Something about Releir made Kiluron feel old, which was odd considering that the man he, Doil, and Borivat were currently interviewing bore all of the expected standards of middle-age: the banner of receding hairlines, the pennant of forehead furrows, even in the oriflamme of squinting eyes.  Their interviewee was likely twice Kiluron’s age, and yet there was something about his mannerisms, his comportment, which made Kiluron feel that the age gap was really reversed, that he was twice Releir’s age.  This, after he had only been Prime for a year.

               “Well, it seems to me quite obvious that such provocations would necessarily be a cover for attaining more favorable trade relations,” Releir was saying in response to Doil’s question about Rovis border skirmishes.  “As such, it would be most reasonable to provide such concessions as could be afforded, without giving the appearance of weakness.  This would defuse the situation and enable cooler heads to prevail in the relationship.”

               Grimacing, Kiluron wished that he could have Doil stop the interview.  He already knew that Releir was not going to be a suitable replacement for Borivat, and with the sun casting its last evening rays through the high windows in the conference chamber, he was ready to turn his attention to other matters, like supper and sleep.  Instead, he would be forced to listen to the man drone on and on about foreign policy that he had clearly only ever experienced in some stuffy old tome tucked into a study on a country estate.

               “The Eastern Tribes, Ala’Durai’s coalition.”  Kiluron leaned forward, interrupting Doil’s next question and snatching Releir’s nervous eyes.  “Let’s say that they’re being raided by some of the western tribes from the interior.  How would you advise the Union respond?”

               Releir licked his dry lips, and his eyes flicked anywhere but Kiluron’s.  “Um, I do not know all the details of the situation you describe, but it would seem to me best that the Union avoid being drawn into a regional conflict which would be in affect similar to the incursions of the primitives from the Unclaimed Territories.  Such primitives do not respond in a rational fashion to our typical overtures, and therefore cannot be dealt with; it is in the interests of the Union to maintain defenses against such creatures and avoid provoking them into hostilities as much as possible.”

               With a shake of his head, Kiluron turned to Doil.  “Can we be done here?”  Releir squirmed uncomfortably in his chair, but Kiluron paid him no heed.

               “I suppose.”  Doil sighed at the breach of protocol.  “Thank you for your time, Releir.  We will contact you with our decision in a few days.”

               When the man had departed, Doil scribbled a few more notes.  “You know, my lord, it would really be better if we gathered responses to a consistent battery of questions from each candidate.  That would make our decision much more rigorous.”

               “There was no way I was choosing him, anyway,” Kiluron sighed.  “There’s no way I’m choosing any of these people.  Borivat, are you really sure about this?  Guess you’re stuck here with us awhile longer.”

               Borivat frowned.  Kiluron had agreed reluctantly, after Doil’s intercession, that the old advisor could retire, but not until he had helped them select a new Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands.  “We knew already that this day’s candidates were unlikely to be suitable.  It is still good to hear their perspectives.”

               “Not Releir’s,” Kiluron grumbled.  “We just fought a war that barely kept Merolate from being conquered, and he acts like we should be a bunch of pacifists.”

               “We are interviewing for minister of Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands, not a replacement for Admiral Ferl as Minister of Public Defense and Civil Order,” Doil observed.  “Although I see your point.  He was perhaps a little too eager to accommodate our adversaries.”

               “We can’t be caught so unprepared again,” Kiluron insisted.  “I won’t let it happen.”  He rubbed his forehead and took a deep breath.  There was no point worrying about invasion now; he was already doing what could be done.  “Anyone want to join me for supper?”

               Rising stiffly, Borivat shook his head.  “No, thank you.  I have some research I would like to conduct before I retire…” he hesitated, noting his choice of words, and flushed faintly.  “For the night, that is.”

               Kiluron shrugged.  “Doil?”

               “It seems a bit early for supper…” he hedged.

               “Sounds like a yes to me,” Kiluron asserted.  “Come on.  There’s a new tavern just opened down near the docks; all the laborers are saying it’s the best place in town.”

               Doil raised an eyebrow.  “If it serves food, ale, and is within a short walk from where they work and sleep, the laborers would be singing its praises even if it served boiled cockroaches.”  He nevertheless allowed Kiluron to lead him out of the conference chamber and towards the castle gates.  “You do realize that the castle employs a full kitchen staff?  You could have a meal anywhere, anytime you like.  Why do you insist on going to public taverns?  And how, for that matter, do you know what the laborers are gossiping over?”

               Putting on his best mock-affronted expression, Kiluron tried not to laugh.  “I think that you’re missing the point.”  He saw that Doil was still skeptical, but just laughed and continued on, his adviser following along with considerably less enthusiasm.  A pair of guards fell in behind them as they left the gates.  “Twiol, how’s the wife?  Recovered from the scare you gave her?”

               Twiol flushed and fumbled over his words.  “Uh, yes Sir.  Glad that I’m back in Merolate for a time, that’s for sure, we both are.”

               “Good.  And how about you, Vargil?  Up for a great evening of following your Prime around the city?”

               Vargil chuckled.  “Guess that depends on where we’re going, Sir.”

               “Listrick’s Tavern, where else?” Kiluron answered.  Vargil’s dour expression lightened.  “Hope we can get a table.”  He was glad that Doil did not point out that the proprietor would almost certainly clear a table for the Prime of Merolate, assuming that she didn’t have a fit at seeing such a personage walk through her door.

               Predictably, the tavern was packed.  The evening air was slightly chilly, but that did not prevent people from pressing right up against the door as they awaited their turn at the bar or a table.  Standing on his toes, Kiluron spotted the only clear space in the common room, where a man in puffy clothes was strumming energetically upon a lyre; only a few strains of music ventured as far as Kiluron’s straining ears at the brimming door.

               “Would you like to clear a path, Sir?” Twiol asked.

               Frowning, Kiluron shook his head.  “That would kind of defeat the point, I think.  Come on, let’s see if we can’t just sidle in here.”  He glanced back at Doil, who looked distinctly uncomfortable.  “Come on, Doil.  I promise it’ll be alright.  Really, it’s been ages since I got into a bar fight.”  When Doil only looked more uncomfortable, Kiluron grinned.  “Seriously, it’ll be fine.  But it’s good for you to get out of your studies every now and then.”

               “I suppose,” Doil admitted.  “Remind me of that after we are safely seated at a table with decent food in front of us.”

               Kiluron began edging his way through the crowd.  A few muttered curses and amiable shoves fluttered in response, but nothing more, and soon the four of them had slipped all the way up into a space between barstools.  One of the men in an adjacent stool looked up angrily at the invasion but recognized Kiluron.  Before the man could say anything, Kiluron put a finger to his lips and shook his head.  When he’d been Sub-Prime, no one had remarked on him going out for a drink, except possibly Prime Wezzix.  Now that he was Prime, the whole Union seemed to be able to recognize his face.

               After a lengthy delay, the proprietor approached Kiluron and his companions.  “Four ales, please,” Kiluron said, “and four dinners of whatever you’re serving tonight.”

               Listrick was a heavyset, matronly woman who appeared more in command of her tavern than many generals were in command of their battlefields.  “That’ll be eight pieces,” she said.  Kiluron pressed a single gold coin onto the oiled, gleaming bar.  Listrick snatched it up, bit it suspiciously, looked at Kiluron, looked down at the coin, and looked back up at Kiluron.  With a sigh, Kiluron repeated his finger to his mouth and headshaking routine, but Listrick inflated anyway.  “Hey everyone!  Prime Kiluron’s at my bar!

               A ragged cheer went up from those sitting within earshot.  “Three cheers for the Union’s Defender!” someone shouted, and an approving roar swelled up in answer.

               Uncomfortable, Kiluron raised the mug Listrick provided.  “And more importantly, to the victors!” he replied, gesturing expansively at the tavern’s occupants.  “All of you, the true saviors of this Union.”  This elicited another cheer from the crowd.  Leaning forward, Kiluron caught Listrick’s attention.  “Table to the side, maybe?  For the four of us?”  She had been the one to announce him as Prime; Kiluron wouldn’t feel guilty now if some advantage came of it.

               Listrick nodded and led the four of them to a table against the wall opposite from where the minstrel was performing, shooing away the table’s original occupants.  Bowls of stew and mugs of ale followed them to their seats, and Kiluron nodded his thanks.  “Keep the change, by the way,” he added.  Listrick beamed, gave an awkward bow, and retreated to attend to her other customers.

               Taking a long pull on his ale, Kiluron leaned back and sighed.  “Peace at last,” he murmured.  He noted Doil’s skeptical eyebrow through his almost closed eyelids.  “What?”

               “This hardly seems like it would be described as ‘peaceful,’ whatever else it might be,” Doil remarked.  The minstrel chose that moment to strike up a particularly raunchy tune, and half the taverna appeared to know the words, as if they were trying to prove Doil’s point.

               “Do you see anyone bothering us?” Kiluron asked over a verse about a quite unlikely arrangement between a sailor, his wife, and a dolphin.  “Is anyone trying to get our opinion on this or that, or find our weaknesses, or presume on our strengths, or any of the other things we have to deal with all day, every day?  Nope.  There’s no one.  Just some regular folks doing regular things.”

               “Except for the business with the cheering,” Doil observed.  “Perhaps you enjoy such things more than you care to admit.”

               “Um, no,” Kiluron retorted.  “But notice: that was it.  We did the little performance, and now everyone is content to go back to their own business.”

               Doil still appeared skeptical.  “If you say so, my lord.”

               Whatever Doil’s opinions, Kiluron could already feel himself beginning to relax.  By the time he had finished his stew and his second mug of ale, he was no longer thinking about his ministers, or about Rovis, or about the province governors, or about the threat of invasion.  Instead, he felt pleasantly warm and comfortable.  The buzz of conversation was just loud enough to give him a sense of privacy, and even Doil was laughing along with the two guardsmen.

               It was late when Kiluron and the others returned to the castle.  Twiol and Vargil bade Doil and Kiluron good night at the gates; Kiluron thanked them, and ambled up the broad steps after his adviser, who was visibly drooping.

               “However did I allow you to keep me awake until such an obscene time of night?” he asked.  “I’ll barely have time to sleep before it’s time to wake up again.”

               Kiluron slapped his shoulder.  “Sometimes it’s worth the sacrifice.”

               “I suppose.”  Doil yawned.  “We’ll both pay for it tomorrow, though.  Good night.”

               “Good night.”  Kiluron continued on towards his own rooms.  The castle corridors were dark, but that was normal when it was approaching midnight, and the spring air wasn’t so chilly as to render the place uncomfortable.  He echoed Doil’s yawn as he put his hand upon his own door and pushed it open.

               A tendril of cool air tickled his cheek, and the curtains fluttered as he closed the door behind him.  That was odd: he did not recall leaving the window open, and it seemed too early in the spring yet for the servants to have opened it for him.  He was slowed by his thought as he reached for his cloak’s clasp and trod across the chamber towards the open window.  The stack of papers on the side table by the armchair was still neat, perhaps neater than he had left it.  The hairs on the back of his neck rose like an ant’s antennae.

               Trusting his instincts, Kiluron ripped the cloak from his shoulders and felt it catch on something behind him.  He spun, grabbing the cloak in both hands and using it like a sling to wrap around his unseen assailant.  Even when he turned around to face where he thought his attacker to be, he saw no one.  He tugged on the cloak again and again felt resistance.  He threw himself backwards to the floor, smacking his head on the wooden side table so hard that his vision swam, but he felt a weight pulling against him, and then that weight land atop him.

               Releasing the cloak, Kiluron punched blindly upward.  His fist struck clothed flesh, but he still could see nothing.  He bucked his hips and scrabbled wildly forward, imagining invisible blades stabbing down at his exposed face and chest.  “Assassin!” he shouted.  “Assassin in the Prime’s chambers!”  He had no idea if anyone would hear him, and he wished that he had the presence of mind to have called out sooner.

               Though he longed for a sword to keep his invisible assailant as far away as possible, Kiluron settled for his belt knife.  There were swords in his chambers, but he could not get to them; he had put his back to a stone corner and dared not move, lest his invisible attacker launch an attack from behind.  He reassured himself by supposing that a sword might be too long for the space, anyway, but the thought was scant comfort.  No training with Vere had prepared him to fight an enemy that was completely invisible.

               Well, if the enemy was invisible, his eyes were useless.  Kiluron remembered Doil explaining how those who were blind often developed preternaturally sensitive hearing or smelling abilities.  He remembered being in that pitch-black cave with Fetrina, fumbling along by touch, and the odd sense he had then experienced that he could know where the ceiling was even without being able to see it, even before he smacked his head against it.  He closed his eyes and lifted his dagger.

               It felt so wrong to be facing an enemy with his eyes closed, and he could not quite keep himself from trembling, but he forced himself not to peek out from beneath his eyelids.  He heard a rustle of cloth to his right and slashed violently at it; he heard a rattle of metal, but all he had struck were the curtains.  A moment later a line of fire burnt his side as an invisible blade hit his ribs, and he smacked the weapon frantically away with his own.  From the sensation of blood dripping down his skin and soaking into his shirt, he knew some of his senses, at least, were enhanced.

               Giving up on keeping his eyes closed, Kiluron coated his left hand in his own blood and flicked it outwards in all directions, spattering the armchair, his papers, the tapestries on the walls…and, for half a moment, a humanoid figure sneaking around the room.  With a yell, Kiluron leapt forward and pinned the shape against the stone floor and stabbed downward; he was rewarded with the resistance of human flesh and a crunch.

               Pushing himself away and pulling his dagger out, Kiluron watched as blood flowed for a moment from a slit in the air itself before the body shimmered into visibility.  Chest heaving, Kiluron took in the grey wrappings and the black weapons, and the fact that the blood had already ceased to flow.  A strange amulet lay across the man’s pale neck.

               Kiluron stumbled to his feet, thought for a moment, and then ran from his chambers to Doil’s.  He burst through the door without knocking, sending splinters flying as he busted the bolt and eliciting a startled yelp from Doil.  “Blood and – Kiluron?!”  Doil mastered himself with remarkable alacrity.  “My lord, what’s going on?”

               “Water,” Kiluron demanded.  Without waiting for a reply, he took the pitcher on Doil’s table and began tossing it around the room, heedless of the papers and books he was soaking.  When that was empty, he seized the chamber pot and tossed its contents around the room, too.  Only then did he pause and notice Doil looking at him like he had gone insane.  After a moment’s reflection, Kiluron admitted that Doil’s perspective was probably justified.  “Invisible assassin.  Tried to kill me,” he explained.  He counted it as an explanation, at least.  “Come on.  We need to find Vere.”

               To Doil’s credit, he did not hesitate to throw on a cloak and follow Doil from the room.  “Slow down.  My lord, invisible assassins?”

               “Well, one of them.  Visible now that I killed him.”  Kiluron was walking just below a run, and Doil had to jog to keep pace.  “Wore grey robes, had black weapons, some kind of amulet thing at the throat.  Sound familiar?”

               “Not…wait.”  Kiluron thought Doil was about to swear for a second time that night and wondered if that was a new record.  “Vere’s report from Heart City.  The day Prime Wezzix was…there were warriors dressed like that in the Gältrok’nör.”

               Kiluron shook his head.  “Just when I thought we were getting things under control for once.  But we defeated the Guardian,” he protested.

               “I don’t know any more than you do.”  Doil glanced nervously towards the shadows.  “They could be anywhere.”

               “I know.”  Kiluron felt as grim as he knew he sounded.  Now that the rush of conflict was beginning to wear off, he could feel the pain of his wound, and wondered if he should have stopped to bandage it.  Logically, there were probably no other assassins in his chambers; otherwise, they would have intervened to stop him from killing one of their number.  That wasn’t enough to convince him that he should have lingered.

               They both slept in the guardhouse that night, although sleep was not the right word.  Kiluron didn’t think anyone in the entire, quiet guardhouse was sleeping.  When the moonlight was right, he always saw it glinting from open eyes, and when it was wrong, he thought he heard whispers of movement in empty corners.  Before dawn began, Kiluron stood up and dressed.

               “You were right about one thing,” he told Doil.  “We didn’t get nearly enough sleep last night.”

               With a suppressed groan, and a wary glance around the room, Doil prepared for another interview.  He had suggested to Prime Kiluron that they cancel the interviews for the day in light of the previous night’s events, for the safety of all involved, and he had advised that they convene an emergency session with the current ministers in order to discuss what they knew of the threat and how best to address it.  In both cases, the Prime had proven less than receptive, insisting instead on proceeding with the day as if nothing untoward had happened.

               All that Doil had managed to achieve was permission to write a letter to the Isle of Blood, seeking any information they might have about the Gälmourein, as Doil had found they were called in Guardcaptain Vere’s report.  He was not even allowed to refer to the specific incident, or to ask any questions that would imply there had been a specific incident.  As Prime Kiluron had noted, they had never received so much as an expression of thanks from High Priest Yorin for their efforts during the Pifechan invasion, so it was difficult to tell how relations stood.

               “Good morning.  Long night?”  Borivat strolled in, appearing quite blithe.  “The castle certainly seems to be abuzz early this morning.”

               The rumors were flying, of course.  It was difficult to keep servants from gossiping at the best of times, and when some of them were tasked with disposing of corpses from the Prime’s chambers and cleaning up from what the Prime had done to detect invisible assassins in Doil’s, that was an unusual level of excitement even by recent standards.  “Something like that,” Doil replied, and then grimaced.  This was Borivat, even if he weren’t going to find out soon, regardless.  “There was an assassination attempt on the Prime last night.”

               Eyes widening, Borivat nodded in understanding.  “That would explain it.  What happened?”

               “We don’t know very much yet,” Doil admitted.  “What we do know is…concerning, to say the least.  I just sent of a letter to the Isle of Blood requesting information.  The assassin was able to render himself fully, or near fully, invisible, presumably through Blood Magic.  He also appeared to be a Gälmourein, one of those warriors Guardcaptain Vere told us about from the Gältrok’nör.  But what this might have to do with Heart City and the Guardian, we still have no idea.”

               “And why now?” Borivat added.  “Surely it would have been easier to strike at the Prime when he was on campaign, away from Merolate or any other secure refuge.”

               Doil nodded.  “But the Prime is insisting on proceeding as if nothing has happened.  He claims that if he ‘let every crazy person who wanted to kill me dictate what happens in Merolate, then they’ll have won whether they kill me or not,’ but I have to admit that I’m rather worried.”

               “There’s something to that, although perhaps not to the extent that the Prime is taking it,” Borivat mused.  “This may be out of line, but has he discussed selecting a Sub-Prime with you?”

               “Um, no?”  Doil was almost as surprised as he imagined Kiluron would have been.  “I can’t say that I’ve thought about it, either.  Prime Wezzix was over thirty by the time he selected a Sub-Prime.”

               Borivat nodded.  “Under normal circumstances, I would agree, but these have hardly been normal circumstances.  Prime Kiluron’s reign, whatever else it might be, has so far been a dangerous one, through little fault of his own.  A clear line of succession would be valuable.  It would also be a political asset, as the stability it would imply would help reassure the governors and other parties about the Union’s durability in light of recent events.”  He shrugged.  “At least, it is something that you should be thinking about, I think.  But I should really not be giving such advice anymore.”

               “No, it’s a good thought,” Doil reassured him.  “One I probably ought to have had before this, considering.  I’ll bring it up with Prime Kiluron once we’ve learned a little more about this assassination attempt.”

               Kiluron arrived before they could discuss the matter further.  There were bandages on his side just faintly visible beneath his tunic, and the sword belted as his waist was far more practical than the ceremonial sabers he usually wore for such occasions.  That seriousness was somewhat countered by the sticky, flaky pastry he was munching upon as he chatted with some unseen servant on the door’s opposite side.  Then he closed the door behind him and settled down in his accustomed seat.

               “Sorry I interrupted…” he said, noting the silence that had descended.  “Please, carry on.”

               Doil cleared his throat, uncomfortable.  “Uh, no, that’s alright, my lord.  We probably ought to turn our attention to the upcoming interview.”

               Their next candidate was one of the inclusions whom Doil wished he could have removed from the list, but he was required to give all reasonably qualified applicants the opportunity for an interview.  Still, Doil could hope that the Prime would not find this particular candidate suitable.  He feared that the opposite would occur, but all he could do was offer his opinion.  His name was Wevol, and as far as Doil was concerned he was only one step up from a consummate rogue.

               Wevol was announced at the door, and walked inside wearing a travel-stained cloak, although Doil was certain he could have afforded something finer.  His leather boots and belt were scuffed, and he walked with an obvious limp that Doil somehow doubted he affected in his actual travels.  He offered a flourishing bow to the Prime and nodded to Borivat and Doil.  “Gentlemen.  I am honored to be in such esteemed company.  Why, of all the courts and palaces I’ve visited, I think this might be the first time that I’ve come to the castle of my own home.”

               It was all Doil could do to resist exchanging a skeptical glance with Borivat.  Unfortunately, Doil was the one who was expected to lead the interview.  “Please, have a seat, and we’ll get started,” he said.  “You are interested in the position of Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands.  Could you tell us why?”

               Wevol blinked, as if this were the most astonishing question in the world.  “I think it’s obvious.  Patriotic duty, of course.  For all my life, I’ve been travelling all around the Aprina Basin, from the Hiblanicho Isles in the north to the West Elif Islands in the south.  I have hunted the mythical elephant with the tribes of central Nycheril, and ridden remote mountain passes with the People.  Is there anyone in all the Union with such direct, personal experience to offer?”

               Not bothering to reply to the rhetorical question, Doil continued with the interview.  “How would you characterize the current political environment of Old Sankt?”

               “Stuffy, outdated, backwards.”  Wevol seemed hardly to bother thinking about his responses before giving them.  “A bunch of conceited idealists who will never amount to anything in the modern world.”

               “Then you have nothing to say on the topic of their political restructuring following their occupation by the Pifechans?” Doil prodded.

               With a shrug, Wevol dismissed the notion.  “This is Sankt we’re talking about.  They haven’t had an appreciable change in what, six hundred years?  Getting occupied isn’t going to change that.”

               Doil suppressed his urge to comment further; he was here to conduct an interview, not engage in an argument.  “What do you think of Merolate’s current relationship with Rovis?”

               “Unimportant.”  Wevol dismissed this, too.  “The continent’s future is in unification.  Give it a few more generations, maybe a more warlike Prime or two, and you’ll be looking at a unified Lufilna under the Merolate system.  And Merolate’s future, for all that, lies in Nycheril.  That’s where all the exciting things are happening.  Rovis, Ebereen, Sankt…they’re yesterday, dusty relics from an earlier era.”

               “And just what do you think of Merolate’s relations with Nycheril?” Doil asked.  He wasn’t sure if he was hoping or dreading that Wevol might supply a real answer.

               Even to this question, though, Wevol did not bother to supply a rigorous treatment.  “More trade, more expeditions.  Armed expeditions into the interior, not just mucking about on the coasts.  Who knows what we’ll find: gold, zombies, the secret to eternal youth, miracle medicines…I’m just the man to lead – I mean organize – those voyages.”

               Doil glanced at Borivat, who appeared pained, and at Prime Kiluron, who seemed distracted.  Perhaps the assassination attempt was bothering him more than he wanted to admit.  “Unless there are further questions, this interview is complete.  We will contact you in a few days with our decision.”

               Once Wevol had vacated the audience chamber, Doil turned towards his companions, secretly dreading Prime Kiluron’s response.  “Thoughts?”

               “While well-traveled,” Borivat began, careful as he always was, “I do not believe he has the suitable temperament or understanding of foreign policy to be a suitable Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands.  I would recommend against his selection.”

               “I concur,” Doil noted.  “Prime Kiluron?”

               As if dragged from some private ruminations, Kiluron grimaced.  “Same here.  I want my ministers to counter my sometimes-irresponsible tendencies, not be even less responsible than I am.”

               Relieved, Doil nodded.  “Then we will continue the interview process.”  He glanced at Borivat, wondering what the old Advisor thought.  Before, he had seemed eager, almost desperate, to find a replacement so that he could retire, but recently he had seemed more reserved, and had yet to express much enthusiasm about any of the candidates, even ones he had himself recommended.  Doil wondered if perhaps he was having second thoughts, but he did not care to broach the subject.

               “While I have you both here,” Kiluron spoke abruptly, “can we talk about last night?  I could use some advice, and the two of you are always the best people for that sort of thing.”

               Doil hesitated.  “I would think that Guardcaptain Vere might be of more assistance in such matters…”

               Kiluron shook his head.  “That’s not the kind of advice I need right now.  I can come up with tactics to fight invisible assassins, although not good ones.  What I really want to know is why.  Why now?  Why me?  What’s really going on, and how did we miss it?”

               “Some of that might need to await a reply to Doil’s message to the Isle,” Borivat hedged.  “Neither of us is an expert in Blood Magic, much less its ancient permutations.”

               Sighing, Kiluron rubbed his forehead.  “There’s something missing.  I can’t help but think that all of this is related.  Well, not the Pifechans.  They don’t seem to fit the pattern at all.  But the Guardian, Heart City, the dragons, the heliblode, these assassins – and I’m assuming there are going to be more, although I suppose I don’t have any really good evidence to support that – I swear it’s all related somehow.  I wish we could sit down with Eldar or one of the other dragons and get some straight answers, but somehow I doubt they’re even capable of giving answers that we would find clear.”

               “I suppose it’s conceivable,” Doil admitted.  “There is a great deal that we don’t know about our ancient history.  I would actually say that the Pifechans might be related, at least tangentially.  Their language, their writing…it’s too similar to ours, more so even than the ones we’ve encountered on Nycheril.  That’s a thread I keep tugging on, although it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.”

               “Maybe I’m just crazy.  There’s no reason that all of these things should be related.  I’m probably just getting paranoid.”  Kiluron smiled ruefully.  “It’s been a year to make anyone paranoid.”

               Borivat spread his hands upon the table.  “It may sound strange coming from me, but I would not be so quick to dismiss your instincts in this case.  Certainly, in the matter of this assassination attempt, it seems very likely that there is more than we are presently cognizant of in play.  It seems unlikely that these assassins would be operating independently; at the very least, there are developments among the remnants of the Guardian’s followers of which we are not currently aware.  Perhaps that would be a place to start an investigation.”

               There was something there, a connection that was just out of a view, but it slipped away before Doil could grasp it.  “I agree.  If the information from the Isle is unenlightening, and I do not expect it to be, then perhaps Guardcaptain Vere can supply some information about the Guardian’s scattered followers.”

               It didn’t seem like very much upon which to base an investigation, much less like anything substantial enough to reassure Kiluron, but the Prime appeared satisfied.  “Thanks.  Doil, let me know as soon as you hear back from the Isle.  I’m going to go talk to Guardcaptain Vere.”  He left then, without any further comment or discussion.

               With a sigh, Borivat rose to his feet as well.  “Don’t forget about what we discussed earlier,” he said, before he followed Kiluron from the chamber.  Doil lingered for a moment, then gathered his papers and hurried to find a common area.  This did not seem like a good day on which to be alone in a study.

               A reply from the Isle came that afternoon.  When Doil read it, he almost decided not to bring it to the Prime.  After reading it twice, he sought out Kiluron, who was reading, or at least sitting in front of a thick tome, while two guardsmen stood mutely over his shoulders.  Doil squeezed passed them and settled himself on the bench beside the Prime.

               “Hey, Doil,” Kiluron said absently.  He shook himself and looked away from the book.  “I don’t know how you spend so much time reading.  This book doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.

               Peering at the spine, Doil read ‘A Treatise on the Disparate and Varied Practitioners of the Balancer Religion.’  “You didn’t exactly pick light material,” he remarked.

               Kiluron rubbed his temples.  “I suppose not.”  Noting the letter in Doil’s hand, he brightened.  “News from the Isle?”

               “Nothing of much use.”  Doil felt guilty for dashing the Prime’s hopes.  “I’m afraid that this is decidedly light reading material.  All it really says is that many of their records were damaged or destroyed during the invasion, and that they have no information to give us on the Guardian or its followers that they did not share during the original crisis.”

               “Balance,” Kiluron cursed.  “You’d think that Yorin would be a little more eager to lend a hand, considering I saved his whole little cult from being thundercasted.”

               Doil nodded in agreement.  “There is a reason that relations with the Isle have never been good, even at the best of times,” he noted.  “Did you speak with Guardcaptain Vere?”

               Leaning back in his chair, Kiluron crossed his arms.  “I did.  He didn’t have a lot for me.  There are a few places where Balancers congregate that he keeps tabs on, but he hasn’t seen any unusual activity there, and the most recent scout reports from the vicinity of Heart City revealed nothing out of the ordinary.  Seems like this is a dead end.”

               “Perhaps a more thorough scouting of Heart City would be beneficial?  If these assassins are operating from the Gältrok’nör, there would not necessarily be evidence to the casual observer,” Doil suggested.

               “Maybe,” Kiluron sighed.  “I don’t know.  These assassins can’t have just come from nowhere.”

               Doil hesitated.  “It is worth considering that the assassin you encountered was a lone fanatic.”

               “You think I haven’t thought of that?”  Kiluron shook his head.  “I guess we’ll find out if someone tries to kill me again tonight.”

               “That would not prove a negative,” Doil replied automatically, then flushed.  “Apologies, my lord.”

               Kiluron waved that away.  “I’m going to go find an early supper, and then I’m going to bed.  We didn’t get much sleep last night, and I’d rather attack this problem fresh.  Plus, waiting to give someone the opportunity to kill me is not helping my concentration.  So I’ll see you in the morning?  Or not, I suppose.”

               Doil watched him go, wishing that there was something more that he could be doing.

               It was dark, but Kiluron was not sleeping.  He thought that he might have dozed for a time after supper, but not for long, and not well.  There was a guard standing inside the door to his chambers, eyes alert and spear ready, but so far all was quiet.  Not that the relative alertness of the guard would make much of a difference if the assassin gave no sign of his presence except for plunging a knife into Kiluron’s breast.  He shivered at the thought and rolled over so that he could reach his hand under his pillow to feel the hilt of the dagger he had sequestered there.

               Going through the day with as much normalcy as possible had been a good thing, and had kept him from worrying incessantly over the possibility of assassins hiding in every shadow, but now, with nothing to do but attempt vainly to sleep, that crutch had been removed.  Perhaps more than he feared for his own life, he feared what the assassins might be attempting to achieve.  He wished that assassins would deliver a note in advance, something to the extent of ‘hello, we would like to kill you, and here are our reasons.’  Not a very realistic wish, but it would have made him feel better.

               There were just too many mysteries.  Guardcaptain Vere had overseen a thorough examination of the previous night’s assassin’s body but found little informative.  The amulet Kiluron had glimpsed beneath the layers of grey wrappings was pinned into the man’s breastbone, and it was clearly some kind of Blood Magic artifact, but its exact function was unknown, and Kiluron was not interested in sending it off to the Isle of Blood for an unhelpful analysis.  His weapons were ordinary enough, as was his physique, save that he seemed not to have the usual amount of blood.

               None of it had informed improved defenses, shed light on the assassin’s source, or his goals.  Neither was there any indication of whether there might be more dispatched following this one’s failure.  Even if there were, there was no telling when they might arrive.  Logically, Kiluron supposed that a second attack was unlikely to come immediately, but that did not enable him to sleep.

               All that night, he didn’t manage to do more than doze, but no attack came.  When the sun began to peek over the horizon, he stood, nodded to the guard still standing by his door, and went about his preparations for the day.  Somehow, he doubted that there would be enough to do, assuming that he managed not to fall asleep.

               He managed to make it through the day, although he could not claim all of the credit; he was pretty certain that he noticed Doil insulating him from the more complex decisions and challenging issues about which he might have otherwise been expected to think.  That didn’t bother him too much, as he was sufficiently honest with himself to realize that he was not in a fit state to address such matters.  He even took a nap in the afternoon, though somehow that only made him more tired.

               Despite that, he still couldn’t sleep that night.  Even attempting to read A Treatise on the Disparate and Varied Practitioners of the Balancer Religion couldn’t quite put him to sleep.  Every time he started to drift off, he would jerk himself back into wakefulness, grabbing for his dagger and looking frantically around the room for an assassin that he wouldn’t be able to see.  He was just debating with himself if he should give up on attempting to sleep when he finally drifted off.

               It was dark when he awoke, and it took him several moments to determine where he was and what was happening: he was in his own bed, and the sheets were tangled around him like he had been having a nightmare.  The darkness was too deep to tell for certain, but he thought he could make out a guard still standing by his door.  Laying back in bed, he let out a heavy breath.  Part of him wanted to get up and light a candle, but he was more inclined to pull the blankets back over him as if they would ward him from a knife in the dark.

               Uncomfortable, he rolled over, and his spine tingled.  Trusting his instincts, he continued his roll entirely off of the bed, and heard the tearing of fabric as a knife plunged into the mattress.  Kiluron managed to snatch his own dagger, and he dropped into a crouch, waving it wildly before him.  The guard ran in, drawing his sword, and had his throat laid open for his efforts.

               Suppressing his flash of guilt, Kiluron silently thanked the guard; his wound had covered the assassin with blood and made him visible, at least as a silhouette.  Kiluron didn’t know how long it would be before the assassin was able to make himself properly invisible again, but he intended to take advantage of this opportunity.  He flung himself forward to attack, thinking to engage and quickly defeat his opponent.

               He underestimated the assassin.  Logically, he could recall Vere’s reports about fighting these people, and how frightfully skilled they were, but it was very different to experience it for himself.  To make matters worse, Kiluron had not been training very consistently with his sword, much less in dagger combat.  From a reckless attack he was sent stumbling back, scrambling around furniture to get away from his opponent’s deadly blade.  He barely managed to parry a handful of strikes that got too close.

               At least the last vestiges of sleepiness had been dispelled by fear.  Kiluron tumbled into his sitting room, flung a stool into his attacker’s path, and lurched to his feet, practically diving for the chamber door.  He wrenched it open and ran into the hallway beyond, going backwards to keep his assailant in view.  The assassin seemed annoyed that his prey had managed to escape so far, and he leapt forward with renewed vigor.  Perhaps he feared that Kiluron would manage to escape.

               If so, he probably didn’t need to worry; Kiluron did not feel like he was close to escaping.  As the assassin pressed the attack, it was all he could do to keep the blade from his flesh.  With only his nightgown for protection, there was little margin for error.  He managed to block a particularly fierce blow, but he tripped in the process and landed on his rear and backed against a wall; he barely managed to hold onto his dagger.

               “Why?” he demanded, trying to meet his assassin’s eyes.  “Tell me what’s going on!”

               If the assassin cared what Kiluron said, he gave no indication of it.  Kiluron managed to roll away from a downward strike but felt a line of heat across his shoulder as he tried to regain his feet; the assassin had drawn blood.  Hoping that some horrible Blood Magic wouldn’t result, Kiluron continued retreating down the corridor.  He shouted several times for aid, but no one seemed to be coming.  That seemed an even more ominous sign than the fact that an assassin had managed to invade his chambers.

               Blocking another blow left him terribly exposed, which Kiluron realized too late to bring his dagger back into play.  Instinctively, he flung up his free arm like a shield, and screamed as the assassin’s blade struck hard into the extremity.  Blood poured from the wound, and Kiluron fell back, clutching his arm and wondering how badly he had been hurt.  All he could feel was pain.  Gritting his teeth, he managed to bring his dagger around to block the follow-up, but he doubted he could block another strike.  The assassin reared back to finish him, but the blade clanged against a bloody sword that flickered out of nowhere.

               “Too slow,” Vere remarked, flipping the blade aside and laying open the assassin’s throat with a blistering riposte.  He kicked the now visible corpse away and took up a position in front of Kiluron.  There were several minor wounds on the guardcaptain’s arms and chest, and he was wearing an improvised blindfold.

               All Kiluron knew of what followed was a confused chiming of metal against metal, punctuated by heavy breathing and the occasional grey-clad body shimmering into visibility as it died.  Eventually, the din and confusion faded, and he dimly noted that Vere was binding the wound in his arm.  He could see the guardcaptain’s mouth moving but could not interpret the words.  It didn’t seem like he had lost so much blood, but he felt decidedly faint.  Then a pair of servants lifted him up, and he lost consciousness.

               He awoke in his own chamber, in his own bed, with bright sunlight streaming through the window to fall upon him.  The pain in his left arm, muted beneath a thick bandage, informed him immediately that he had not dreamt the second assassin attack, although someone had done a remarkable job of clearing his room of the evidence, scrubbing out the bloodstains, patching his mattress, and repairing or replacing the furniture he had scattered and tripped over trying to avoid the assassin.  Rubbing his throbbing forehead with his uninjured right hand, he felt is stomach grumble beneath his dry throat, and wondered how long he had been unconscious.

               Through the opening into his sitting room, he could see two guards stationed there; he thought that he recognized one of them as Guardsman Vargil.  With a severe expenditure of energy, he managed to swallow enough to speak.  “What does a man need to do for something to drink around here?”

               A smile split Guardsman Vargil’s face, and he hurried closer to Kiluron.  “Was wondering when you might be waking up, Sir.  Seems that being Prime means you get to sleep until all sorts of times of the day.”

               “How long?” Kiluron asked.

               The other guard walked in, whom Kiluron recognized as Guardsman Bult.  “Not long, Sir.  It’s not yet noon on the day after…well.”  He cleared his throat.  “Anyway, I’ll go see about something to drink for you, Sir.  And I should probably let people know that you’re awake.”

               “Yes, good,” Kiluron croaked.

               It felt like a long time before a servant entered with a tray bearing a large, steaming mug of tea, along with a bowl of thick stew and a hunk of crusty bread, although in reality it probably had not been very long at all.  Not long after the sustenance arrived, Doil followed it, peering into the room with undisguised concern.

               “Guardcaptain Vere assured me that you were mostly suffering from shock, but, given the circumstances of your wound, I will admit that I had some reservations,” Doil remarked, moving to sit in a chair beside Kiluron’s bed.  “How’s the arm?”

               Kiluron went to gesture with it but thought better of that plan.  “Hurts.  What did I miss?”

               Doil examined Kiluron closely, as if debating if he was sufficiently recovered for such conversation, before replying.  “Well, these Gälmourein apparently decided that they weren’t going to take any chances after their initial failure.  Aside from the one that attacked you, there were attacks all over the castle.  We lost almost a dozen guards and servants.  Guardcaptain Vere managed to fight his way up to your chambers and held off the assassins long enough that they just sort of…started dying.  My research suggests that the amulets they wear power their unnatural abilities, but feed off of their blood in order to do so, so once they start using them, they have a limited lifespan.”

               “Great.  He’ll be insufferable now.  Even more than before, I mean.”  Kiluron tried to shift again, and again regretted it.  “Any indications of why they might be attacking, or where they’re coming from, or when the next attack might be?”

               He did not expect anything affirmative, but Doil surprised him.  “With so many, we were able to track where we think they entered the city, and from there where we think they might have come from.  They do seem to have come from the Gältrok’nör.  As to why, that’s something that only they can probably answer.  But Guardcaptain Vere’s putting together a strike force and preparing to assault the GAL.  It should be ready in just a few days, if you give your approval for the mission.”

               Kiluron glanced down at his bandaged arm.  “I’m not sure that I’ll be ready that soon.  Besides which, I clearly need to practice more before I’d be ready to go up against those Gälmourein.”

               A look of severe discomfort flitted across Doil’s face.  “Um, I don’t think that you’ll be fighting in this battle, my lord.”  He looked significantly at Kiluron’s injured arm.

               Kiluron followed his gaze.  “What?  I’ll heal.  It’s not like I lost the hand or something.  Besides, it’s my left arm.”

               “The physic who treated you said that…that you likely would never regain full use of your left hand,” Doil explained.  “The wound itself will heal, but apparently there’s internal damage that she couldn’t fix.”

               Unable to meet Doil’s gaze, Kiluron stared at the ceiling instead.  “Oh.”  There was a long, uncomfortable silence.  Doil eventually tried to break it, but Kiluron interrupted him.  “In that case, tell Vere that his mission is approved.  As soon as he’s ready, strike the Gältrok’nör.  And when the Gälmourein are gone, tear that place down.  I don’t want anyone else getting ideas about returning the Guardian or whatnot.”

               Doil started to say something, but he changed his mind.  “I’ll tell him, my lord.”

               There seemed nothing more to be said.  Eventually, Doil took his leave, leaving Kiluron alone.  Well, there were still the two guards in his sitting room, but they seemed to sense that he wished to be left alone and kept themselves discrete.  For a long time, Kiluron stared up at the ceiling, thinking dark thoughts, and wondering what was going to happen next.

               Picking at a nearly healed scab on his cheek, Guardcaptain Vere grimaced.  Logically, he supposed that he should not feel like he had done badly against a cohort of half a dozen Blood Magic powered, invisible, elite, fanatical assassins, considering that he had come out scathed by only a handful of shallow lacerations.  The fact that he had fought them blindfolded in a bid to amplify his other senses and avoid unnecessary and useless distractions from his eyes added to the objective impressiveness of what he had done.  He found none of it particularly reassuring.

               The first time he had faced these Gälmourein, he had experienced their skill, but not the full extent of their more unnatural abilities.  The fact that they could render themselves invisible for periods of time, however limited, was more than disconcerting; it made his job almost impossible.  Shadows had been one thing, but this was different.  There was no tactic he could imagine that would truly enable a foolproof defense against such an opponent.  As much as there were military strategists who claimed that the best defense was a good offense, Vere had never held to that school of thought.  In this case, it seemed he had little choice.

               His strike team was as prepared as they could be, although no scouts had been able to penetrate the Gältrok’nör itself, so there was no way of knowing precisely how many Gälmourein they might be facing, what their dispositions might be, or if there were additional, confounding factors within the Gältrok’nör.  Still, at least he knew the layout from his failed attempt to rescue Prime Wezzix.  Perhaps some of his concern was a result of that disastrous mission.

               Completing a final line of poetry in his field journal, Vere tucked it away and glanced towards the eastern horizon.  It was almost dawn, which meant it was almost time for the attack.  Vere remembered the Blood Priests saying that the Guardian would be weakest at dawn and dusk, which were the most naturally Balanced times of day.  Whether it was religious nonsense or not, Vere did not intend to leave any potential advantage untapped.

               If all went as planned, once he and his team had cleared out the Gälmourein assassins, his reserve guard force would move in with crowbars, sledgehammers, and heavy equipment to systematically collapse the passages leading down into the Gältrok’nör.  The historian in Vere thought this was a grievous waste, especially considering how little they really knew about Heart City, but the strategist in him thought it was a sound decision.  The Gältrok’nör had produced nothing but trouble for as long as Vere had been alive, and it had only grown worse in the past few years.  Perhaps sealing it off would curtail some of that from bothering Merolate.

               Around him, his team was as prepared as they could be, so Vere gave the signal to begin their attack.  There were no ghostly buildings to greet them this time as they left their camp and descended into Heart City, just ordinary ruins.  No bandit camps were hidden amongst the ruins; Vere wondered if that was lingering superstition and fear following the Heart War and the Guardian’s occupation, or if the Gälmourein had cleared them out when they reoccupied the Gältrok’nör.  One thing was very clear from this whole incident: he needed to improve his guard force’s ability to obtain and analyze intelligence.  That a threat like the Gälmourein could arise practically next door to Merolate City did not speak well to their current capacity.

               As they approached the Gältrok’nör, Vere put such thoughts from his mind and concentrated on the mission.  The Gälmourein were a formidable opponent, and it would not do to underestimate them or be distracted.  No guards greeted them in the crater-like formation leading down into the Gältrok’nör, so Vere used hand signals to send his team through the old door and into the dark tunnel beyond.

               Of his nine-person team, every third man held a torch, leaving two to defend the torchbearer.  The flickering light seemed inadequate considering what they were going to face, but it was better than fighting in the dark.  Vere hoped that, since Advisor Doil claimed the amount of time the assassins could spend invisible was limited, they would be able to take them by surprise while they were still visible; that would go a long way towards evening the odds.  Even better, perhaps they would not turn themselves invisible at all in their home base and settle for the shadows they had employed during the Guardian’s occupation.

               One grey-clad figure stood guard at the entrance to the Gältrok’nör itself; the team’s point man struck him hard and fast before the assassin could raise an alarm or even react.  Once the body had been lowered to the ground, the team gathered around the door, readying weapons.  The three torches were wedged into the passage to be retrieved on their way out if there was time.  Vere gave them a countdown, and then they burst through the final door into the Gältrok’nör.

               Compared to Vere’s last time in the Gältrok’nör, it had deteriorated into an archaic ruin, although he supposed that it had likely been that way during the Guardian’s occupation beneath whatever strange magic the Guardian had used to restore much of Heart City in ghostly splendor.  Pillars he had barely noticed on his first visit lay strewn in pieces across a rough and cracked floor, and there were signs of charring scattered about, as if a thunderstorm had exploded within the Gältrok’nör.  Chunks of the ceiling and walls had broken free and crashed to the floor below, and the whole scene gave the impression of immense violence.

               That impression was not helped by what drew most of Vere’s attention.  An altar had been erected on the central dais, and from that focus blood flowed, veritable crimson rivers that wandered their way over the cracked floor until they eventually became black and flaking as they dried.  Perhaps a dozen charcoal-wrapped figures surrounded the altar, with their slim swords and array of knives: Gälmourein.  They did not appear to have noticed Vere and his team yet, absorbed in obscene preparations upon the dais and, Vere realized, by a central figure to whom they attended.

               It was a human figure, or at least humanoid, but the proportions were all wrong in a ghastly way that set Vere’s skin crawling and made him want to avert his gaze.  For all its familiarity, it was utterly alien, and terrified him in some primal way that he could do little to combat.  From the looks on the faces of his men, he suspected that they felt the same, and he wondered how they would react if the figure were more substantial.  For there was something of shadow about the figure, like a silhouette, as if it were not quite present in the Gältrok’nör with them.

               All of these observations Vere noted in a moment, but it was a moment too long spent surveying the situation, for just as he was about to order their attack, the doors behind them swung open to admit two further Gälmourein, these burdened by tightly bound bundles that were clearly identifiable as human.  At the opening of the doors, Vere’s team and the two Gälmourein stared at each other in mutual surprise and consternation, and then mutual violence exploded.

               Seeking to take advantage of the Gälmourein’s burdens, Vere launched an attack with all the speed he could muster.  His sword took one of the Gälmourein through the throat before the woman could react, even as he shouted at his team, abandoning secrecy and stealth.  “The dais!”  It was all he had time to say, but his team understood; they left him to face the remaining Gälmourein at the door and raced off to engage the enemies at the Gältrok’nör’s center.

               Even that tiny delay was enough time for the remaining Gälmourein to deposit his burden and draw his swords, gathering shadows about himself like Vere might have gathered a cloak in a blizzard.  At least the man didn’t turn himself invisible; perhaps Doil’s hypothesis that doing so was immensely costly to the Gälmourein was correct.  Recalling his previous engagements with the assassins, Vere resisted the temptation to stare into the shadows in a vain attempt to penetrate them.  Instead, he watched as the shadows themselves shifted, and deflected first one blow, then another.  Both were launched weakly, their originator not anticipating an effective parry.  Vere had no such handicap; his reply punched through the Gälmourein’s chest, and he was racing to join his team at the dais before the body hit the ground.

               His first thought was that this attack was a disaster.  The team was outnumbered, and he vividly recalled two Gälmourein cutting down five of his previous team.  That they were prepared for what they would encounter this time would only make so much of a difference.  Plus, there was the mysterious and appalling shadow-giant with which to contend; part of Vere worried that it might be some new incarnation of the Guardian.  When he reached the platform, two of his team were already down.

               To his surprise, though, the battle began to swing in their favor.  Forming prearranged trios, his team pressed back-to-back and roved about the Gältrok’nör, seeking to isolate and engage the Gälmourein.  Compared to their coordination, the Gälmourein were disorganized, fighting as individuals and more interfering with each other than aiding.  Though they moved with unnatural speed at the center of maelstroms of shadows, they did not exhibit the same skill Vere had witnessed during the attack on the Guardian; his men were not so badly outclassed as he had feared.

               The battle felt long – Vere had never encountered a battle that felt short – but in what he recognized was a surprisingly short interval the last of the Gälmourein in the Gältrok’nör fell, and silence reigned.  Gradually bringing his breathing back to normal, Vere scanned for further threats, and noted the shadow-giant still standing, unmoved, upon the dais.  It had done nothing to aid the Gälmourein or to hinder Vere and his team, and it acted as if entirely unaware of what had just transpired.

               Gripping his sword, Vere stepped towards it; there was no reaction.  He took another step closer, and still elicited no response.  Waving his hand in front of its face did not prompt any acknowledgement, and even stabbing the shadow-giant with his sword produced no alteration.  Pursing his lips, Vere stepped away and turned his back on the disturbing mystery, not willing to admit how terrified he had been just to be so close to its presence.  Something instinctive in him wanted to cower before the thing.

               “Search the bodies and the chamber,” Vere instructed.  “Look for anything that might tell us what was happening here.  After that, we’re finished.”  He did not address the alien, imperturbable shadow-giant; perhaps it would be enough to bury it beneath the Gältrok’nör’s rubble.  He wondered if it would continue standing impassively beneath that destruction for eternity.

               Their search produced few results: a handful of artifacts probably associated with Blood Magic from the Gälmourein, two dozen dazed and confused prisoners who had been slated to be sacrificed, and little else.  No diaries, no maps, no writing or records of any sort that they could identify as such.  There were symbols that looked like Heart City’s language scrawled in blood about the altar, but those writings were still indecipherable; Vere copied them down in his diary, anyway, although he did not know how to rhyme with them.

               When Vere was satisfied that there was nothing more to be found, he led his team back out into the sunlight.  Unwilling to admit how relieved he was to be away from the Gältrok’nör’s specter, he ordered the demolition teams to begin their efforts, and went about preparing his report for the Prime.  For the moment, it seemed that the threat from the Gälmourein had been eliminated.

               As the harnesses jangled and the hooves clopped along the prairie leading up to Heart City, Doil wondered what Kiluron was thinking.  The Prime had been quiet for most of the journey after insisting that he wanted to visit the ruin for himself.  Though he had agreed to turn the journey into a Progress, an opportunity for the people of the land to see their Prime, and for the Prime to see them as he and his entourage travelled from Merolate all the way to Tirate and back, he had spent most of the time on the road brooding.  Doil knew that Kiluron was given to occasional bouts of such behavior, but there seemed something more externally dark about this present attitude.

               They reached Heart City around noon that day, or at least Kiluron, Doil, and the others at the front of the Progress did.  A Prime’s Progress was a once-a-generation event, and everyone who could sought to be a part of it.  In a way, it became like a travelling festival.  While it was somewhat muted in this case after the hardships of the past year, summer was proving bountiful, and attitudes were optimistic.  So many people were following along that it would probably be almost dusk before the rearmost travelers caught up with the foremost.

               It was not a festival for Doil, though; he thought the only person more stressed than he was about the event was Vere, who was responsible for keeping the Progress secure.  For everyone else it might be a time to relax and celebrate, but the business of governing Merolate still had to continue, the Progress’s logistics had to be worked out, and the effort of ensuring that all of that was able to happen fell mostly to Doil.  Just ensuring that there was adequate food and shelter for everyone travelling in the Progress made the coordination he had done for the movement of forces during the Pifechan War seem like child’s play.

               Only once he had arranged for tents to be set up, provisions to be obtained and paid for, places for men, women, families, horses, and everyone else to sleep, eat, and interact were delineated, addressed a score of petty disputes and disagreements, and soothed the feathers of a handful of officials whose feathers were ruffled merely by being so far from Merolate City and its comforts did Doil hike away from the main Progress to find Kiluron standing on a low rise, staring over Heart City.  It was little changed from how it had appeared once the Guardian was defeated, the only evidence of the new destruction a column of smoke and dust rising from the ruin’s center like from a volcano’s chimney.

               That the Gältrok’nör had been completely destroyed seemed a shame to Doil, but he had mostly kept his objections to himself.  There had been no further attempts on the Prime’s life, at least, so in that respect the mission to the Gältrok’nör had been successful.  He stepped up beside the Prime.  “Everything is arranged for our night here, my lord,” he said.

               “Hm?  Oh, thanks,” Kiluron acknowledged absently, not taking his eyes from Heart City.  His left hand was cradled in his right, as it often was since the bandages were removed.  “It’s strange to think of the GAL being just…gone.  So many troubles have come from there, so much suffering.  And to think that we’ll never really know what it was built for in the first place.”

               “I fear it’s unlikely, my lord.  We’re no closer to deciphering Heart City’s language than we were two years ago.  Daribro claimed to Borivat that he thought he was getting close before he died, but even if that was true, almost all of that scholarship was lost.”  Doil tried not to let his regret at the Gältrok’nör’s destruction creep into his voice; so much history had been wiped away.  “I’m afraid that I haven’t made much progress on the other matter, either.”

               Kiluron shrugged.  “Can’t say I expected you to, especially not with how unforthcoming the Blood Priests have been recently.  Still, I would feel a lot more able to put this whole affair behind me if we could at least have some idea what that was that Vere saw, what was going on in there.  Actually seeing it does help, though.”  He looked down, probably trying to move the fingers in his left hand again.  They were not completely useless, but mostly could not move independently, and his grip strength was terribly weak.

               “I wish we could find those answers, too.”  The reply from the Isle to Doil’s inquiry about the shadow-giant Vere had described in the Gältrok’nör had produced almost nothing of insight.  They had indicated that the Gälmourein were practicing human sacrifice to power some kind of Blood Magic, but to what ends they could not say; that much Doil had been able to infer for himself.  As to the shadow-giant, all the Blood Priests had been willing to provide was that it was not the Guardian, and even that information Doil did not know how far he should trust.  “At least the Gälmourein seem to have been eliminated.”

               “We hope so, anyway,” Kiluron observed.

               “Even if the sect reforms, they will not be as powerful,” Doil asserted.  “They’ll have no one to train them, and the broaches that enable their more dangerous abilities have all been locked away in the vault.  I was able to find a few references to the Gälmourein in texts that we think date from not long after the fall of Heart City, and it seems that there were only a limited number of those artifacts, and all are now accounted for.”

               Kiluron nodded.  “Sure.  Until someone figures out how to make more.  Or maybe those counts in those ancient books weren’t accurate, and there are more out there, somewhere.”  He sighed.  “I just wish that we knew more of the why, but we can barely even answer the what.  Why now?  Why me?  Why here, the first place we would be likely to look after they attacked?  I still feel like there’s something bigger going on here, that all we’ve accomplished is removing a single piece from the board.”

               Although Doil felt the same, he could come up with no evidence to support their intuition.  “Perhaps we could send another missive to the Gruordvwrold.  Even if the Isle knows nothing more about these affairs, the Gruordvwrold were, to the best of my understanding, actually alive before Heart City fell.  They’re bound to know something, even if we probably won’t be able to understand their answers.”

               “Why bother?” Kiluron grimaced.  “They’ve ignored every previous messenger we’ve tried to send to them.  Seems they have what they want and aren’t interested in us any longer.”

               Doil tended to agree; it had mostly just been something to suggest.  “We will find a way to address whatever might arise, my lord,” he offered.

               To his surprise, Kiluron seemed to shake himself.  After lingering on Heart City for a moment longer, he turned towards Doil and smiled.  “You’re right.  Of course you are, why am I even bothered to point that out?  We’ve done all we can for now.  Time to move on.”

               He didn’t seem entirely convinced by his own words, and the way his right hand continued to grip his left betrayed a restless concern that had not been ameliorated, but he did lead Doil back towards the rest of the Progress, and he did lose some of his brooding expression.  Relieved, Doil followed the Prime, and only a small part of him continued to worry over what they had no way of knowing.  He supposed that would probably never go away.

The end of Blood Magic S3:E2: The Society of the Broken Promise. 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 March 31st, 2022.

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