For at least the third time, Arval laboriously turned his overburdened wagon around and returned to his shed. Leaving his kunga to wait with her customary patience for him, he disappeared on pattering footsteps into the shed, which even with the contents of the wagon removed was still full nigh to bursting, so that he could hardly imagine how he had managed to fit everything in it before packing. After significant rummaging, and a few muttered imprecations, he found the bag of tools for which he had been searching, swept an armful of sealed glass jars into it for good measure, and hurried back out to the wagon.
“I promise that we’re actually leaving this time, Hemi,” he said as he haphazardly wedged the tool bag between a large wooden crate, an oversized, bulbous glass jar with an eel inside of it, and an oddly shaped contraption wrapped in waxed cloth – he still wasn’t exactly certain what that was going to become, but the broken plow had been too interesting to leave to rust. Satisfied, he climbed aboard the wagon and took up the long reins.
He flicked the reins so that Hemi began to strain against her harness, although without much immediate effect. Only when Arval dismounted again from his perch and set his shoulder against the wagon’s rear quadrant, adding his strength to the kunga’s, did the tottering tower on rickety wooden wheels begin to move. Once it was rolling as well as he could hope, Arval jogged around and clambered aboard to take up the reins, although the kunga seemed just as willing to plod along the road without his guidance.
Barely had this singular pair passed out of sight of Arval’s ragged property before they were again arrested, this time not by elementary forces or Arval’s scatteredness but by Arval’s neighbor, Crovin. The burly man was holding a splintered wheelbarrow handle in one hand, and the other was clenched into a gesticulating fist.
“You Unbalanced swindler!” Crovin declared. “Your Bloody automatic potato-planter don’t work worth a rotten spud!”
Realizing the source of his neighbor’s impromptu club, Arval prudently did not dismount from his wagon, but he did hasten to placate Crovin. “Master Crovin, you wound me. I assure you that the potato-planter underwent the most rigorous of testing upon the most intractable land I could access, and it functioned just perfectly. Most assuredly if you have had a problem, it was the result of user error.”
Crovin’s face reddened at this eminently reasonable response, and he took a heavy step closer to the wagon. “You says it’s for planting potatoes. I put some seed potatoes in and go pushing along, and for a row or two it were actually working, and I thinks to myself ‘that Arval fellow – maybe he’s not so bad – I don’t know how this magic contraption is working, but it’s planting my taters like nobody’s business.’ Then it gets stuck somehow, so I push on it, and it’s still stuck so I push on it harder, and then the thing up and breaks on me!” He tossed the broken handle at Arval, who fumbled a vain attempt to catch it, dropping it back into the mud.
Arval made the diplomatic and prudent decision to avoid further accusations of user error. “Well, I am heartily apologetic on that count, then, Master Crovin. I suppose it is a possibility that a circumstance arose which I did not foresee in my testing regimen” – like the poor contraption being pounded on by a great brute like you, he added only in his head – “and therefore I will very generously provide you with a repair or replacement at my earliest opportunity. However, I’m presently off to join the Prime’s Progress, so I’m afraid that I really must be going…” He attempted to urge his kunga back into motion, but Hemi could not budge the wagon; its wheels were again embedded in the mud.
“The Prime’s Progress?” Crovin coughed. “You, going to the Prime’s Progress? I don’t know if that’s that best or the worst thing I’ve heard all day.”
“Ahem, yes, I’m pleased that I could provide you with a degree of entertainment.” Arval scooted forward on his seat, as if that would help propel the wagon back into motion. To his surprise, the wagon lurched forward a moment later, and Hemi had to trot a few steps to keep up with its relentless motion.
Crovin jogged out from behind the wagon. “That what you needed? Guess there’s nothing you’ve come up with in that crazy shed of yours to replace good old muscle power.” He laughed heartily.
Laughing in turn, Arval raised his hand in a salute. “Many thanks, Master Crovin! You are truly the most esteemed of neighbors.” He watched as Crovin waved while he receded down the road.
For the better part of half the day Arval was constantly leaping off the moving wagon to snatch up some bit of cargo or another that had slipped free and tumbled down from the pile, but eventually his wagon achieved a delicate equilibrium, and the remainder of the afternoon’s travel was uneventful. As he moved further from his own property the road became less muddy, and as evening approached, he turned from the tiny dirt track onto a more established road.
Caring for Hemi after they stopped for the night, Arval pondered Crovin’s words about replacing muscle power, and wondered if there might be a way of achieving just that end. “Gears allow us to create mechanical advantage,” he mused aloud. “Perhaps we could take advantage of that to affect some kind of motion. Except that we’d still need an originator of the motion, even if the gears made it easier…”
Hemi snorted and stomped, so Arval patted the kunga’s flank. “Don’t worry, Hemi. I don’t think I’ll be replacing you any time soon. Much as it would be easier for both of us: I can’t imagine you like pulling that wagon.” Hemi blew out a hot breath of emphatic affirmation, and Arval chuckled.
His camp for the night consisted of sleeping beneath the wagon, although he did worry a bit before he went to sleep that, with the vehicle so overburdened, the axles might snap, and the bed crush him while he slept. Nothing so disastrous occurred, so in the morning Arval brushed the worst of the dirt and twigs from his cloak, rigged Hemi back into her harness, and set out once more.
It would have been nice to have heard about the Prime’s Progress before it passed through his region of Merolate, but it wasn’t like anyone went around handing out flyers. From the rumors, it seemed that the Prime himself may not have known about his own Progress almost until it happened. Riders fanned out from the Progress to spread the news a day ahead of the Prime, but they had not gone as far from the Prime’s course as Arval’s tiny corner of Merolate. News to such a remote, rural valley only percolated slowly, from person to rare person who ventured so far. Legally, he wasn’t even certain if he lived in Merolate; his father had always grumbled about the pioneer program, but had never bothered to explain what that was or what it meant.
Now, Arval was trying to catch up to the Progress with his overladen wagon and his diligent but scrawny kunga. By the time that he had scrambled around getting his wagon packed and his preparations made, a whole day had passed, so that now he optimistically estimated he was no more than five days behind the Progress. The only reason he had a chance to catch up to it was because of how slow it moved; it sometimes camped for half a dozen days in one place before moving on to the next stop.
Three days after he left, he stopped for the night with a farmer living near the road who grumbled all through supper about the Prime’s Progress coming through and buying up his entire crop just three days ago, what part of it they didn’t trample. He eyed Arval a little suspiciously but did not deny him a warm bed inside for the night, which Arval found a welcome change from the past few nights under a wagon in the grass and mud. Before he left, Arval left the man a jar of green sludge which, when shaken, would glow brighter and more steadily than the best lantern. The farmer was even more suspicious of the jar than he was of Arval, even after Arval showed him how it worked; Arval’s emphatic warning that the substance should not, under any circumstances, be eaten probably did not help.
His host for the previous night might have been irritated by the Prime’s Progress, but his news buoyed Arval’s spirits. Despite Hemi’s weariness, he drove the kunga along as his cargo rattled and shook behind him; perhaps, if the Progress was moving as slowly as people said, or even better if it chose to stop and camp for another few days, he would catch up tomorrow. Lighting a little campfire for the night by shaving a tiny pile of soft, silvery metal as tinder for his flint and steel, he watched the stars overhead and wondered, should he ever figure out how to fly as the birds did, if he could fly to the stars.
Although he woke early, the sun had not awoken yet, and so he was resigned to sitting at his campfire and nursing his tea until it was light enough to travel. He wondered if there might be some way of affixing his glowjars to the front of the wagon and directing their greenish light so that he could travel at night, too, but unpacking his wagon to access the tools he would need to try it sounded like a nightmare. Still, it was a shame to waste his most productive hours of the morning with nothing to do but drink tea in the dark with a kunga for company. As soon as there was enough light, he hitched Hemi to the wagon again and resumed his rumbling pursuit.
Less than three days now behind the Progress, Arval began seeing clear indications of its recent presence: deep wagon ruts alongside the road, the road itself churned, the grass beaten down and all but stripped away in a wide swath. The sweet, fresh scent of a freshly mowed field was so potent that it was almost sickly, and it mingled with other, less pleasant odors of occupation by large populations. Arval was no tracker, but he thought he must be gaining on his bloated quarry.
It was still another two days before he spotted the stragglers. They drove wagons almost as overburdened as his, or limped along on foot in the hope of finding some succor from the Progress, or ambled idly, enjoying the holiday, for a Prime’s Progress inevitably became a sort of Union-wide holiday. Some ignored Arval, others greeted him amiably. When he inquired of a family with at least a dozen kids milling about them, Arval learned that if he hurried, he could reach the main Progress’s rear by evening.
“What do you think, Hemi? Can you make it a little further?” he asked. Not that he was going to let recalcitrance on the kunga’s part keep him from reaching the Progress that day; he flicked the reins again, although it produced no noticeable increase in speed and elicited only an irritated head flick from Hemi.
Arval had never seen a Prime’s Progress. His father had been alive for one, but the curmudgeon had refused to even witness it, calling the whole production a waste of time – “the Prime doesn’t give a rotten spud for us, so why should we put ourselves out when he comes ambling by like some itinerant barbarian?” he’d ask. The only thing the old man had thought more wasteful than the Progress was Arval’s constant proclivity for taking everything apart and finding new ways to put it back together. It wasn’t only spite that made Arval so determined to join the Progress, but he admitted it was a contributing factor.
More important was the opportunity to market his wares. One day, he would have a shop in one of the big cities, maybe in Dervate, which would be far more glamorous than selling wheelbarrows outfitted to plant potatoes to clumsy farmers completely incapable of appreciating his ingenuity. Not that he thought he was going to miraculously make his fortune at the Progress, but it would be a step in the right direction. He knew better than most that invention was not a matter of a dramatic revelation, but of careful, deliberate, small steps that eventually led to a success.
It was almost too dark to risk Hemi any further when Arval began to notice other wagons looming around him like the shells of giant tortoises; they were shadowy, amorphous lumps probably there for the same reason that he was. With a sigh of relief, Arval turned Hemi off the road, stopped the wagon, and wiped down the kunga for the night before making himself comfortable. He had finally made it.
Groaning, Kiluron stretched his arms over his head almost so far back that he overbalanced before he ducked into his tent. He could hear Doil a few paces behind him, still addressing the administration of the Progress, so he let the flap fall and flopped onto his pile of blankets. Everyone else might be treating the Progress as a huge holiday, but it was proving to be far more work than Kiluron had anticipated. So many people wanted to see him, to speak with him, to have his opinion or his judgement on this issue or that argument. It made his head spin.
Other voices faded away, and Doil entered the tent. Kiluron nodded to him, but Doil was turned towards the trunk, exchanging his papers for a slim volume. Taking up the lantern, Doil settled himself on his own pile of blankets and opened his book, adjusting the lantern a few times until he had eliminated the worst of the shadows. Kiluron rubbed his eyes and lay back, wondering how Doil had the energy to read at the end of such a day by unsteady lantern light. His wonder did not last long, because he was almost immediately asleep.
Sleep did wonders for him, though, and when morning came he popped to his feet and sought out breakfast. Munching from a wooden bowl of buttered and salted gruel, he ambled down the road, which though a stretch of wilderness highway appeared now like the main street of a town that had arisen overnight. Each time they stopped he was amazed anew at the number of people who had upended their lives to follow along on the Prime’s Progress, some of them it seemed just to catch a glimpse of him. That number continued to grow, too, so that Kiluron wondered if, by the time that they made it all the way back to Merolate, there would be an entire new city set up every time he went to sleep.
Whispers, stares, and pointing fingers followed him wherever he went, many with a note of awe that he found disconcerting. People in Merolate City thought it exciting to see the Prime, but it wasn’t exactly unusual to them. These followers who had congregated to the Progress were a different sort, people who would ordinarily never see the Prime or even a minister or governor in an entire lifetime, especially out in the frontier regions. Wezzix had not been the kind of Prime to hold a Progress, and Kiluron couldn’t remember if Prime Enderva had, so it had been many, many years since anything like this had happened.
Not that all of these people were just here for him, he reminded himself. A Progress was a generational event, a unique opportunity for people to travel, to see new places, to engage in trade and mutual exchanges. Even more merchants followed the Progress, hawking their wares, than there were people seeking Kiluron’s judgement on sundry matters. Despite the early hour, there were already chuckwagons selling breakfast, advertised by the aromas of frying meats, eggs, potatoes, and grains that made Kiluron wonder how he had been stuck with boiled gruel. Other merchants displayed fresh produce, fine craftsmanship, or assorted trinkets. It seemed everything was for sale in this spontaneous town.
All of it had an energy that kept Kiluron going, no matter how exhausting each day became by the time it was finished. Turning back, he returned to the Progress’s center, where a much larger tent than the one in which he had slept awaited him. It was a brightly colored structure with Merolate’s banner fluttering from its apex, and the inside was so richly furnished with skeletal wooden camp furniture that it looked more like a storeroom in the castle than it did anything that belonged in the field. The interior was already growing stuffy, and Kiluron grimaced; it would be almost unbearable by afternoon, as he now knew from personal experience.
Doil was already there, speaking with a guardlieutenant about the day’s schedule. The poor officer was tasked with coordinating the endless lines of supplicants come to see Kiluron, whether it was for a judgement, a favor, a question, a few words, or just the chance to look upon him other than from the confines of a crowd, but Kiluron didn’t feel too badly for the woman; he was the one who actually had to address all of those people she directed to him.
“Morning,” Kiluron announced his own arrival. “What do we have today?”
“More land allotment cases, mostly,” Doil answered. “A few livestock custody cases, several tax appeals, one or two domestic matters.”
Kiluron rifled through the summary Doil handed to him. “You know, all of these land allotment and tax cases seem related to the pioneer program.”
Doil agreed. “It does introduce a level of complexity to such matters, my lord, especially in their relationship with the Union government.”
“What if we just…make them fully part of Merolate?” Kiluron suggested. “We could make all of this much simpler, and gain access to more resources at the same time. It seems to me that was always the eventual goal of the program, anyway.”
“We can ask Inpernuth to look into it when we return to Merolate.” Doil smiled. “For now, I’m afraid you’re still going to need to hear those cases.”
Kiluron heaved an exaggerated sigh. “It was worth a try. But we should seriously look into that. Maybe we could extend the pioneer program to new frontiers after we integrate the existing ones.”
There were other considerations, like how Rovis or the nomads of the Unclaimed Territories would respond to such expansion, but Kiluron put that aside and turned his attention to the first supplicant, a woman named Eferva.
“I really just want to express my concerns about the witches. What are you doing about the witches?” She was an old woman with stringy, grey hair.
Remembering a much younger woman and a promise he still did not know how to keep, Kiluron tried to think of a diplomatic response. “I’m aware of the complicated history of the Blood Decrees. I really hope that I’ll be able to find a way to control Blood Magic in a way that works better for everyone.”
Eferva was visibly dissatisfied with this answer, but her time for speaking with him had passed and she was escorted out of the audience tent to be replaced by the next supplicant. Kiluron tried not to take Eferva’s dissatisfaction personally as he turned his attention to a debate over property boundaries, to which the only answer he could give was a referral to Merolate’s cartographic society. Perhaps they would be able to send a surveyor out to settle the dispute.
That was how most of the cases went, with Kiluron unable to provide an immediate, direct answer, and instead referring the cases to various other people who were far more qualified to address the concerns and questions involved than he was. It made him wonder why anyone would even bother to come to him in the first place, but most people appeared to go away satisfied. He didn’t know if that was a result of whatever pedestal they placed him on by virtue of his title, or if they really found his non-answers useful. While he wanted to believe it was the latter, he had a feeling it was mostly the former.
By the time that he had been through all of the day’s cases, consulted with Doil about the plan for the next day, and written several letters to send back to Merolate about aspects of actually governing the Union, it was dark outside again. Stretching, Kiluron turned to Doil. “Want to go find something to eat? There are chuckwagons out there serving real food, not just the gruel and stews that we’ve been eating.”
“Aren’t you the one always insisting that you shouldn’t need to eat any better than the guardsmen?” Doil asked.
“Have you seen any guardsmen coming out of the mess tent recently? Almost all of them are eating from the chuckwagons, too,” Kiluron replied. “Besides, I consider it part of the Progress, exposing myself more to the people.”
“If you say so, my lord.” Doil shook his head. “I think I’ll go read for a time, unless you object. The people may want to see their Prime, but they have no interest in seeing his Advisor.”
“Suit yourself. But one of these nights, you’re going to come out with me, alright?” Kiluron didn’t wait for a response, heading off down the highway-turned-merchant district, a guard bearing a lantern falling into step beside him.
“So, Trelish, what do you think of the Progress?” he asked.
Trelish grimaced. “It makes me nervous, to be honest, Sir. There could be so many witches about, and we would have no way of knowing. Do you know much about witches, Sir? I can tell you all about witches, yes Sir, I can.”
Thinking of Aiga, Kiluron sighed. “More than you might expect, Trelish, more than I ever expected to know.”
They joined a long queue outside of a particular chuckwagon from which there were wafting pungently delicious aromas. One of the cooks manning the wagon must have noticed or received word that the Prime was in her line, because a rotund boy ran out from behind the wagon and pressed waxed papers containing thin shavings of some roasted meat bursting out of puffy flatbreads into their hands. The boy did not, however, refuse the payment that Kiluron pressed into his hand, and ran off with even more enthusiasm than he had come.
Holding the concoction up to his nose, Kiluron inhaled deeply before taking a bite. “Somehow, I don’t think everyone else is getting quite so much meat,” he noted around a large mouthful, watching the other people coming away from the chuckwagon.
As they ate, they continued to amble along the road and between the many wagons. Near the Progress’s far extent, Kiluron caught a glimpse of a strange, greenish glow, and turned towards it to investigate. It proved to be coming from a wagon groaning beneath a load of cargo so large it seemed about to split at the axels, in front of which sat a scrawny man with fingers that appeared to be all knuckle. Those fingers were tinkering with something that was hidden beneath a mop of straw-colored hair, and he looked up when he noticed boots approaching.
“Come to try to smash my lights again? I guess I don’t care, so long as you buy them first, if you really want to behave like some kind of ignorant…” he trailed off, blinking, as he seemed to realize who had come before his wagon for the first time. “Ahem.” He dusted himself off and straightened his coat beneath his greasy leather apron. Running a hand through his disheveled hair put grease there, too, making it stay pulled back from his forehead in a peculiar wave. “I sincerely apologize, my lord Prime, and to you also, good soldier. I spoke in haste without realizing to whom I was speaking.”
Kiluron waved the man’s apologies away. “I saw your lights and was curious. How do they work? They’re steadier and brighter than any lantern I’ve ever seen.”
Flushing, the merchant stammered as he tried to respond. “That was, well, it was the general idea. Quite right, yes, quite right: they are vastly superior to any lantern or candle of conventional construction. The glowjars contain a gel which I compound from horse hooves, beetle carapaces, and fungi. The resulting substance is able to absorb sunlight, and re-radiate it when the sun is not shining, resulting in a bright, steady light. I have characterized it as three times as bright as a kerosene lantern, and five times as stable.”
Kiluron hoped that his eyes hadn’t glazed over at the technical description too obviously. “And you’re selling these?”
“Trying too, at least,” the merchant grimaced. “I’m afraid that the only payment I have received thus far has been in the form of rocks, thrown at my lights.”
Thinking of Doil reading by dim lantern light in their tent each night, Kiluron fished in his pocket and came up with a gold piece. “I’ll take two.” He ignored Trelish shifting uncomfortably a step behind him.
Digging out two of the green-glowing jars from a crate near the open back of his wagon, the merchant pressed them into Kiluron’s hands and pocketed the coin. “Shake them to activate the light, but make sure they are exposed to direct sunlight during the day, or they won’t glow anymore. Also, don’t eat them; the gel is poisonous if ingested.” His tone shifted. “You have no idea what an honor this transaction is, and what an opportunity for me,” he professed. “Why, with the Prime of Merolate endorsing my products, I might actually sell something!”
Kiluron thanked the man, and took his leave, cradling his purchases under his arms. There was a slight odor coming from the jars, but not an unpleasant one. Shaking one experimentally, he found that it glowed brighter, and he held it out in front of him, rendering Trelish’s lantern quite redundant.
“It’s witchcraft, if you ask me, Sir,” Trelish warned. “Horse hooves and beetles…sounds like a potion to me. Probably has their blood in it, too. Do beetles have blood? I don’t know if beetles have blood, but if they do, you can be certain that it’s in that foul stuff, you can be, yes Sir.”
Ignoring Trelish’s dire predictions, Kiluron made his way back towards his own tent, pleased with his purchase. Whatever Trelish thought of the jars, Kiluron was confident that Doil would appreciate them. Of course, giving his Advisor better light by which to read at night would not encourage him to leave the tent to find a chuckwagon for dinner. Perhaps Kiluron could use the second glowjar as a bribe.
Hemi was truly a patient kunga; she had been enduring Arval’s effusive reflections for the better part of the day. Although, come to think of it, Arval did not think he had ever encountered an impatient kunga, so it was probably just part of their breeding and natural temperament. She had, however, long since stopped flicking her ears back towards him when he spoke.
“The Prime himself! The Prime of Merolate, buying my glowjars,” Arval marveled for at least the fifty-seventh time. “This could be just the break I was hoping for, better, even. When people start seeing that green glow coming from the Prime’s tent, just the same as is hanging from this wagon, they’ll start flocking here in droves to buy glowjars. I probably won’t even have enough to meet the demand. Makes up for the one some imbecile stole while we were sleeping.”
Munching on the increasingly nonexistent grass, Hemi continued to ignore Arval. There was no line outside his wagon that night, however, and the following morning the Progress began to pack up and move again, so there would be little time for buying and selling until they reached the next stop. That dimmed his enthusiasm, but he did notice, when the Progress had stopped for the night and he went out to see the layout of their new location, that green light was coming from the Prime’s tent. It would surely be only a matter of time before other people started to notice the same thing, and then they would flock to him in droves for their own glowjars.
He and his kunga had to endure four more days of travel, a splintered wheel spoke, and a condescending wheelwright who tried to fix his wheel pass balsa off as beech before the Progress made its next significant stop, this time in a little town on the Dervate-Merolate border. When Arval did have another opportunity to sell his wares, he shook half a dozen glow jars to a peak of brightness, set them out around his wagon, and waited for the eager customers to come queuing up before him. The glowjars would just be the start: once people accepted and desired those, they would start being interested in his other inventions.
Contrary to his optimism, the sun began to set while he still sat alone in the dirt. Although he was still tinkering with an arrangement of gears that he thought might enable him to keep accurate time, instead of relying on sundials, it was only a halfhearted effort.
“Maybe we’ll have better luck when we get to a real city,” he told Hemi. It did not convince Arval, and he doubted that it convinced the kunga.
The gold coin the Prime had given him, far beyond what he had been intending to charge for the glowjars, he had tucked deep inside his assorted cargoes. He had no intention of spending it on anything trivial; it was to be the start for a shop in a city, or at least some new materials for one of his projects. Maybe the flying machine.
Footsteps in the dry grass caught his attention, and he looked up, not bothering to hope that it might be a customer. He scrambled to his feet and brushed himself off. Squinting, he noted the sigil on the man’s cloak, and his eyes widened. “Uh, Advisor? How can I help you?”
Perhaps a decade younger than Arval, the Prime’s Advisor was a short man with a narrow, pinched face and a very slight paunch. “I was hoping to ask you a few questions about your lights. If you have a few moments?”
“Of course, of course.” Arval could not resist glancing around and adding, “There’s not exactly a rash of customers at the moment.”
“Thank you. My name is Doil, by the way. I’m Prime Kiluron’s Advisor.”
“Arval. It’s, uh, an honor to meet you.” Arval thought that the Prime’s Advisor looked almost as awkward as he usually felt, and tried to find that reassuring. It did little to alleviate the sense that he was about to be interrogated. “So…you had questions?”
“Yes.” Advisor Doil clasped his hands before him. “You say that the substance absorbs light from the sun, and then reemits it when agitated?”
Any thought that Arval might have harbored that the Prime’s Advisor would be as disinterested as the Prime had been fell away at the question, and Arval strove not to be too nervous. “Yes, that seems to be the case. They do eventually stop glowing no matter how much you agitate them if they don’t get sunlight.”
“Does candlelight or lantern light have the same affect?”
Arval swallowed. No one had ever been this interested in his work before, especially not at a technical level. He tried to find that exciting. At least, in this case, he had done the experiments to have the answers Doil was seeking. “No, only sunlight. My hypothesis is that this has something to do with the difference between the colors of light that come out of a prism held up to a candle versus one held up to the sun.”
Advisor Doil nodded. “Intriguing. I suppose your concoction is probably based on foxfire? I do wonder why you include the beetle carapace. Are those to improve the dispersion of the luminance?”
As notable as what the Prime’s Advisor was saying was what he wasn’t saying; Arval noted that he did not even bother asking the purpose of the hooves. His guesses were eerily close to the reality. “Similar,” he allowed, not wanting to divulge the exact formulation unless it was specifically demanded.
“What other aspects of natural philosophy do you study?” Advisor Doil asked.
“I don’t, really,” Arval replied. “I just…tinker.” He resisted the urge to try to sell some of his other inventions to the Prime’s Advisor; he suspected the man would not be particularly receptive.
For a moment, Advisor Doil seemed on the cusp of asking further questions, but he refrained. “Thank you for your time, Master Arval.” The Advisor walked away, leaving Arval with the distinct impression that he had been under some kind of interview, although he could not fathom why.
No other visitors, official or otherwise, enlivened his evening. Arval sat out with his glowjars as long as his vain hopes could sustain, and in the morning he set them out again, along with a trio of his automatic potato-planting wheelbarrows, and waited for anyone, anyone at all, who might be interested in his wares. A few people walked by, and each time he stood up and made halfhearted gestures towards his goods, but they just continued on about their own business, uninterested by what he was offering.
More by habit that out of any real hope, Arval set his jars out again that evening and shook them into brilliance so that he could sit in his circle of greenish light and not sell anything. It was only Hemi’s annoyed snort that drew his attention to a crowd of maybe two dozen people hurrying towards his wagon. He stood up, excited despite his efforts at skepticism, in time to see the leader of the crowd point towards him.
“That’s him! His jars did it!” the man shouted. At least, Arval thought that was what he shouted; the man was visibly drunk, an unshaven ragamuffin waving a nearly empty clay jug. The crowd behind him roared its support of his accusations.
These people, Arval inferred, were not here to buy his inventions. He wondered if he should find help, but he did not know who would help him, and there was nowhere for him to flee, even if he thought he would be successful. Hoping that his face wasn’t too blatantly terrified, he confronted the fledgling mob. “May I help you?” he asked.
“That’s him!” the drunk repeated. “He killed my son!”
“Excuse me?” The words were out before Arval could think better of them, but his accuser was already presenting grisly evidence to support his testimony: his son’s corpse, faintly glowing, was shoved forward through the crowd and forced before Arval’s wide eyes. He struggled to stammer any kind of response. “I…what is going on? I’ve never seen this person before in my life.” That glow, though…he resisted the urge to smack his forehead, which he suspected would be an inopportune performance under the circumstances. This must be what had happened to his missing glowjar.
Waving his jug for emphasis, the drunk stepped up into Arval’s face. “My boy’s glowing like one of your Unbalanced jars, and he’s deader than a Bloody peach in winter!” He thumped Arval’s chest with his jug, knocking the inventor back a step. “Now you’re gonna join him!”
Scattered, incoherent cries of affirmation rose from the crowd. “Burn the witch!” was one. “Drown the Pifechan!” was another. “Down with the Priests!” others called. Arval looked around for some sign of support or succor, but found none. Hemi was no help; after determining that the rioters were uninterested in her, she had returned to placid grazing.
“I am certainly sorry for your son’s death, but I’m afraid that I simply am not responsible,” Arval protested, trying to sound reasonable. He didn’t think that he was doing even a passable job of it. “However, had he asked me about the glowjar, instead of stealing it, I would have warned him against consuming the substance inside, which is highly toxic…”
It was definitely the wrong thing to say. The crowd, which had been amiably bloodthirsty before, going along with the drunk’s passions, now became actively hostile, howling and shouting for his blood. Others had joined, gathering around the periphery like clouds around a grain of dust. When the drunk raised his jug overhead, Arval raised his thin arms in a vain defense and grimaced in a preparatory wince.
A figure stepped in front of him and caught the drunk’s wrist as he brought the jug down, arresting the blow. A savage twist sent the jug smashing to the ground, and then the man was shoved backwards into his crowd of supporters, who shied backwards, their enthusiasm inexplicably dampened. Standing up a little straighter, Arval peered out from behind his unexpected rescuer. He was wearing the cloak of a Merolate guardsman with an insignia Arval did not recognize, and he stood between Arval and the crowd more imperturbably than even Hemi could have managed.
“Who’re you to deny my justice?” the drunk demanded. The crowd, not entirely cowed, echoed his sentiments with a wordless rumble.
Arval’s rescuer’s reply was as calm as it was shocking. “I’m Guardcaptain Vere.”
Someone from the back of the crowd, who even in his frightened state Arval noted was safely anonymous, shouted in reply, “There’s only one of him. Get him, too!”
If Vere was concerned, he did not show it. When someone near the front of the crowd tried to dart forward, the Guardcaptain punched him in the stomach, tossing him back, and then drew his sword. The steel glittered like an enchanted weapon from ancient times in the sickly green light from Arval’s glowjars. “There only needs to be one of me. Leave now, while you’re still free.”
The crowd wavered. Arval held his breath. Then, like the gentle dispersal of a cloud before a light breeze, the crowd began to wander away, finding interest elsewhere. The crowd’s nucleus, the drunk who had enflamed them, lingered long enough to direct a furious glare at Arval before finding a couple of friends to help him retreat with his son’s body, leaving Arval alone with Guardcaptain Vere.
Taking out a handkerchief, Arval mopped his brow. “I thank you, Sir. Your timing was…most opportune.”
“It’s fortunate that I happened to be looking for you,” Guardcaptain Vere replied. “I’ll speak with the Prime about getting this accusation against you resolved tomorrow. In the meantime, I’d suggest that you come to the center of the camp. Prime Kiluron and Advisor Doil would like to speak with you first thing in the morning, and it won’t be safe for you here tonight.”
“I can’t leave my wagon,” Arval protested. Part of him wondered if he was crazy, but the wagon contained almost everything he had been working on for over a decade. He wasn’t about to leave it to a hostile mob.
After regarded him for a long moment, Vere shrugged. “Suit yourself. I’ll station some guards nearby just in case there’s trouble.” With that, he turned and walked away, leaving Arval staring after him. It was at least the third time in as many nights that he had been left staring after a high-ranking member of the Union government.
“I guess our fortunes are changing, Hemi,” Arval observed as he readied himself for bed. “I wish I knew whether they were changing for good or ill.” He still hadn’t decided when morning came and he went to keep his appointment with the two most powerful people in Merolate.
Rubbing his head, Kiluron looked from Doil, to Vere, and back again. He held up his hands. “Slow down, please. How did we get from a random purchase I thought my Advisor might appreciate, to a murder accusation and a person of interest to Union security?”
“The former is simple,” Vere answered. “I found the inventor about to be lynched by a crowd accusing him of the murder of a young man, whose corpse was glowing just like those jars.”
“Alright.” Kiluron turned to Doil. “And the other part?”
Doil pursed his lips. “You recall our discussion about finding someone who can understand what Evry’s doing? And about adding a new ministerial position to advise you on matters of new technologies?”
Kiluron nodded. “Yes…”
“Well, after you brought me the glowjars – which are much better for reading than lanterns, by the way, so thank you, my lord – I went to speak with the merchant from whom you bought them,” Doil explained. “From our brief discussion, I suspect that he might be suitable to fulfill both of those needs. He seems to possess a very different kind of intelligence and knowledge than is currently represented in the government, and one ideally suited to the current response to the Pifechan invasion.”
“Huh.” Kiluron sighed. “And of course he had to go and kill someone.”
“Accused only,” Doil corrected. “I find it unlikely that he was directly responsible, or at least that it was malicious. However, I could be wrong. That will be for you to decide. I’ve taken the liberty of ensuring that it will be your first case, and then we will have the opportunity to speak further with this Arval.”
Kiluron stretched. “A murder case? Well, at least it will be a nice change of pace from all of the land allocation conflicts that I can’t actually resolve.”
The guard at the tent flap announced Arval’s arrival. From somewhere in his overburdened wagon, the eccentric merchant had produced a rumpled linen shirt that appeared to be for someone much larger in stature, but which at least was not grease-stained like the rest of his clothing. He stumbled through a bow to Prime Kiluron before shuffling to the indicated position on his right.
“Felerick, of Rebton,” came the next announcement, and Arval’s accuser strutted into the tent. He’d also found clothes that were relatively clean, and had made an effort at shaving and combing his receding hair. Only his red eyes and the way he favored his right wrist betrayed the prior evening. Managing a passable bow, Felerick took his place on the left.
Doil looked from one man to the other and seemed to check each of them off of some mental list. “Kiluron, Prime of the Merolate Union and all of its provinces, will hear your case, and pass judgement,” he intoned.
Wondering, not for the first time, why he could never manage to intone the way Doil did, Kiluron took his cue. “I’ll first hear from the accuser, please.”
“Uh, thank you, my lord. This is a great honor.” Felerick’s eyes were glued to the dusty rug a pace from Kiluron’s feet, and he seemed too intimidated to speak above a mumble. “My lord, all started a couple days ago, you see, my lord. Carok – that’s my boy, my lord, you’ll want to know – he comes home a couple days ago with this jar, and it was all glowing green! I found it Bloody disturbing I did, my lord. Uh, pardon my language, my lord. Anyway, he’s got this jar all green and glowing-like, and I says to him ‘Carok, my boy, that jam’s no good, I hope you haven’t done gone and paid an arm for it, or even a finger!’” He chuckled at his own attempt at humor. No one else did. “Well, last night I goes calling him for dinner, and he don’t come. So I go to find him, and he’s all sprawled out behind the tent, glowing like that Unbalanced jam, and dead as a coffin nail!”
It took Felerick a few moments then to regain his composure; he wiped his eyes and blew his nose into a dirty handkerchief that he stuffed back into his pocket in a crumpled ball. When he continued, his voice was still unsteady, but grew more confident and more heated with each word. “I yell, and the madam comes running, and she screams, and we’re just staring at our boy. But we can’t just go leaving him like that, so we brings him into the tent and lay him out on the bedroll. Then I go out looking for some guards, ‘cause it’s clear there’s been something nefarious afoot in all this. Healthy young boys don’t just go dropping dead and glowing.
“Long the way, I come across a couple of folks I know, and they see as I’m distraught, and so they offer to buy me a drink and hear all ‘bout my troubles. So I tells them, and they’re right angry, just as me. We go back out to find some guards, when I notices a greenish glow, just like was coming from my son, just like was coming from that Bleeding jar! I says to myself ‘Felerick, man, that there’s got to be the reason my boy is dead.’ So I tell my mates, and they agree, and we decide we’re gonna go apprehend us my son’s Bloody murderer!” With this, he pointed at Arval, as if he could have the merchant executed just by the ferocity with which he wielded his index finger.
Taking all of this in, Kiluron nodded. “Thank you, Felerick, and know that I’m sorry for the loss of your son. I’ll now hear from the accused.”
Arval brushed at the front of his shirt in an ineffectual attempt to smooth out a few of the wrinkles and drew himself up to all of his gangly height while he puffed out his scrawny chest. “My lord Prime Kiluron, I am Arval, a humble merchant and inventor, and I thank you for the opportunity which you have afforded to me to present my defense against the accusations of this man who just last night violently accosted me with the backing of a riotous mob for a crime that I did not commit. It is true that I am a purveyor of, among other things, a product which I refer to as ‘glowjars,’ which are intended to provide an illumination superior to lanterns and candles in the absence of daylight – I believe that you have a pair of these in your own possession, my lord. Not long after my joining your Progress, I discovered that one of my glowjars was missing; it seems that, although few enough are interested in purchasing my inventions, there are those who have no qualms about stealing them.”
“My son’s no thief!” Felerick interrupted, but he subsided at a sharp look from Doil.
“It is…not my intention to cast aspersions upon the deceased,” Arval changed course diplomatically; it was clear that was exactly what he had meant to do. “However Master Felerick’s son came to be in possession of one of my glowjars, it was not deliberately or consciously from my hand. Had it been, I would have warned him not to eat, or even open, the glowjar, for the substance within is highly poisonous. I know this, for in my experiments I compared open jars to closed jars, and in so doing discovered that the open jars served a dual purpose as rat killers, for in the morning there would be glowing rats all around my shed, and the open jars would be emptied of their gel. However, they were also significantly dimmer, and the gel within had a tendency to deteriorate faster even when not consumed, and so I resolved only to sell closed jars. Am I to be accused of murder for being the inventor of a substance that was used improperly? Is the blacksmith executed for murder when the dagger he forged and delivered to a customer is used to kill? What about when the dagger has been passed from hand to hand?”
“Everybody knows a dagger can be dangerous,” Felerick retorted. “Not your poison, no. Looks like some kind of glowing jelly. Maybe the blacksmith shouldn’t be blamed, but whoever invented the dagger should be!”
“Who just goes around eating mysterious glowing substances?” Arval asked. It was clear that he had gone off his rehearsed script. “Even predators understand that bright, glowing colors probably mean poisonous.”
Felerick’s face grew red. “Are you insulting my son?”
Kiluron interceded. “Please, I’m sure that Master Arval was merely attempting to make an academic point. Do either of you have any additional facts to contribute to the discussion?”
Still glowering at Arval, Felerick shook his head. “No, my lord. I submit myself to your judgement and hope to see justice for my son.”
Arval seemed about to say something more, but he settled for shaking his head, as well. Kiluron thought that was probably for the best. “No, my lord.”
Rubbing his head, Kiluron looked between the two men. Arval made good points, especially the matter about the blacksmith and the dagger, but he also didn’t want Felerick to go away feeling like he had not gotten justice for his son. Still, it seemed like Felerick was unlikely to be satisfied with anything short of Arval’s death, which Kiluron was not willing to order. He just hoped that he wasn’t being unduly swayed by Doil’s assertion that Arval was important to the Union’s security from the Pifechans.
“From what you have both presented, it seems clear that Arval, at the very least, did not intend to kill Felerick’s son,” Kiluron observed. “However, what he invented was indisputably responsible for Carok’s death; upon that both parties agree. My judgement…” he hesitated. “My judgement is that Arval should pay for any costs incurred by Felerick resulting from the death of his son, and that further he shall be henceforth required to seal the glowjars in order that their contents may not be accessed so easily.”
Neither Arval nor Felerick appeared satisfied, which Kiluron took as a good sign. Inpernuth had said something to him once about a judge’s job being to ensure that no one left a case happy, and while the minister had said it sarcastically, Kiluron found it surprisingly insightful when passing judgements on cases. Both men thanked him, and then were escorted out of the tent. It seemed more diplomatic to not invite Arval for a private conference in front of Felerick.
When Arval was brought back, he came to stand directly before Kiluron and Doil. “You asked to speak with me, my lord?”
“Yes. Well, technically Doil wants to speak with you further, but yes,” Kiluron replied. He glanced at Doil. “Your call on how much to tell him.”
Arval looked at Doil expectantly, and Doil cleared his throat. “Master Arval, were you much affected by the recent Pifechan invasion?”
The inventor shook his head. “My part of the province is rather remote. We don’t get affected by much of anything, much less know what’s happening in the rest of the Union. I’ve only heard rumors.”
“Well, I am not going to retell the entire Pifechan War for you at present, but suffice to say that there was an invasion of the Union by a people wielding technology unlike anything we’d ever imagined before. They had ships that could sail without the wind, weapons that could conjure thunder, and other tools that seem more like magic than technology. We only barely drove them out,” Doil explained. “Since then, we’ve been trying to ensure that we are better prepared, in case they return.”
Arval frowned. “I don’t understand why you’re telling me this.”
Doil exchanged a look with Kiluron, or tried to; Kiluron didn’t know for what Doil was looking, so he couldn’t properly return it. His Advisor turned back to Arval, and handed him one of the thunderspears. “What do you think of this?”
Turning the weapon over in his hands, Arval quickly found the chamber in which the explosive would be placed, and pried it open. Cradling the thunderspear under his arm, he rifled through his pockets for a slim metal wire, which he inserted into the chamber and worked around before withdrawing it. “Fascinating,” he murmured. “The precision with which this was manufactured…it looks like this chamber seals. It probably propels something by expansion of air, sort of like a blowgun…” he trailed off and looked up guiltily. “Sorry. I oughtn’t get carried away.”
Doil nodded in satisfaction as he took the weapon back. “The reason that we’re telling you all of this is straightforward in words, although an unprecedented undertaking in action. Since the Pifechan invasion, we have been considering ways to ensure that Merolate is not so vulnerable again. As part of that effort, we’ve been seeking someone to serve as one of the Prime’s ministers who specializes in what the Pifechans call ‘engineering.’ I think you’ve precisely the kind of mind for which we’ve been searching.”
The expression on Arval’s face was so stunned that Kiluron laughed aloud, and he couldn’t resist patting the inventor’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’s way more complicated than Doil is making it sound.” He wondered what the other ministers would think of their newest peer.
Wiping his brow, Arval stood next to Hemi and watched the guardsmen loading the last of his crates onto a wagon. There were four in the train, each pulled by two blummoxes hitched side by side. Arval had only just finished triple checking that he had packed everything from his homestead and shed, and that his precious implements were appropriately secured.
“Careful with that one!” he called to a pair of guards hoisting a wooden crate over which he had scrawled ‘fragile’ at least twice per face. The guards gave him a sour look and continued going about their work.
His own wagon was parked in the barn, effectively retired. It seemed there would be little need for it where he was going, and Hemi was certainly pleased to never lay eyes upon it again. He could ride the kunga as he accompanied the caravan down the long road to Merolate.
It was strange to reflect on just how sharply his fortunes had changed. Going to the Prime’s Progress had been meant as the start of something, a way to get his inventions before the Union’s population and gain enough attention, and therefore financing, to someday have a shop in a city. In his head, that city had been going to be in Dervate or one of the other, cheaper provinces. Not Merolate, certainly, or even Corbulate. Now he was home, and none of that had happened. Instead, he was going to Merolate to advise the Union’s Prime. None of it was something he had ever imagined.
A bellicose voice from behind him diverted Arval’s thoughts. “What Unbalanced thing did you do at that Progress?” Corvin asked, slapping him on the shoulder and making him stumble into Hemi, who stomped in protest at the treatment. “All these soldiers around. They arresting you?”
Considering the incident with Felerick, the guess had come uncomfortably close to being true, but when Arval turned to face Corvin he could not quite suppress a smirk. “Actually, I’ve been appointed to a special advisory position to the Prime of Merolate. These fine guardsmen are here to escort me to the castle.”
“You? In the Capitol?” Corvin guffawed. “Well, if that’s not something. You’re serious?”
Arval nodded. “They’re talking about giving me the title ‘Chief Inventor.’ I’ll be directly interacting with the Prime almost every day, and managing matters of grave importance to Union security.”
Grinning, Corvin slapped Arval on the back again. “Never thought I’d see the day. Gotta say, I’m kinda proud. One of us, out on the frontier, getting to the city and doing important things. Times are changing, that they are.”
“I guess you’re right. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way,” Arval admitted. He was surprised; he didn’t think Corvin had ever been this congenial towards him.
“But what’ll you do about your tinkering?” his neighbor asked.
“I’ve been promised whatever space and resources I might need.” Arval had made certain of that before he had accepted his new position. No matter how exciting the offer was, he wasn’t willing to give up his innovating for a purely political appointment.
“That’s good, that’s good.” Corvin shifted uncomfortably for a moment before he gave Arval the briefest hug of his life. “Well, we’re gonna miss having you as a neighbor. Don’t know what I’ll do without you exploding something every few days.”
It might have been nice, Arval considered, if Corvin or any of his other neighbors had ever given the slightest indication that they were fond of or appreciated his presence before he was leaving for Merolate, hopefully never to return to this remote frontier. He didn’t think that he would miss his house, for all that it was where he had grown up and lived most of his life. It was time to move on.
“Oh, and it’s okay that you didn’t have time to fix that tater-planter contraption,” Corvin added. “Probably better for somebody like me just to do it the old-fashioned way.”
Now Arval felt almost as uncomfortable as Corvin had seemed the moment before he hugged Arval. “Actually, there’s a new one in the shed for you. All rigged up and ready to go, provided that you avoid trying to plant any more potatoes in solid rocks.”
“Is that what went wrong?” Corvin laughed. “That sure explains a lot. Well, thanks.”
They were silent for a span, neither quite sure what to say, or if they ought to say anything. Arval wondered why Corvin was still standing there. One of the Merolate guardsmen approached Arval. “We’re ready to go, Sir, whenever you’d care to depart.”
“Thank you.” Arval turned back to Corvin. “I guess this is it. Good luck out here.”
Corvin slapped Arval’s back yet again. “We’ll be fine out here. Have been, will be. You’re the one doing things nobody’s done before. Make ‘em proud of us in their city.”
Mounting his kunga, Arval tried to think of a good response. “I’ll do my best.” Hemi snorted beneath him, and he patted her neck. “Alright, Hemi. Let’s go.” He rode off with his personal convoy of laden wagons and did not look back at Corvin waving after him. It was time to do something new.
The end of Blood Magic S3:E3: Making Change. 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 April 30th, 2022.
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