Everything seemed too large and too permanent. Stone, stone everywhere: stone walls, stone streets, stone buildings, stone wharfs, stone castle. Thinking of his drafty cabin – he had always meant to repair it, but other projects inevitably seemed so much more interesting – Arval marveled that a place like this could exist. It sat upon the coast, looking over the Aprina Sea, like something out of a dream, a place that was surely not the product of human hands. Yet it was, and that made it all the more marvelous. Everything from the motion of the massive gates to the arches that suspended them and elevated guards high above the ground made his own tinkering seem inconsequential.
Even after three days, he had not grown accustomed to the bustle of Merolate, the city’s native energy. There were always people, and they were always rushing about hither and thither, from home, to market, to shop, to work, to home again, and then back out before hardly having settled. Arval had always felt out of place on the frontier, he had dreamt of coming to a city, but now he found that he was no less out of place. His mannerisms, his tendencies, his temperament: they all marked him as different. Perhaps that was something that would never change.
At least he was starting to know his way around the castle, even if the city’s intricacies remained an unsolved maze. Prime Kiluron and Advisor Doil had granted him two full days to begin settling in and adjusting before they expected him to begin attending the minister meetings, so on the morning of the third day Arval ensured he was up plenty early so that he would have time to find the conference chamber even if he got lost along the way. He did not get lost, however, and so he sat in the dim chamber alone, the first one to arrive, and wished that he had brought something with which to tinker.
Maybe, if he had followed along on the rest of the Prime’s Progress, he wouldn’t have found Merolate so overwhelming. Still, he had gone as far as Corbulate City before returning to conclude his experiments and make his preparations to depart, and that sight had not prepared him for what he would encounter. He doubted that Welate City would have made the difference, nor any of the dozens of other towns through which the Progress must have passed after he took his leave. Not for nothing was Merolate the Union capitol.
Voices approaching attracted his attention; he turned towards the doorway to see Advisor Doil, accompanied by a much older man who walked with a slight limp. “Frankly, there’s just no one with your breadth and depth of experience in this realm,” Advisor Doil was saying.
“It is essential that I not be irreplaceable,” the older man replied. “That would represent a serious flaw in the structuring of the Union government. By precedent, I ought to have retired after Prime Wezzix’s death; perhaps, if I had obeyed the precedent, we would not now be in this position. Such precedents do exist for a reason.”
“You haven’t always seemed all that eager to find a replacement, yourself, for all that this was your idea,” Advisor Doil retorted. “Perhaps the problem is not so much that none of our candidates are suitable, as that none of us are entirely invested in replacing you.”
The older man rubbed his furrowed forehead. “I…admit that I harbor certain reservations, yes. However, the reasons I sought this course in the first place have not changed, and therefore I consider those reservations to be nothing more than unfortunate artifacts of my age-induced sentimentality.”
Taking their seats at the large, triangular table, the two appeared to notice Arval for the first time. Discomfited by their scrutiny, he quirked his lips into a smile and bobbed his head.
Advisor Doil smiled and nodded at him in return. “I’m sorry, Master Arval, I didn’t notice you there. Minister Borivat and I are usually the first ones here.” He gestured at the older man. “We’ll do full introductions once everyone else has arrived, but for now, this is Borivat, currently Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands, and formerly Prime Wezzix’s Advisor. Borivat, this is Arval, who Prime Kiluron and I wish to put forth to fill the new position we’ve been considering, Chief Inventor.”
Arval tried not to be intimidated by the presence of two Advisors to the Prime of Merolate. “Honored to meet you,” he managed. It wasn’t that Advisor Doil hadn’t tried to make him comfortable during their time together on the Prime’s Progress, but there was something permanently aloof and reserved about the Advisor, not to mention his rigorous training that Arval could not possibly match. He had thought himself reasonably intelligent until he met Doil, who it seemed could spontaneously dictate a full-length dissertation on almost any topic. More than once Arval had wondered why they needed a Chief Inventor at all, when they had people like Doil.
“How are you settling into Merolate?” Minister Borivat asked.
“Well enough.” Arval hesitated. “It’s a little overwhelming, I’ll admit.”
“Advisor Doil was telling me that you’ve lived your entire life out on the frontier through the pioneer program?” Borivat continued.
Arval bobbed his head again, and wished that he had something intelligent to say in response. Fortunately, Doil supplied a response for him. “It’s humbling, to think how much he’s accomplished with almost no resources that we couldn’t discern here in Merolate with all the resources of the Union behind us.” Arval flushed.
“It’s not much, really,” he hastened to amend. “Trinkets, odds and ends, mostly. Wheelbarrows that plant potatoes aren’t exactly a technological revolution.”
The arrival of the other ministers, and Prime Kiluron himself, spared him further awkward conversation, and he buried himself in the agenda Advisor Doil provided, only to realize that there was little refuge there: the second item on the agenda was his name. As all eyes turned to him, he stood and gave a little wave, wishing that the movements of his chair hadn’t seemed so loud in the quiet chamber, and then sat back down as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Advisor Doil then went around with a string of names, each minister nodding a greeting in his or her turn, but Arval knew he would never remember them all.
“I told you so,” the minister named Inpernuth declared. He was sitting next to Arval and leaned over towards him. “Your position was my idea, lok. If you want to thank me, have a nice bottle of white oaked spirits delivered to my residence.”
Arval’s brow furrowed almost of its own accord. “White oak? Why white oak?” He flushed as he realized that the conversation had moved on and that Advisor Doil was proceeding with the meeting.
One of the ministers was giving a report; Arval thought he remembered the man had been introduced as Admiral Ferl. If his military title was not sufficient evidence that he was responsible for martial affairs, his report was. “We have restored the militia rotations at the northern border with the Territories, and semiregular traffic with Nycheril has resumed, including supplements from the merchants. We are also expecting the first Nycheril-built ship to launch on its maiden voyage to Merolate within the year,” he was saying.
“Excellent,” Doil acknowledged.
“There is one other matter,” Admiral Ferl added. “Guardcaptain Vere requested that I provide an update from him on the ongoing investigation into the Gälmourein.”
Murmurs of discomfort rose all around the table, and Prime Kiluron leaned forward with an odd expression on his face, somewhere between fear and eagerness, but the word was completely unfamiliar to Arval. “Go ahead, Admiral,” Advisor Doil prompted.
Nodding, Admiral Ferl took a deep breath before he continued. “Based on evidence we found in the Gältrok’nör before it was destroyed, we traced a line of communication from the Gältrok’nör through several stops, ultimately leading to a remote, mountainous region in Ebereen, part of the Uir range. Our scouts have identified an abandoned fortress that is no longer abandoned. No Gälmourein were spotted, but there were definite signs of occupancy, and evidence of Blood sacrifices and other rituals. The locals apparently avoid the place, calling it haunted, but they mostly blame bandits.”
“Are there any indications of what they might be doing there?” Doil asked. “Do you think they’re associated with the Isle?”
“Our scouts weren’t able to get that close for that long,” Admiral Ferl admitted. “Nor, I think, do we really know enough about Blood Magic to guess.”
“Then we go in,” Prime Kiluron declared, smacking his hand on the table and drawing everyone’s attention. “Borivat, how long will it take to get permission to stage a military operation on Ebereen soil?”
“Um, perhaps by the end of summer?” Minister Borivat appeared flustered. “Communication is hardly instantaneous, and travel is always treacherous through southern and middle Ebereen for most of the summer. Any major operation may need to wait for winter, anyway.”
Prime Kiluron was already shaking his head. “Not good enough. They might be training more Gälmourein, for all we know.”
“There are physical limitations,” Advisor Doil protested. “The distances involved are significant, and Ebereen roads are impassable with mud when they’re not frozen.”
“Then we come up with a solution to travel through the mud. Ebereen has even stricter rules around Blood Magic than we do; we should be able to get permission just from their local ambassador if we tell them we have evidence of Blood Magic being used within their borders,” the Prime determined. “We cannot allow a return of the Guardian.”
Taking a deep breath, Advisor Doil caught Arval’s eye. “Can you work on the mud problem?”
All attention turned to Arval, and he flushed. “Um, well, I don’t really know what’s being discussed here, but…yes, travel through mud. I think that’s something I can probably figure out.”
“Then it’s settled. Borivat will get permission for the expedition, Admiral Ferl will plan it with Guardcaptain Vere, and Arval will get us a way to travel through the mud.” Prime Kiluron looked around. “What’s next?”
Advisor Doil raised a tentative hand. “Ah, there is one other, tangentially related matter, my lord.”
“What’s that?” Prime Kiluron asked.
Even Arval could tell that Advisor Doil appeared uncomfortable. “Considering the events with the Gälmourein, I think that it is appropriate for you to begin considering the selection of a Sub-Prime.”
The Prime glanced down at his hand with a strange expression on his face; Arval noticed a scar there for the first time. “I’m not planning on dying anytime soon. That’s why we’re going to pursue this report from Vere so aggressively.”
“There are other sources of danger, my lord,” Advisor Doil observed. No one else seemed interested in supporting him. “Besides, we have seen how quickly the situation can change, and it takes a long time to train a Sub-Prime. We had over a decade of training before Prime Wezzix’s…sacrifice, and were we ready?”
“No.” It sounded a grudging admission from the Prime. “But a Sub-Prime…” he looked around. “Let’s talk about this privately, okay?”
Advisor Doil accepted the offer graciously, and the meeting continued. Most of it went right past Arval’s head, as he was already deep in thought about how to move a large force of men through muddy roads. It was his first project for the Prime, and he was determined not to disappoint.
As the meeting adjourned, he walked away from the conference chamber with ideas spinning in his head. He remembered his overladen wagon getting stuck in the mud, so that Hemi had been unable to budge it, and his thoughts about replacing muscle power. Maybe with enough gears, he could produce sufficient force to move a vehicle even through the mud.
An apartment had been provided for him in the city. Advisor Doil had offered to dedicate a study for him to use, but Arval had demurred; his experiments were not the kind of thing that he could do in a library, and he wouldn’t even know what to do with so many books. Instead, he had been provided a warehouse in the northeastern quarter of the city. Compared to the shed and barn in which he had worked for most of his life, which he had been obliged to share with his rickety wagon, various farm equipment, and Hemi, the warehouse had so much space he could hardly imagine using all of it, even with part of the loft blocked off to serve as an office.
It also had a stone floor. “Well, this isn’t going to work for trials,” he muttered aloud, even though Hemi was not there to hear. She had never been the most responsive of laboratory assistants, anyway.
Once in the loft, he settled himself down at the large drafting table, and rifled along the edge of the pad of oversized paper clipped there, marveling. Several charcoal pens were sharpened and ready for him in the tray. He had always dreamt of having an architect’s drafting table for his sketches, and here it was in front of him. Often since he had come to Merolate he had found himself worried that all of this would suddenly vanish, that it wasn’t really his. Which technically it wasn’t; Inpernuth would probably have something to say about that. Putting such thoughts aside, he picked up one of the pens and began to sketch.
He started with a basic wagon. Although he had never seen a troop transport, he assumed they were similar to wagons, and certainly a military cargo vehicle could hardly help but be sturdy wagons. Then he did another sketch, this time focused on just the wheels. The problem, he suspected, was a matter of traction, since the wheels needed to be able to rotate against the ground in order to propel their load. He did a sketch of normal wagon wheels with spikes on the rims, which looked very military. Perhaps the spikes would be able to dig into the ground. He did another sketch where he replaced the wheels with runners, like a sleigh – he knew that some of his former neighbors had done that to help get around in the winter through deep snow.
Realizing that all of his sketches so far were crammed into one small corner of the paper that was almost as wide as his arm span, he shook his head. “Guess this will take some getting used to.” Forcing himself to not be so economical, he redid his sketches at a more reasonable size, then tore off the piece of paper and tacked it up to one of the bare, slat-board walls. Back at his desk, he brushed his hand across the empty paper, took a deep breath, and began a new sketch.
Wiping sweat from his brow, Kiluron turned reluctantly towards Doil. “Shouldn’t you be introducing Arval to Evry or something?” He dreaded that he knew why Doil was there.
His words did not prompt Doil to leave; his Advisor took them as an invitation, instead. “You haven’t been like this in a while, my lord. Is this because of my suggestion about a Sub-Prime?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Kiluron replied. He glanced down at his scarred hand, trying and failing to clench it into a fist. “I need to practice more if I’m going to get used to being crippled.”
“You’re not crippled, my lord,” Doil protested. Kiluron wanted to wave his scarred hand around in front of Doil’s face but resisted the urge as immature. He was not going to devolve to how he had been when he first became Prime, no matter what Doil thought. “And your injury has nothing to do with the relevance and importance of selecting a Sub-Prime.”
Kiluron stabbed his sword into the dummy’s chest and left it quivering there as he turned to face Doil. “Doesn’t it? Can you honestly tell me that, if it weren’t for these assassination attempts, you would be pushing me to pick a Sub-Prime after being Prime for less than two years?”
“Well, the assassination attempts are only one factor, anyway,” Doil insisted. “There is ample evidence that we are living in particularly dangerous times. Aside from the assassination attempt, how many times have you come close to dying since becoming Prime? Half a dozen times? More? Your predecessor did die performing his duties. Think where the Union would be if you hadn’t been training to take his place for most of your life.”
“There was the Guardian attack, but I wouldn’t count that one, given the circumstances,” Kiluron listed, ticking the incidents off on his fingers. “Then there was the assassination attempt last year, but it didn’t have much conviction, and she ended up being an ally. I suppose there was the plague last year, so I guess that counts. And the Pifechan invasion. So that’s really only twice. Plus this most recent assassination attempt, so three.”
Doil shook his head. “The specific number is somewhat beside the point, my lord.”
“I’m just saying, it’s not as often as you said,” Kiluron repeated.
“My point, my lord” Doil continued, “is that it would be prudent to at least begin a search for a Sub-Prime, so that training for him or her, and his or her Advisor, can begin as soon as possible. If the Union is left with neither a Prime nor a Sub-Prime, for whatever reason, I suspect that the governors would revert back to being independent rulers. The Union has not been around for so long that they have forgotten independence.”
Without an immediate retort at hand, Kiluron yanked his sword from the dummy and hacked it through the air. It accomplished nothing, but the way the blade whistled through the air was satisfying, nonetheless. “How in Balance am I supposed to train a Sub-Prime?” he demanded. “I barely know how to be Prime.” He sheathed the practice sword and sat down beside Doil. “It’s not just the training, either. Prime Wezzix was, well, he was like a father figure. You think I’m Bloody ready to be a father to someone?”
Doil’s reply was quiet. “I know how you feel, my lord. I don’t feel ready to train a new Advisor, either. And it’s true that Prime Wezzix and Advisor Borivat were both well into their second decade before they chose us.”
“There, so it’s unprecedented. That’s why we shouldn’t do it.” Kiluron wasn’t even convincing himself, now.
Doil shook his head. “Do you really think you would feel any more ready in, say, five more years?”
“Yes! No. I don’t know.” Kiluron grimaced. “I don’t know! And that’s the problem.”
“Borivat will be able to help us. Perhaps it would even be better to do this soon, before he becomes too accustomed to retirement.” Doil managed a slight smile at that, and Kiluron could not help smirking in return.
“I wish I had more arguments,” he grumbled. “Never could win an argument with you. Alright, I guess we can start looking into this. How do we even select a Sub-Prime, anyway? I know the candidates have to come from a different province than me, but other than that…seems like most five-year-olds are going to seem pretty much the same.”
Doil nodded. “Well, we usually narrow the pool to orphans, since most parents don’t want to give up ever having contact with their child again, and it’s easier on the child if they don’t have memories of being taken away from their families by the demands of the government.”
“You make it sound rather despicable of us,” Kiluron observed. “Still, that probably leaves us with hundreds of potential candidates.”
“True,” Doil acknowledged. “There are certain characteristics around which the search has been oriented in the past. This is easiest for the Advisor position, actually, both because there is less pressure to get it right, and because there are more obvious signs at such an early age of who might have the appropriate temperament and inclination. In most populations of children, there will be only a handful who tend to keep to themselves; whether or not they are already academically inclined, these will tend to have to temperament and personality most conducive to being in the Advisory role.”
Kiluron snorted. “Weird, lonely kids make good advisors. Got it. Was that how you were picked?” He didn’t give Doil a chance to answer; he was only interested in teasing, not a serious question. “What about the Prime? You implied that could be less obvious.”
“Harder to define might be more accurate,” Doil corrected. “Experience has suggested that simply choosing the child who most fills the role of leader amongst his or her peers is not the best indicator of future success, but we have a very limited set of samples upon which to base our selection. The first and second Primes, after all, were both already matured by the time they were tapped for the role, so there have only been four instances of choosing a Sub-Prime in all of the Union’s history.”
“Well, how was I chosen?” Kiluron asked. “Or Wezzix?”
A ray of sunlight glanced off of a window, and Doil had to shield his eyes before continuing. Kiluron had almost forgotten that they were still sitting outside on rough-sawn benches in a practice yard. “Well…before Prime Wezzix, Sub-Primes were chosen more or less by the governors. Each province governor, excepting the province from which the current Prime came, would present the Prime with a short list of candidates. From there, the ultimate selection was largely a matter of politics, regarding which province was the most restive and with which the Prime at the time might need to curry favor. Prime Wezzix did not like the method, however, feeling that it ceded too great a role in the Union governance to provincial politics. He chose you by establishing a rotation amongst the provinces modeled after the Primes that had so far been chosen, and then making his own selection from the appropriate province.”
“Yes, but how did he choose me?” Kiluron repeated. “I can’t imagine Wezzix just going into town, finding a random orphanage, pointing a finger, and saying ‘yep, he’ll do.’” Plus, he did not want to think that his current position was little more than an act of random chance. He had been chosen to be Sub-Prime, and he had always assumed that meant there were reasons behind his choosing, even if he did not know what they were.
Doil shifted in place. “Um, I don’t think that I’m the right person to answer that question, my lord.”
Kiluron frowned. “What do you mean? Who else would possibly answer it?”
“Well, under other circumstances, I would say Prime Wezzix.” Doil grimaced. “However, ah, Borivat indicated that there was something of a story to your selection. But he said that he would only share it with you, because it was your story to decide how to share after that.”
With a sigh, Kiluron climbed to his feet and stretched. “Then I guess I’d better go find Borivat.” He hesitated before he left. “You know, from the way we were talking early you’d think we were a newly married couple, debating about having our first child.”
“Well, you did compare Prime Wezzix to a father figure,” Doil observed.
Kiluron waited half a moment for Doil to make his own realization of the implication, but his Advisor either wasn’t thinking along those lines, or chose not to step further down that path. Kiluron had not such reluctance. “Ha! That would make you the mother figure, then. Mommy Doil.”
His Advisor was caught in an awkward juxtaposition of embarrassment and amusement. “Um, I don’t, that is, it’s not quite what I…”
Cutting him off, Kiluron waved a deliberately airy hand. “Don’t worry, I promise that you’ll only be Mommy Doil between us and the children.” Before Doil could come up with a retort or bring the discussion back to something serious, Kiluron left to find Borivat, chortling the whole time. It at least kept him from thinking about his own role.
Not for the first time that day, Arval wiped his hands on a rag that was rapidly becoming more mud than cloth, and stepped back to contemplate his design. With the help of some servants – he was still uncomfortable having servants around – he had built a raised pit of mud in his warehouse, as long as the warehouse was, a strip of mud straight down the center. Later prototypes would be tested outside, in real mud, but this would allow him to test smaller scale models and see if he was getting the basic ideas right, before he moved on to developing a full prototype.
“It’s still not right.” He chewed on one knuckle and pushed his thinning hair back with the other hand. “I don’t understand mud!”
Such a silly thing to say, but it was true. Something so simple, so obvious, so common, so banal, so mundane, and it was absolutely baffling. Everyone understood mud, or at least would say that they did. Mud happened when you got dirt wet. It was sticky, it held onto things, it was hard to travel through, it was messy, it was kind of runny. There was more of it in the spring, and less of it in the summer, except apparently in Ebereen, a place Arval had barely been aware existed before coming to Merolate; Minister Borivat had been kind enough to show him where it was on a map, which had helped only a little. Regardless, he did not understand mud.
His sleigh runners idea had proven quite useless. A model was sitting up to its base in his testing mud, the runners that slid so gracefully over snow lodged firmly a hand span deep in mud. It had worked well enough until he started loading it with weight, but a transport that only could transport while empty was worse than useless. Sledges were always an option, but they were horribly inefficient, and Arval refused to go back to the people who had named him Chief Inventor and tell them that they should just go back to using the most primitive form of transportation known to man.
“Back to the drafting board, I guess,” he told himself. In one corner of the oversized paper, he saw a sketch he had started for a flying machine, in which a human used a gear mechanism to power oversized bird-like wings. Instead of working further on the mud problem, he continued that sketch. Maybe he could just have the guards fly to Ebereen. That would be a fun solution.
A knock at the door distracted him, and he lost count of the number of gear teeth. “What?” he demanded. “Wait downstairs, I’m busy.” Finding his place again, he finished counting the gear teeth, ran some quick figures, and calculated a mechanical advantage. Gears were marvelous, practically magic. They could make moving something heavy astonishingly easy, provided you were willing to be slow about it, and they could make moving something fast just as easy, assuming you could get enough leverage. That led to moment arms and levers and…he realized that he had left someone waiting down in the warehouse and snapped himself out of his reflections. There was real work to do.
He was even more embarrassed when he descended from the loft and found Advisor Doil waiting patiently for him beside the long mud trough. “Advisor Doil!” he stammered, trying and failing to avoid being flummoxed by the presence of the Prime’s own Advisor in his warehouse. He would have thought someone so important would send a servant for that kind of thing, not make house calls. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize it was you…” It seemed a wholly inadequate justification.
If the Prime’s Advisor was offended by being made to wait on Arval, he gave no sign of it. “If you have a few moments, I would like to show you the designs that I mentioned before.”
“The ones for the harbor defenses?” Arval asked. Doil nodded. “Yes, of course, of course. Just let me close up here, and we can be off.”
Out on the streets, Arval had to squint against the bright sunlight, and within a few steps he was sweating; even with the moderating influence from the sea, it got far warmer in Merolate City than it had in the north. Plus, there were so many people; it felt like he was constantly having to dodge them, although Doil appeared unperturbed, and led them unerringly through the maze of streets towards the castle.
“You were working on the transport problem?” Doil asked as they walked.
Arval grimaced. “Yes. Er, no. Sort of. What do you know about mud?”
Instead of scoffing, Doil seemed to take the question seriously. “Well, I know that mud is the result of mixing dirt with water in a ratio such as to form a suspension. The particulate size of the soil involved is of relevance to the final consistency, as is the exact ratio of water to soil.”
“Particle size?” Arval asked. “And what’s a suspension?” He flushed. “Sorry. I don’t know a lot of terms. Mostly, I just learnt things by tinkering and experimenting for myself.”
“That’s alright. A suspension is just a word for, well, for something that natural philosophers don’t really understand,” Doil explained. “We’ve observed that certain combinations of liquids and particulate solids form a stable mixture that does not separate but is not fully integrated. It’s called a suspension mostly because, well, I guess because we don’t know what else to call it. They don’t really behave like liquids, nor do they behave like solids. As for particle size, natural philosophers have been observing for centuries, but have only recently recorded, that when mud from different regions is dried, the soil that remains has different properties that seem to be linked in some way to the mud’s properties, but no one has been able to determine exactly how. I suppose even natural philosophers don’t find it very exciting to be studying mud.”
Arval, on the other hand, was growing very excited. “I think it’s absolutely fascinating. I wonder…do you think it could be a distinct elemental state? Or perhaps the elemental states are not discrete, but continuous…more like a pulley ratio than a gear ratio. I’ll have to experiment…” he trailed off, and shook himself. “This is always how it goes,” he admitted. “Every attempt to invent something new leads to a realization of just how little we understand about the world and how it works. We don’t even have the tools to describe or even study many of these things. So then I get distracted with experiments, and the original invention takes longer than I ever expected.”
To his surprise, Doil agreed. “I don’t think I fully realized just how little we understood until I began attempting to comprehend Pifechan technology. They have grasped things about how the world works and turned it into an ability to manipulate the physical environment in ways that seem almost like magic.”
“How do you mean?” Arval asked.
Doil started to respond, stopped, started again, and stopped again. “It will make more sense just to show you. Besides, we’re nearly there.”
They passed into the castle, and then Doil led Arval down a set of hallways and stairs he had not before traversed, until they came to a heavy, guarded door. It was not difficult for Arval to recognize that this must be the Merolate vault. The guard nodded to Doil, who nodded back, and then they passed inside. Arval had a brief glimpse of a chamber full of precious metals and jewels, strange artifacts, unique works of art, and other treasures before Doil led him down a narrow passage to another chamber, one which Arval immediately found much more interesting.
Every wall was plastered with paper. Diagrams and texts alike were nailed to wooden slats that had been affixed to the stone walls, many on an impossibly thin, incredibly white paper. Each was accompanied by a replica on more ordinary paper, done with more ordinary inks and pens. Against the thusly decorated walls were stacks of thunderspears, piles of metal, and crates of glassware and other materials that Arval could not readily identify.
At the room’s center was a square table groaning beneath stacks of paper and haphazard pyramids of scrolls. Four people stood there, each looking at Doil respectfully. Doil cleared his throat. “Ahem. Chief Inventor Arval, this is Elia, Drogu, Pilop, and Reshter. Elia and Drogu are linguists; Pilop is a natural philosopher, and Reshter is an architect. They’ve been working on translating the Pifechan written material we were able to obtain, and trying to decipher what it all means. I’m hoping that you’ll be able to help. Team, this is Arval, our new Chief Inventor.”
Arval flushed, and gave a quick wave before tucking his hand into his apron where it could be safely concealed from further embarrassment. “Hello,” he said.
It was a small comfort that the scholars’ introductions were nearly as awkward as his own. Then Doil was guiding him to a particular corner of the room, in which were stacked high large sheets of ordinary paper, with no Pifechan analogs. “These are copies of the plans Evry has drawn up for the harbor defenses. Your main task, before you get into deciphering how the other Pifechan technology works, is to review these plans, understand them, and ensure that Evry is not tricking us somehow.”
Blinking, Arval thumbed through the thick pages. “Um, sorry, but who’s Evry?”
To his chagrin, Doil smacked himself on the forehead. “I’m sorry, that was silly of me. Evry is a Pifechan engineer, or at least that’s what she calls herself; the word doesn’t have a direct translation in our language. When her ship was captured, she turned traitor and started working for us. We’ve employed her to design defenses for Merolate’s harbor that will work against Pifechan vessels, but we obviously can’t trust her. However, none of us understand enough about the principles involved to really know if her designs are sound, or if she’s incorporating some kind of flaw. None of us, that is, except hopefully you.”
“Well, that’s not too much responsibility.” Arval’s laugh was more artificial than the light from his glowjars.
Doil’s lips quirked. “Fortunately, I don’t expect you to get to that point overnight, and neither does Prime Kiluron. Nor are we turning over the translation project to you; it will remain directly answerable to me. You’ll consult with them as necessary, but mostly will operate independently from them.”
Rubbing his forehead, Arval thought he could almost feel his hairline receding. “This is…a lot to take in. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do everything you’re expecting of me.”
“We’ll get you a staff once you’ve settled in a little. Not everything will be directly on you; we’ll make sure that you can requisition resources and facilities, and delegate projects and tasks to subordinates,” Doil promised.
Although he couldn’t say it, Arval thought that sounded even more intimidating. It was a relief when he got back to his warehouse and could concentrate on the intractable – perhaps literally – mud transport problem. Even so, he hadn’t made much progress beyond making a few jars of different types of mud by the time that the warm sunlight was replaced by the light from his glowjars.
Trying to concentrate had proven futile, but that was no excuse; Kiluron had far too much that he needed to be doing to be so distracted. The amount of work that had piled up for him during the Progress, despite regular communication back and forth between him and Merolate, was almost enough to make him think that Prime Wezzix had been right about Progresses being wasteful and superfluous. Under the best of circumstances, it was not the kind of work to hold his attention, and these were not the best of circumstances.
“It’s rather a long story; it would be best if it waited until evening, when we have finished our other tasks for the day,” Borivat had insisted when Kiluron confronted him. Kiluron supposed that he could have ordered the old Advisor to spill, but that didn’t seem right, and even after so long as Prime, Kiluron was uncomfortable ordering Borivat around for anything.
That was all fine in theory, until he was obliged to spend the remainder of the afternoon immersed in paperwork with his mind unwilling to concentrate on anything but wondering what kind of mysterious story still remained about his selection as Prime. It wasn’t so long ago that he had been very sensitive about his unknown parents, but he had mostly grown out of that, and between Borivat and Aiga he had been able to piece together the story about his curse. Now, there was some new mystery about which everyone was being coy, and Kiluron wanted to know.
Besides, wondering about this unknown backstory was far less disconcerting than pondering training a Sub-Prime. He might have become more comfortable and confident in his own abilities to fulfill the role of Prime, but conveying that to someone else was an entirely different matter. Just because he could now effectively make decisions and judgements did not mean that he could articulate how he did it in a coherent and cogent way that someone else could understand. That seemed more like Doil’s job, but he didn’t think that training a Sub-Prime was the sort of thing he could delegate.
It was finally evening, and although Kiluron hadn’t finished all of his tasks, his tasks were never fully completed, and he had done enough. Taking a hefty pasty from the kitchens and a cup of cold cream, he sought out Borivat. The former Advisor was bent over a desk in one of the studies, as usual, with a book beneath the gentle caress of his left hand and a pen scratching away in his right. He looked up as Kiluron entered, and smiled.
“I suppose I oughtn’t to be surprised that you would be eager,” he remarked. “I fear that I may have led you to believe that this story will be more interesting than it really is.”
Kiluron plopped himself down in a facing chair and spread his cloth napkin on his lap. “Now you tell me? Then why all the secrecy?”
Borivat shifted in his chair, and pushed his papers aside with a sigh. “It’s not secrecy, per se. There are simply…certain things that we choose not to bandy about when we don’t have to.”
“Sounds salacious. Is that a good use of that word? I heard Doil use it recently and thought it sounded like fun.” Kiluron shook his head, dismissing the matter. “Anyway, the topic at hand. What’s this mysterious, semi-secret story about how I got chosen to be Sub-Prime?”
“Well, I don’t think that salacious is really an appropriate descriptor. Mostly, it started with Prime Wezzix asking many of the same questions that you are now asking.” Borivat leaned back and made himself more comfortable. “He had been Prime for about three years, and he and I had determined that it would be appropriate to begin searching for a new Sub-Prime. As you might expect from someone of Prime Wezzix’s temperament, he went first to the Charter for guidance.”
Kiluron nodded. “Doil and I did the same thing, but it doesn’t exactly provide a lot of specifics.”
“No, it’s not that kind of document,” Borivat agreed. He seemed to be warming up to his storytelling. “Nor is it intended to be, but even so, one might expect it to be slightly more specific on the matter of succession, considering its importance. I suppose both what it says and what it omits speak to the preoccupations of the authors. Regardless, Prime Wezzix did not find the guidance he sought in the Charter, nor in previous precedents. We spent many evenings together, pondering a way to make the selection more rigorous. We developed a list of traits and characteristics we thought a Prime ought to have, with ways to quantify each of them, and then began testing our method by interviewing children from Merolate’s orphanages. Unfortunately, the technique failed. At that age, there were simply too many unknowns for our criteria to be useful for selection.”
“Okay…” Kiluron tried not to appear disappointed. “Doil and I already went through some of this. Where does it get interesting? I can’t imagine that Prime Wezzix just picked a number out of a hat, and if you’re being so coy about the whole thing, I have to think that he must have done something uncharacteristically underhanded.”
Borivat raised an eyebrow, sending rifts cascading across the skin of his forehead. “I find myself curious just what sort of underhanded dealings your imagination has provided.”
Kiluron flushed. “Uh, I don’t know. Maybe he had mistress and I’m secretly his true son? Or maybe I’m some noble’s child who was made Sub-Prime as part of a political deal?” He shrugged. “Not really very realistic, I know.”
“Your second guess is closer to being the truth, but still quite far off,” Borivat admitted. “Have you ever wondered, since learning of the curse that was placed upon you after becoming Sub-Prime, why Aiga’s mother would have chosen to curse you, instead of Prime Wezzix? Why use Blood Magic against a newly chosen Sub-Prime who could have been, at that time, and I mean no offense, readily replaced?”
“That’s…that’s a really good question. I should definitely have been asking that sooner,” Kiluron mused. He thought Borivat might have suppressed a smile at that remark.
“It is a question that will be answered in the course of this story,” Borivat explained. “The story itself, though, goes back further, so that we might answer why Prime Wezzix chose you in the first place. It was a political arrangement, but not the kind of which you were thinking. You see, relations with the Balancer religion and Blood Magic in all of their aspects were very low after the incident with Esaphatulenius, and he was not the only figure of the time to draw attention to the dangers of Blood Magic. When he became Prime, Prime Wezzix sought to more fully enforce the Blood Decrees, especially the fifth. It…well, it led to problems.”
Kiluron frowned. “The fifth Decree…isn’t that the one that broadens the Blood Decrees to apply to those who are only indirectly involved with Blood Magic?”
Borivat nodded. “You can see the kinds of problems that might arise, of course, humans being human. These sorts of instances have arisen throughout history, whenever similar laws have been enacted, but Prime Wezzix and I were too young and inexperienced at the time to see the resonances. It became a viscous, vengeful rumor game. People who didn’t like their neighbors only had to accuse them of violating the fifth Decree, and even if they were eventually found innocent, they would be effectively ostracized. Where the Balancer faith had before been a small but tolerated part of Merolate’s culture, to even express sympathy for its practitioners became a matter of grave personal risk. Of course, the witches were caught up in all of this, although at the time the distinction was unknown to us; I had read of them, but most sources described them as a sect within the Balancer faith. It was ugly, my lord, truly ugly.”
Imagining what it would have been like was not difficult; Kiluron thought he had seen a glimpse of that mindset when he had negotiated between Governor Parl and the Isle of Blood. “Not to sound selfish, but where do I come in with all of this?”
“It was about this time that Prime Wezzix and I were searching for a Sub-Prime,” Borivat explained. “There was a series of particularly ugly disputes in a Dervate lumber town, and accusations of Blood Decree violations were launched in every direction. Some of the cases made it all the way to Prime Wezzix for a decision, including one involving a family with a young child accused of harboring Blood Priests from the Isle. They, in turn, had sought to vindicate themselves by calling out others in the town for interactions with traveling healers – witches. Prime Wezzix had them executed, all of them except for their son, whom he deemed too young to have been guilty of violating the Blood Decrees.”
“And that was me.” It wasn’t much of a leap; there was no other reason for Borivat to be telling the story. “That’s the big secret? I’m a single case of Wezzix’s mercy?”
Kiluron had not intended it to sound quite so aggressive, but Borivat flushed in response. “I suppose that, now that so much time has passed, it is perhaps not as delicate a matter as it once was. However, my lord, you must understand that at the time it amounted to a scandal. The Union governors, particularly Governor Parl, accused him of being too soft on Blood Magic. Others accused him of judging the case not on its merits, but on some potential that he saw in you – in other words, that he had your family executed so that he could make you Sub-Prime. Living through it, Prime Wezzix and I thought at times that the Union would never recover. It drove us to begin easing up a little on the enforcement of the Blood Decrees. Obviously, the Union did recover, and I would argue is stronger today than it has ever been, at least in terms of political unity, but it was not obvious how these things would transpire.”
“I see.” True, the facts were clear enough, but Kiluron could not begin to categorize or identify how he felt. Mostly, he suspected he should be feeling more, but he didn’t feel much of anything. Yes, it was interesting, and the history was somewhat enlightening about the early days of Prime Wezzix’s rule, but for him, personally, it seemed rather incidental. He could make an issue of it, or he could accept that he had been the Sub-Prime, and that he was now Prime. “I guess that doesn’t really put us any closer to picking a Sub-Prime now, though. For all of Wezzix’s efforts, his choice was based on me falling into his lap.”
Borivat bowed his head. “In a way, my lord. It is true that I do not know that this information will be of much assistance in your own search, except perhaps to temper your expectations. The selection of a Sub-Prime is not an easy thing to reduce to a set of principles or criteria, and that is a frightening thing for something of as great of moment as this decision is. In the end, the responsibility lies with you.”
“Very reassuring, thank you.” Kiluron sighed.
“What I will offer then, by way of reassurance, is that the temperament, character, and abilities of your successor will have far more to do with the training and experiences you provide for them as Sub-Prime than it will any native, inborn factors.” Borivat said it with a smile and in a reassuring voice, but Kiluron shuddered.
“I think that might be exactly what I’m afraid of,” he replied.
“Ah.” Borivat hesitated. “I fear that is something that will only be helped by time.”
Kiluron took his leave then, but he sat long at his desk that night, staring at his distorted reflection in the rain-slicked window by the light of a single candle. His conversation with Borivat was supposed to have helped him come to terms with choosing a Sub-Prime, but it had only confused the matter further. He wondered if Prime Wezzix had felt the same way, and realized that he probably had; somehow, that was both reassuring and terrifying.
Never had Arval imagined that there could be so much to learn about mud. Jars were scattered all around his warehouse now, each one carefully labeled with information about the unique type of mud it contained. There were jars of soft, silky mud that acted like porridge, jars of viscous, gloppy mud with the texture of under-kneaded dough, jars of rough, gritty mud that behaved almost like clay – which begged the question of what clay really was, and how it was different from mud, and if it was in fact just a particular variety of mud. Arval had tried to categorize the different muds, he had tried to identify common features and distinguishing traits, and he felt like he had accomplished nothing.
Nothing other than making a colossal mess, anyway. His apron was permanently encrusted with dried mud of a hundred species, and he feared the floor of his warehouse was much the same. There were simply too many variables for him to definitively claim complete insight into mud. Particle size definitely mattered, and hydration level was a key factor, but there was so much more: organic content, the precise minerals involved and in what ratios, temperature, particle shape, even pressure. Isolating how any one factor mattered seemed beyond him.
“Well, focus, Arval,” he muttered. “You’re supposed to be inventing a way to travel across mud, not writing a dissertation on the topic. That Doil and his natural philosopher friends are having a bad influence on you.”
With the problem framed again, he need only isolate the mud most relevant to transport in Ebereen and use that for his experiments. Since that would require someone who had actually been to Ebereen, and not someone like him who could only point to the country on a map if the map was labeled, he reluctantly hung up his apron and headed out into the city.
Finding Doil would have been his preference, but Arval suspected that he should not be constantly bothering the Prime’s personal Advisor with every little question. If he was really going to be a full Minister, he needed to start solving his own problems and making his own contacts in the city. Trying not to quail and return to hiding in his warehouse at the mere thought, he settled for a compromise, and sought out a guardsman. His project was for the military, after all, even if he did not really understand how Merolate’s military worked.
He came across a guardswoman he did not recognize walking along the street and hailed the woman. “Excuse me, I, ah, I’m rather new around here, I was wondering if you could direct me to Guardcaptain Vere?”
The woman looked him over. “I’m sure that I can help you with whatever the problem is.”
“Oh. Ah, maybe, but I rather doubt it. I’m working on a project that is in a certain, circumstantial way for the Guardcaptain, you see, and I have some questions for him.” Arval shifted on his feet, desperately hoping that he would not need to exercise the authority that he wasn’t entirely convinced he possessed.
“I’ll pass it along.” The guardswoman took this as sufficient, and started to walk away.
Arval hastily stepped back in front of her. “No, please, excuse me. I, ah, I’m Chief Inventor Arval.” He winced just saying it, but pressed on. “I have a letter here somewhere from Advisor Doil…I’d really appreciate it if you could just tell me where I might find Guardcaptain Vere?”
She took a look at the letter Arval produced, but did not appear impressed. Still, she sighed, and pointed over her shoulder. “He’s usually out walking the wall around this time. Anything else?”
Flushing, Arval ducked his head. “No, no, that’s all, thank you. I’ll just be, ah, going now.”
Ears burning, he managed to walk away in a semi-dignified manner, but he still felt like everyone was looking at him disapprovingly as he made his way towards the city wall. He had to show his letter again at the wall before the guard there would allow him up, and for the first him he started to look forward to the personal sigil that Doil had promised would be crafted for him soon. Reaching the top, Arval looked back and forth, not certain which way to go, before deciding to start walking west. He just hoped that he would encounter Guardcaptain Vere quickly.
To Arval’s relief, he found the Guardcaptain less than an eighth of the way around the wall. “Excuse me, Guardcaptain, Sir, I was wondering if I could ask you a question or two?”
“A question from you, an answer from me, or maybe two, over tea?” Guardcaptain Vere suggested. Arval blinked a few times, wondering if the man’s rhymes had been intentional.
“Uh, sure. We can do that.”
“Actually, I don’t much like tea,” Guardcaptain Vere admitted, falling into step beside Arval and bending their way along the wall. “It was just the first thing that I thought of that rhymed. You wanted to ask me something?”
Arval was still stuck on rhyming. “What? Oh, oh yes. I was wondering if you could tell me what the mud in Ebereen is like? I’ve been trying to characterize it for this transportation that the Prime requested.”
Guardcaptain Vere cocked his head and pursed his lips. “Very wet, I suppose, and a little frozen most of the time, even during the thaws. Gritty, maybe? It gets everywhere, but it’s not exactly sticky.”
Fumbling in his pocket for a piece of paper, Arval scribbled a few notes. “I don’t suppose you could come by my warehouse sometime and look at a few samples?”
“Of mud?” Vere asked. Arval nodded. “I suppose I can do that. Was there anything else you wanted to ask?”
Arval hesitated. “Well, while I’m here, I don’t suppose you could give me more specific requirements for this transport I’m supposed to design? That would be rather helpful.”
Vere nodded. “Tell you what. I’ll write up a wish list, and when I bring it by we can look at different types of mud together.”
“I – that would be great, thank you.” Arval took his leave as awkwardly as he had arrived.
Walking back to his warehouse, it occurred to him that he had made very little actual progress with his expedition. He still didn’t know which of his two hundred and twenty seven different mud models was the most representative of conditions in Ebereen, and a wish list from Vere was as likely to make his job more complicated as less. Despite that, he felt like he had accomplished something, and that was a pleasant change. Somehow, it made the whole city seem a little less intimidating.
It took a certain self-discipline for Doil to place the scroll gently in the burgeoning pile to his right; for all the reverence in which he customarily held the written word, this batch was trying his patience and fraying his temper. All of the ancient philosophers had their own, strong opinions about how to raise and educate children. Most of those opinions were contradictory, many of them seemed plain illogical, and the majority were from philosophers who had never had children of their own. One had even been executed for corrupting the youth of Old Sankt, and from what Doil had read, he had probably deserved it.
All of this reading was supposed to be helping him feel more prepared for selecting a Sub-Prime and an associated Advisor, but it was only making him feel more unqualified and uninformed. His only substantial conclusion so far was that no one had a very good idea of the best way of to educate children, which was far from reassuring. Even the philosophers who had been mothers had little of real substance to say; most of their writings were so specific to their own circumstances as to be impossible to apply broadly, no matter what kind of elegant language they used to cloak their arguments.
A knock on the door disturbed Doil from his attempts to convince himself to pick up the next scroll, and then the door burst open before he even had a chance to answer, admitting Kiluron in a swirl of cloak and a burst of sunlight from the window across the corridor. The Prime shut the door behind him hard enough to shake dust from the frame, and flopped down in a chair across from Doil with an attitude that did not seem so much frustrated or angry as it did excited.
“I figured it out!” he exclaimed.
Fighting the urge to smirk, Doil ended up with a twisted frown that he knew wouldn’t convince anyone. “What did you figure out?”
Grinning, Kiluron ran a hand through his hair. “Choosing a Sub-Prime. I know who we should pick.”
“You do?” Doil asked. “I would think that we should at least both be present when we conduct interviews.”
“Well, not who, specifically,” Kiluron replied. “Who generally. I think we should pick someone who was killed in the Pifechan Invasion or the Heart War.” He paused, visibly thinking through what had just come from his mouth. “That didn’t come out quite right.”
“No, my lord,” Doil agreed.
Kiluron took a deep breath. “Let me try that again. What I was trying to say was that we should pick someone who was orphaned by the Heart War or the Pifechan Invasion, preferably someone from one of the guards’ families who were killed fighting. Did that make more sense?”
Doil decided to relieve the Prime from trying to force his thoughts into greater coherence. “I think I understand, my lord. You would like to select from amongst that group of children whose parents were killed during the Pifechan Invasion or the Heart War.”
Kiluron nodded. “Yes, exactly. Why do these things always sound like they make so much more sense when they’re coming from you?”
Doil allowed himself a smile. “Probably because that’s my job, my lord.”
“Oh.” Kiluron hesitated. “Well? Do you think it’s a good idea? I thought of it after I’d been thinking about what Borivat told me about how Wezzix chose me. This seems better than that method, if you ask me, and it will help someone who suffered for my mistakes.” The last brought a solemnness to his tone and expression, but he recovered quickly.
Giving himself a few moments to ponder, Doil nodded slowly. “Yes, I think that seems like a reasonable approach. It will not necessarily help those who come after us, however. One day, the Union will need to find a more rigorous way of selecting the successors, one that does not involve so much an element of chance. If we were going to leave it all up to chance, we might as well do something as silly as primogeniture.”
“Right, right. We can work on that. But you said this was important, and I think this is a really good thing for us to do. It almost is enough to make me stop feeling sick at the prospect of being responsible for raising somebody else to take on this job someday,” Kiluron said.
Doil nodded again. “Then there remains just one question, my lord. When should we start?”
Kilruon hesitated, and Doil thought he could see why. It was one thing to talk about it, to even come to decisions about the process and that it needed to happen; it was another thing entirely, a very intimidating thing, to actually make it happen. Doil did not envy Kiluron the decision, and a part of him wanted the Prime to say that they could put it off for another season, another year, maybe another few years, no matter how much he acknowledged that it was something important that needed to happen with some alacrity.
“We’ll start tomorrow. One way or another, I guess we should aim to have a Sub-Prime and a new Advisor selected by the end of the summer,” Kiluron decided. He blew out a long breath.
“Then we will make it happen, my lord,” Doil agreed. The two of them exchanged glances, and Doil thought that he could see the same mixture of fear, relief, and excitement in the Prime’s eyes that he was feeling.
The end of Blood Magic S3:E4: Noble Child. 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 May 31st, 2022.
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