t directly reply.  “You don’t have to make any decisions, yet.”  He stood up and put on his cloak.  “I’m going to go talk to Evry about Tildain, see if she knows anything about him and his crew, and what her take on this asylum concept is.”  He hesitated.  “You’re welcome to come with me, of course, my lord.”

               Despite himself, Kiluron found his breathing beginning to calm.  “Of course I can come; I’m the Prime,” he grumbled, but he swung his own cloak over his shoulders and followed Doil outside.

               They found Evry in Arval’s warehouse, cursing at the Inventor as he ignored her from behind the cover provided by an oversized furnace.  She wasn’t even bothering to speak a language Arval understood, and she either didn’t notice or didn’t care about Doil and Kiluron’s arrival.  A modified aeolipile whistled and roared in a corner, so either possibility was conceivable.

                “Evry!”  Doil strained to make himself heard, cupping his hands to his mouth.  “Evry!  I’d like to speak with you, if you have a moment.”

               If she heard him, she ignored him, but Doil was not very loud, even when he was shouting.  Kiluron inflated.  “Evry!” he barked, leaning on his diaphragm like Vere taught him.  Finally, she stopped cussing and looked up at Kiluron and Doil.  He waved her towards them.  “Over here.”

                “What?” she asked, shouting to be heard over the aeolipile’s din.

               Doil winced.  “Let’s step outside for this conversation, hm?” he suggested, leading the way out of the warehouse.  Fortunately, the warehouse was mostly soundproof, and had few neighbors.  When they could hear again, he sighed with relief.  “That’s better,” he observed in an ordinary tone.  “Now then, Evry.  I was hoping to ask you a few questions about these visitors we have.”

               Evry glared, but she did not revert to more cursing as she crossed her arms.  “What about them?”

                “Do you know anything about this Captain Tildain?” Doil asked.

                “If it’s really the Captain Tildain I’ve heard about, I know he’s a troublemaker and a malcontent.”  Evry shrugged.  “An idealist, and an idiot.  Coming here seems like a thing he’d do.  He’ll fit right in.”

                “And his asylum claim?  Is it legitimate?” Doil pressed.

                “More idealism,” Evry replied.  “Asylum claims were a big thing a hundred years ago, before the Headmaster directly controlled all of Pifecha.  International governance, shelter for dissidents, that sort of thing.  They idea didn’t exist long enough to have weight, so even when it existed governments often ignored it.”

               The more Evry talked Tildain and his asylum claim down, the more Kiluron wanted to honor it; he supposed he just wanted to do what the Pifechans wouldn’t want him to do, but that was a silly way of thinking.  He needed to make a decision, not just be reactionary.  Besides, Evry’s tone was oddly aggressive.  “Why are you so upset about Tildain being here?” he blurted, interrupting Doil’s next question.  “I would’ve thought you’d be happy to see people from your homeland.”

               Evry froze, her retort stuttering to a halt on her tongue.  “I…”  She flushed.  “Look, they’re a threat, okay?  If one of these people can tell you how steam engines and firearms work, then I won’t have much value to provide, now will I?  I’m not oblivious; I know you don’t trust me.”

               “I might trust you more than I trust them at the moment,” Kiluron interjected.

               That just elicited another glower.  “I asked for a ship, a captaincy, and the freedom to sail these waters, and all you do is string me along.”

               “And can you honestly tell me that you have cooperated with us in full faith, which you also promised us in return for those favors?” Doil retorted.

               Evry hesitated.  Kiluron gritted his teeth, spun on his heal, and stalked away, leaving both Evry and Doil staring after him.  Talking with Evry had seemed like a useful activity when Doil suggested it, but it was only leaving him more confused.

               During the visit with the Hiblanicho crew, Kiluron thought that Prime Wezzix’s rigid adherence to law resulted in the collapse of a potential relationship.  When the first Pifechan vessel limped into Merolate’s harbor, Kiluron’s determination to treat differently with them had still failed to produce an amicable result.  Now, it was happening again, and even if Kiluron didn’t hate the Pifechans, he worried how it might end, considering how poor was the recent track record.

               There were differences this time, of course, but they seemed minor to Kiluron.  He had two choices to consider, but he feared the results of both: if he granted Captain Tildain’s asylum request, he could one way or another bring about another war with Pifecha, and Merolate was woefully ill-prepared, despite their efforts since the invasion, but if he denied Captain Tildain’s request, he would be loosing a potential spy into larger Lufilna, and still not defending against the second Pifechan invasion that could result.

               Kiluron did not stalk away without a purpose and destination.  Well, that wasn’t strictly true; his initial stomping was just to get away from the frustrating conversation with Evry.  However, he did not remain aimless after Doil and Evry were out of sight.  Only a little thought was required to send him towards Inpernuth’s apartments.

               The minister of Law and Governmental Policy opened the door with dramatic reluctance, grunted upon finding the Prime standing on his doorstep, and walked back inside without even holding the door for Kiluron.  He did not lock the door behind him, though, so Kiluron took that as an invitation and followed him into a kitchen that was completely devoid of any cooking utensils, and was only decorated with greasy waxed paper wrappers from local food stands.

               Inpernuth patted his mouth with a napkin.  “What’s important enough to interrupt my snack, lok?”

               Kiluron did not allow Inpernuth’s attitude to bother him, though in his current mood it was a struggle.  “Have you heard about the Pifechan captain’s asylum claim?”

               Very deliberately, Inpernuth cleaned his hands thoroughly of grease, wiped his mouth again, and beckoned at Kiluron before disappearing through a shadowy doorway into a back room of his apartment.  Kiluron followed, unsure what he would find, and emerged into the last thing he would have expected to find in Inpernuth’s apartment: a well-lit, elegant study room, complete with groaning, varnished bookshelves, a thick area rug, oaken floors, and polished windows framed by thick curtains.

               “Sit.”  Inpernuth indicated a leather-upholstered chair with brass accents sitting on one side of a short, ebony-stained side table with intricately carved legs.  The minister of Law and Governmental Policy gathered a folder from an elaborate executive desk on the far end of the room and followed his own advice with the chair on the other side of the table.  “What do you want?”

               Kiluron settled back in the chair.  “Other than a convenient answer to this whole mess?  Tell me about this asylum concept.”

               “Etymology: ‘a’ meaning without, and ‘sulon’ meaning right of seizure, together give asulos as an adjective form meaning inviolable and a noun form asulon meaning refuge,” Inpernuth explained.  “Thus, the modern ‘asylum,’ meaning ‘a place of sanctuary from seizure.’”  Kiluron blinked, and Inpernuth hastily appended: “Lok.  What?  Understanding law means understanding what words actually mean, not just what people think they mean.”

               When Kiluron recovered from his surprise, he tried to parse what Inpernuth’s lesson provided him.  “So you think Tildain’s claim is legitimate?”

               Inpernuth waggled a finger in Kiluron’s face.  “Didn’t say anything about that.  That depends on what you think about international law.”

               “I don’t,” Kiluron deadpanned, causing Inpernuth to pause and bark a laugh.

               “Time to start, lok,” he asserted.  “Prime Wezzix considered international law only to be binding in the case of it being established through the implementation of national law.  Other opinions range from those who claim international law is a contradiction of terms, to those who consider it supreme to national sovereignty.”

               Kiluron glanced over a thick packet of opinions Inpernuth handed him.  “A summary, please?  And what does this have to do with asylum claims?”

               Jabbing a finger at the packet he’d presented to Kiluron, Inpernuth inflated himself.  “Asylum, as invoked by this Captain Tildain, is a concept of international law rooted in the idea that there are norms of behavior between states which are supreme over the sovereignty of any individual state.  It presupposes that both the nation granting asylum, and the nation from whom asylum is sought, recognize that the law of asylum supersedes the right of the latter to demand extradition to enforce its laws, and the right of the former to decide its response.  That’s one extreme.”

               “Alright.  And I can guess that the other extreme doesn’t recognize the right to an asylum claim at all, at least in terms of legal accountability.”  Kiluron nodded.  “How would Prime Wezzix have viewed it?”

               Inpernuth hesitated.  “Can’t speak for him, lok.  But the Prime’s rulings overall imply that international law must be specifically enshrined by national law in order to be legitimate.”

               “You mean, like a treaty that the Prime signs?” Kiluron asked.

               “Yes.”  Inpernuth sat back.  “So, there you have it, lok.”

               Kiluron drooped.  “That…didn’t help me as much as I thought it would.  Thanks, though.”

               “Just doing my job, lok.”  Inpernuth seemed on the verge of saying something else, but he stopped, and instead nodded at the papers in Kiluron’s lap.  “Keep the papers.  Maybe they’ll tell you something.”

               It was evening when Doil found Kiluron sitting at his desk, surrounded by books and papers: old treaties, legal cases, rulings, even letters between former Primes and foreign rulers.  Kiluron blinked at his advisor through bloodshot eyes and scrubbed his stubbly face.

               “What’s all this?” Doil asked.

               Kiluron snorted.  “Studying, believe it or not.  You’re not the only one who does that.”

               Doil raised his eyebrows.  “You’ll forgive me for finding it somewhat unusual, still.  What are you studying?”

               “What do you think?”  Kiluron shifted a piece of paper over for Doil to read.  “I’m familiarizing myself with the intricacies and philosophies applicable to the concept of international law.”

               That was the title of the paper which Kiluron had pushed in front of Doil.  “I see.”  Doil glanced over the rest of the documentation.  “Is it accurate for me to assume that this has to do with the Pifechan asylum dilemma?”

               Kiluron nodded.  “For all the good it’s done me.  I don’t feel any closer to an answer.”

               With his usual care for the written word, Doil moved a few stacks of documents aside so that he could pull an extra chair up beside Kiluron at the desk.  “I’m afraid that my conversation with Evry was not particularly productive, either.”

               “Figures.  Don’t tell me about it.”  Kiluron pushed the essay he was reading away and stared out the dusky window.  “I just don’t have a good answer.  Any way I jump, the Pifechans are looming.  And I don’t want to shelter Tildain and his crew.  They’re Pifechans!  But at the same time, how can I turn them away?”

               “Maybe you’re thinking about this the wrong way.”  Doil got up from his chair and stood behind Kiluron; he gestured at the papers and books and scrolls littering the desk.  “This isn’t the way you make decisions like this one.  Every time you’ve faced a dilemma like this since becoming Prime, you’ve done what you believed was right, regardless of the consequences or implications.  So it seems to me that, instead of asking what you should do, you should be asking what you will do.”

               Kiluron glanced at his advisor.  “That usually ends up making trouble for us, though.”  He hesitated.  “You really think that?”

               “I do.”  Doil blushed at Kiluron’s inspection.  “What?  It makes trouble, but you’ve made doing what you believe to be right the cornerstone of your governing philosophy.  It wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for you.  We’ll handle what we need to handle.”

               Kiluron snorted.  “Only you could make pursuing the moral right regardless of the consequences sound so…dry and dull.”  He took a deep breath.  “But thank you.  I – I think I know what I need to do.”

               Former Captain Tildain sat alone at a plain, worn desk.  A gracile ribbon of light fell two paces behind him from the narrow window set high in the cold outer wall of his chamber.  The bare stone floor was cold beneath his feet, and he missed the fresh sea air and the sway of the deck.  Not the seabirds crying, though; they were loud even through the glass, wheeling over the harbor outside.

               To his right was a teetering stack of books, though the thick paper Merolate used meant they were not as hefty of tomes as they appeared.  To his left was another, smaller stack of books – the ones he had finished reading.  A map dominated the center of the table, alongside a stack of pages of his notes, topped by a rough timeline he’d created for himself.  Other than that, the room was empty.  It was also silent, save for the bird calls and the scratching of his pen.

               He didn’t know if this was what he’d expected, coming to Merolate.  During some of his audiences with Prime Kiluron before the Prime announced his decision, Tildain was convinced that he and his improvised crew were going to be turned away and set adrift.  Instead, his crew was being housed in freshly built quarters in the city, and he was granted unrestricted access to Merolate’s libraries.  One of the ministers was even making noises about considering Tildain as a replacement when he retired.

               Whether that last happened or not, Tildain could be content with his studies for the rest of his life.  Lufilna’s history was fascinating, and he felt like he could almost see the silhouette of his own hemisphere in the oldest legends and myths.  Some of what had transpired here, though, even if eighty percent of it was just myth and fiction, made the history with which he was familiar seem tame.

               A knock on the door interrupted his attempts to reconcile two different arguments for what catalyzed the collapse of the Pax Sankt.  Tildain pushed his slat-backed chair out from the desk and opened the door himself.

               “May I come in?” Gema asked.  She eyed his unadorned woolen robes and the length of rope he was using as a belt.  “If you have time, your holiness?”

               Tildain glanced down at his own garb, and then around the room; he smiled ruefully.  “I did not intend to take on such monastic trappings,” he admitted.  “Please, come in.  Although it seems that I have neglected to acquire seating for any visitors.”

               Gema shook her head, chuckling.  “Hard to believe that you were ever a captain of a naval ship.”

               “I like this much more,” Tildain admitted.  “What brings you up here?  I heard you were coordinating roles and language lessons for the rest of us refugees.”

               “Among other things.  Like realizing that no one’s seen you eat for at least a day,” Gema scolded.  “Just because you’re not our captain anymore doesn’t mean you get to stop taking care of yourself.”

               Tildain smiled.  “I suppose I can’t argue that I’ve been feeding my brain?”

               “Not if you think it’s going to get you out of having breakfast with me,” Gema asserted.  “Did you know they have restaurants here?  Those only appeared in Pifecha a hundred years ago.  And we thought these people were primitive.”

               “They may be technologically behind us, but I would assert they are ahead of us in certain areas, not least being philosophy of governance.”  Tildain put aside his studies with a sigh and allowed Gema to lead him out into the city.  “What I still don’t understand is all this talk of magic.  How can people who seem so rational believe in something like that?”

               Gema shrugged, and that was enough to forestall further conversation on the matter.  “Do you miss it?” she asked after they both had their food and were sitting at a table near an oversized hearth.  “Pifecha, I mean?”

               Tildain was silent a long time before he answered, nibbling at his brandade while he thought.  “I think about it, sometimes.  The people we left behind, especially, and I wonder if we made the right choice to leave, instead of remaining and trying to change things.  But…no, I don’t think I really miss it.  Maybe I should, but I don’t.”

               “I miss it,” Gema said.  “I don’t regret coming here, but I do miss it.  Mostly the people.  But then, I’ve always burned hotter than you.”  The conversation lulled then, while they ate and each ruminated in their thoughts.  “So now that you’re not an officer, what do you intend to do different?  Other than locking yourself away with old books, I mean.”

               “Like what?” Tildain asked.

               Gema hesitated.  “Well, like you would have been hesitant to come out for breakfast with me like this, once upon a time.  Appearance of impropriety and all that.”

               “I suppose there are some of those rules that I can afford to stop adhering to,” Tildain agreed.  “Though I’ve been following them for so long that stopping will be difficult.”

               Gema bobbed her head.  “Good thing you have me to keep reminding you.  And to keep getting you to eat.”

               “It’s good to be able to relax.”  It took saying it for Tildain to realize that, for the first time since he began working on his commission, he really was relaxed.  That, more than anything else, told him that he made the right choice.

The end of Blood Magic S3:E10: Principles. 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 November 30th, 2022.

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