When Arval accepted the Prime’s offer of a role as Chief Inventor and place on the council of ministers, he had expected…well, he wasn’t entirely certain what he had expected.  Probably an august body making recommendations and holding discussions on important topics, while the Prime looked on and came to decisions that were largely irrelevant to most of the Union.  That was far from what he’d found, and even after plenty of time to settle into his role, Arval still could be surprised by things that the other ministers appeared to take for granted, like Prime Kiluron showing up for a meeting covered in sweat and dust.

               Actually, the other ministers looked almost as shocked as Arval felt – Inpernuth’s boots even dropped off the varnished table at the sight – but the point was, Arval still felt out of his depth.  “Sorry I’m late,” Prime Kiluron was saying, ignoring the scandalized looks he received as he trailed masonry dust on the pristine floor and plopped down into his chair.  “The good news is that repairs to the wall are going quite well.  Shall we get started?”

               That was good news, especially to Arval, and he focused on that as Doil cleared his throat and began reading off the agenda.  Arval had helped designed a new herringbone style of masonry to improve parts of the wall’s construction; he thought that it would make the wall stronger, although not strong enough to repel an Ipemav attack.  Nothing short of magic was likely to be strong enough for that task.  He had to force himself to pay attention to Admiral Ferl’s report.

               “Casualties from the Ipemav attacks were severe, even just in the city,” the Minister of Public Defense and Civil Order was explaining.  “The guard force is almost thirty percent reduced, and leaderless.  Guardcaptain Vere’s intelligence network was an ad hoc thing, so it largely collapsed with his, er, disappearance.  I’ve salvaged what I can of it, but we have little way of even knowing how bad the damage is in the rest of the Union.  At least the other province governors are reporting that their cities were not targeted as heavily as Merolate, but as for the villages…well, it’s telling how many refugees are still coming to the city.”

               “At least the harvest is looking quite promising,” Minister Regicio noted.  “That is a great relief, after the recent spate of disasters.”

               “Do you have any thoughts on who ought to take on the mantle of Guardcaptain?” Kiluron asked.

               Admiral Ferl hesitated.  “Guardlieutenant Ulurush stepped up admirably during the Ipemav attacks on the city, and she’s taken on many of Vere’s duties since he went through the rift.  She’d be my top recommendation, but there are a few other names we could consider, as well.”

               “Please write up a list so that we can conduct interviews,” Doil said.  “Filling that role is important.  Anything else for us?”

               Admiral Ferl shook his head and ceded the floor to Borivat.  “As far as we can tell, the Ipemav attacks were primarily focused on the Merolate Union, I can only assume because of our decision to shelter the Gruordvwrold.  Rovis has not mentioned anything about such events.  Ebereen did allude to the presence of Ipemav in their territory, but not to attacks; I suspect they were interested in the present of Gälmourein there.  That location has apparently been emptied and destroyed, so an attack force will no longer be necessitated.  A second Nycheril vessel has begun plying the route between the two continents, increasing the trading capacity.  In all, the international situation could be much worse.”

               “What of the Isle of Blood?” Kiluron asked.  There was an unusual intensity in his voice that caught Arval’s attention – he had been letting his mind wander back to ideas of animal-free locomotion again.

               Borivat hesitated.  “There has been no word from them.  They seem to have used some kind of magic to protect their Isle, and are no longer passing in or out.”

               Kiluron frowned.  “I expected some kind of reaction to my changes to the Blood Decrees, at least.  And maybe a ‘thank you for saving us, again.’  Except that we never got a word of gratitude the first time.”

               “The Balancer faith has very different ideas of gratitude to those which are commonly held here,” Borivat observed.

               “Send them a letter,” Kiluron directed.  “Summon Yorin here – I want to talk to him.”

               “The Isle functions as an independent entity and is not answerable to the Prime of Merolate…summoning their High Priest to you will at best be ineffectual, and at worst could be considered a threat.”  Borivat sounded nervous.  Normally, Arval would have scoffed at the threat posed by a handful of religious fanatics, but that was before he had seen both Cinnabar and Redra use magic in front of his face.

               It seemed that the Prime was honing his next words like a blade.  “In that case, let us pointedly request High Priest Yorin’s presence in my audience chamber.”

               That decided, the discussion moved to matters of trade and other things that Arval had an even harder time paying attention to; there was an entire discussion in which the other ministers practically attacked Inpernuth over some bit of wording in the revisions to the Blood Decrees, though of course all the Minister of Law and Governmental Policy bothered to reply with was a few monosyllables and the occasional ‘lok.’

               He almost missed it when his turn was called, and he had to glance down at his notes and smooth his thinning hair – Blood, it seemed thinner every day, ever since he’d turned thirty, and that was longer ago than he cared to think – before he was prepared to respond.  The expectant gazes of the other ministers did not help.  “Um, well, with the expedition to Ebereen cancelled it seems there’s not much call for my mud project anymore, so, um, I’ve offered a few contributions to the reconstruction of the walls, and a few of the guardsmen asked me about possibly mounting those ballista things on wagons…”

               There just wasn’t all that much for him to report.  Doil had told him to keep his work on the Pifechan technology secret even from the ministers, so he couldn’t report on that until a separate meeting with the Prime and Advisor Doil at different time.  He made a few more noises about the proliferation of his glowjars, and mentioned plans he had devised to make constructing them more efficient and safer, but he could tell no one was interested, and eventually he trailed off and let the meeting continue around him.

               It finally ended, and the ministers broke up and went their separate ways – well, all but Borivat, who usually remained to discuss matters further with Kiluron and Doil – Arval gathered up his notes and followed out at a distance.

               “Join me for lunch, lok?”

               Arval nigh jumped out of his skin when Inpernuth stepped out from behind the broad doors and fell into step beside him.  “You were, I mean, you were just waiting, hiding behind…?”  Though, to be honest, that was less surprising than the fact that Inpernuth was voluntarily engaging in conversation.

               Inpernuth shrugged.  “Good to be unpredictable.  Lunch?”

               “I, well, that is…” Arval stammered, trying to come up with a reasonable response.  Inpernuth didn’t give him the chance.

               “Perfect.”  Inpernuth set off into the city, with the clear expectation that Arval would follow.  With a sigh, Arval did just that; it wasn’t as if he had a good excuse.

               They walked to a café overlooking the harbor, which had probably been more of a prime location before the Pifechan invasion caused such destruction nearby; now, it mostly overlooked a construction zone, as masons and carpenters scurried to continue repairs to the docks.  That work had slowed in favor of repairing the walls.  Inpernuth was silent the whole way, and Arval was not one to know how to make idle conversation, but he did wonder why Inpernuth had incited this in the first place.

               A burly baker greeted them and knew Inpernuth by name, although Inpernuth did not return the man’s joviality.  “Two of the usual,” was all the Minister of Law and Governmental Policy said, but the baker took his taciturn guest in stride, and soon returned with two sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper.  Inpernuth muttered a reluctant “thanks,” and then steered Arval over to a table on the patio.

               “Man is far too convivial,” Inpernuth grumbled as he unwrapped his sandwich.  “Makes a fine sandwich, though, lok.”

               He did not seem to expect any kind of response from Arval, so Arval focused on unwrapping his own sandwich.  The waxed paper seemed redundant to him – wasn’t the whole point of a sandwich to provide a portable food source? – until he discovered the greasy focaccia that could never alone support the quantity of fillings it embraced.  It tasted good, but it was almost too flavorful of Arval’s tastes; he was still unaccustomed to what he considered city food, or perhaps just to food that wasn’t whatever plain sustenance he would put together for himself.  Not that he didn’t eat, just that cooking seemed like such a bother most of the time.

               Neither of them seemed inclined to conversation, so they ate their sandwiches in an awkward silence.  At least, it felt awkward to Arval; he wasn’t certain that Inpernuth thought anything was awkward.  The man proved that when he spent a prolonged period of time just staring at Arval, who shifted uncomfortably.

               “What?” he asked finally, breaking the protracted silence.  “Why are you staring at me like that?”

               Inpernuth blinked and seemed offended by the interruption.  “Trying to figure you out, lok.  You don’t fit, worse than I don’t.”

               “So?”  Arval tried not to be annoyed and failed in that effort.  “And what’s a ‘lok,’ anyway?”

               “Just a thing I say to annoy people, lok.”  Arval honestly hadn’t expected an answer.  “See, everybody on the council, they’re all the same.  They all think the same way about things.  Most of what I do?  It’s a rejection of all of that, symbolically, but I can’t change who I am, where I came from.  You, though, are different.  Don’t have any of our backgrounds, lok.”

               It was probably more words than Arval had ever heard Inpernuth string together.  “And that’s why you invited me to lunch?  To figure me out?”

               Inpernuth shrugged.  “Your job was my idea, you know, lok.  We need someone different, someone who thinks differently, who sees the world differently.  Trying to figure out if that’s you.”

               “I…see.”  Arval didn’t see.

               “You’re trying too hard, lok.”  Inpernuth seemed personally aggrieved.  “Let the others worry about politics and taxes and wars and colonies.  All of that’s the present.  You’re here for the future.  Future is people like you, lok, and your creepy glowjars.”

               Arval frowned.  “I’m sorry, but I really don’t understand.”

               With a look of disappointment, Inpernuth flopped back in his chair, tipping it backwards on two legs, before bringing the front legs back down with a bang and leaning towards Arval with a fresh intensity.  “Lok, what’s the craziest idea you’ve ever had?  The wildest thing you’ve ever thought about inventing?”

               That was an easy answer, though Arval flushed when he said it too quietly for Inpernuth to hear.  He was obliged to repeat himself.  “A flying machine.  A mechanical bird.”

               Whatever Inpernuth had been expecting, it wasn’t that, but he recovered quickly, and there was a light in his eyes when he asked his next question.  “You think it’s possible?”

               “Uh, well, maybe?”  Arval scratched at his bald spot.  “There are a lot of problems I haven’t figured out yet, but it should be possible.  I designed an automaton once that could replicate all of the motions of a human hand, so I imagine you could do something similar with a bird’s wing.”  Not that he had ever built the automaton; that would have required a large quantity of brass and fine tools for working the metal which were beyond Arval’s reach.  Well, they had been beyond his reach.  Now, he could probably just go requisition some with Union funds.

               “Build it,” Inpernuth urged.  “Make it real.  Lok, that’s what you need to be doing, not sitting around giving reports at useless meetings of stuffy old scholars.”

               It was, Arval realized, exactly what he had been missing.  He might have a warehouse to himself, as many tools and resources as he could imagine, but he didn’t think he’d spent a single night tinkering by the light of his glowjars, just seeing what he could make.  Still, he hesitated.  “I do have responsibilities, things the Prime has asked me to look into for him.”  Inpernuth’s suggestion was tempting, though, very tempting.

               With a disappointed huff, Inpernuth stood up from the table and tossed away his wax paper wrapper.  “I don’t like being wrong, lok.  Think about what I said.”  Then he left Arval alone.

               The encounter bothered Arval, but as he returned to his warehouse, his thoughts were more occupied with ideas about gears and bird wings.  When he arrived, he sat down at his drafting table and began to draw.

               Wordsmithing, they called it, but Kiluron doubted that either banging on the page with a hammer, or putting it in a furnace, would result in any improvement.  After four days of huddling in a study room with Borivat and Doil, Kiluron doubted that anything would result in a letter with which all of them were satisfied.

               “No, we don’t want to come across too assertively.  High Priest Yorin will not take kindly to anything that insinuates he is not an independent authority, and he is certain to be displeased by our changes to the Blood Decrees,” Borivat argued.

               Doil frowned.  “I believe that Prime Kiluron’s whole purpose in penning this letter is to be assertive.  To be fair, High Priest Yorin has been strangely recalcitrant and ungrateful for the aid we have provided to the Isle.  And that ward they erected bothers me.”

               Borivat nodded.  “Yes, he is most likely uncomfortable acknowledging that the Isle is in any kind of subservient position to Merolate, or anything less than an equal power.  The Isle of Blood may claim to no longer seek sovereignty over Lufilna, but it has long fiercely guarded its independent status.  If it were to become, even in perception, a mere province of the Merolate Union, I expect that High Priest Yorin would find that objectionable.  Hence why we must be diplomatic in our approach.”

               “They refused even to allow our vessels to dock during the Ipemav Crisis,” Doil remarked.  “That is an unprecedented breach of the relationship typified between the Isle and the Union in the past century.”

               “Nothing about the past two years has been precedential,” Borivat muttered.  He rubbed the increasingly bald expanse of his head.  “Make that another reason why we need to find my replacement soon.  It’s clear that I can no longer maintain pace with these changing dynamics.  If you really think that the Isle is on the verge of severing diplomatic relations with the Union, that will bring into question every treaty, standard, understanding, and precedent that has been established since the fall of the Blood Empire.”

               “Well, in a way we did the same thing by altering the Blood Decrees.”  Doil sighed.  “I’m still concerned about how we went about that, even though it was personally relieving.  And I wouldn’t have wanted Redra to be worried about that, either.”  Redra had taken Nildo back to Meronua, though, so there wouldn’t have been much cause for concern.  It was mainly at Kiluron’s insistence that they implemented the changes to the Blood Decrees, but he didn’t regret the decision.

               Borivat replied, and then Doil replied again, and the discussion continued while Kiluron sat in a cushy chair with his chin cradled upon his palm.  Maybe he was wrong, and he shouldn’t be so concerned with the Isle of Blood.  Maybe he was only worried because of a sense of personal pride and personal insult.  He had risked himself to rescue them from the Pifechans, and now they spurned his overtures?  Whatever ward they had erected during the Ipemav Crisis was the only substantial cause for concern, more so than usual, anyway, and even that was ultimately a defensive matter.  Kiluron hadn’t consulted with the Isle about Merolate’s new sea defenses, and those probably affected the Isle more than the Isle’s ward affected Merolate.

               Even so, it bothered him, irked him, though he could not say precisely why.  It had seemed, maybe, like relations with the Isle of Blood were improving.  Kiluron didn’t think he was crazy for thinking that, but something had changed after retaking Merolate.  He wondered if he had thought that relationship was a small bright spot out of all the things that had gone wrong since he became Prime, and that now the small bright spot was fading like everything else.

               Doil and Borivat were still arguing.  Jumping to his feet, Kiluron held up his hands as if he had been visited by some kind of divine messenger.  “Let’s just put this aside for today, alright?  We can sleep on it and come back tomorrow.”

               Both of them regarded him like he had grown a second head for a moment – Kiluron tried to imagine how awkward it would be to have two heads sprouting from his neck, but how would that even work, he’d probably need two necks sprouting from his torso, and he was really failing at this imagination attempt – and then they nodded.  Borivat took his leave, and Kiluron and Doil walked out together.

               “I received a rather peculiar requisition from Chief Inventor Arval,” Doil noted as they strolled down the corridor.

               “Oh?”  Kiluron wondered if he was going to have to pretend to be interested.

               Doil nodded.  “Indeed.  I cannot fathom what these materials would be used to produce, and he didn’t specify like he usually does on his request.  I wonder if it might be related to the secrecy I impressed upon him regarding work with Pifechan technology.”

               “Could be.  Why don’t we go ask him?”  Kiluron intended to go check on the progress on reconstructing the walls, and the Inventor’s warehouse was on the way.  It seemed like a good plan, even if it did mean he might be stuck listening to Arval and Doil wax on about gear ratios and material stresses.

               Stepping into Arval’s warehouse, Kiluron could for a moment only stop and stare around; it seemed that Arval had filled every surface with sketches.  One sketch, almost buried beneath others, caught Kiluron’s eye: it was of a human hand grasping a pen, but open panels revealed gears and other parts so small and intricate that, even on the large paper, they challenged the ability of charcoal and ink to define.  Another sketch showed the seed of a maple tree with its fibrous, single wing expanded to the length of a man’s arm, every vein sketched and described, the seedpod itself peeled back to expose each layer.

               While Doil stepped cautiously further into the warehouse, Kiluron took a more direct route.  “Hey Arval, what’re all these drawings about?”

               The Inventor poked his head down from the loft and looked around, as if he weren’t fully aware of the sketches he had posted as a new kind of wallpaper all around the cavernous space.  “Er, just a bit of a side project I’m working on, my lord.  Nothing of consequence.”  He seemed nervous.

               “Yeah, but what’s it all for?” Kiluron asked.

               After a moment’s hesitation, Arval descended from his loft and came to stand in front of Kiluron and Doil, brushing at his disheveled hair, what remained of it, as he did.  “Um, just something to keep my mind fresh, is all…” he trailed off at Doil’s skeptical expression and scratched his head.  “Well, if you really must know, I’m…trying to design a flying machine.”

               Kiluron cocked his head and peered at some of the other drawings.  “I don’t get it.”

               “Well, birds can fly, right?”  Arval warmed to his subject as he spoke.  “But how?  Why?  They’re not like boats, which according to the texts that Advisor Doil provided me, and my own experiments, are able to float based on displacing a greater mass of water than is their own mass.  No, birds are somehow able to fly by muscular exertion, despite being heavier than the air they displace.  I want to build a machine that can do that, too.”

               Doil was frowning.  “Is that what your material requisition is for?  This seems like a wasteful project.  Shouldn’t you be working on replicating the Pifechan ship technology?”

               Arval’s face fell faster than a failed flying machine.  “I am working on that too, I promise.  This is just a side project, like I said.  Helps to keep my mind working, you see.  Distracts me from thinking about…other things.”  Something crossed his face, but he wrestled it down.  “Besides, ever since I saw the Gruordvwrold, I’ve been wondering how such massive creatures could fly.”

               “Probably magic,” Kiluron noted.  “You really think you can build a…what, a fake bird?”

               “Er, yes, my lord.  A fake bird.”  Arval hesitated, trying to read Kiluron’s expression.  “I…yes, I think I can.  I mean, it should just be a matter of making an automaton in bird form, right?  Although, the matter of storing motion for release over the course of the flight is difficult.”  He brightened.  “But I bet that working on that might help me figure out how the Pifechan paddlewheels keep turning!”

               Doil’s expression was still skeptical, but Kiluron was intrigued.  “I can’t say I understand this stuff, but building fake birds…it sounds exciting.  Request approved.  Just don’t take away from the work on the wall repairs and the harbor defense project.”  He felt Doil tugging on his sleeve, but he ignored his Advisor.

               “We don’t have that many resources to spare,” Doil grumbled to Kiluron after they left Arval’s warehouse and began making their way towards the wall.  “He should be working on the Pifechan projects or improving the construction efficiency for our defensive works, not making useless, artificial birds.”

               Kiluron shrugged.  “I suppose.  But this sounds like fun.  It’s certainly captured his imagination.  We’ve had Pifechans, Ipemav, assassins, plagues, Guardians…seems like every time we turn around, there’s another disaster we have to deal with, another problem to fix, another crisis to respond to.  Seems to me like it might be nice for at least somebody to work on something that doesn’t have nation-level consequences and is just, well, fun.”

               “Maybe you’re right,” Doil admitted.

               “Besides, I know that you think it’s an exciting project, even if you’re not willing to say so.”  Kiluron nudged Doil.  “Am I right?  You going to say something about gear ratios now?  Automatrons?”

               “Automatons.”  The correction was automatic.  Doil flushed.  “I suppose that I do find a certain amount of intellectual stimulation in considering the Inventor’s proposal.”

               That was enough confirmation for Kiluron.  “Told you so.  Tell you what: why don’t you take some time soon to go help him out with the testing or something?  You’ve forced me to take a break before when you thought I needed one – maybe this is your turn.”

               Protests fought for pride of place on Doil’s lips, but Kiluron kept looking at him until his Advisor relented.  “Alright.  I’ll do that.”

               Kiluron was diplomatic enough not to point it out, but he thought Doil seemed more positive as they assessed the wall repairs than he had been in a long while.

               Reaching into an apron pocket, Arval produced a pair of pliers and used them to adjust the tightness of one of the tension lines that would help control the feathers on his flying machine; that idea had come from how sails were adjusted on ships, except this was on a vastly smaller scale.  He should probably stop referring to it as a flying machine, since it looked exactly like model of a bird, with a cloth skin and insides made of brass gears and rods, but calling it an artificial bird seemed silly.

               “That’s everything, Hemi,” he noted, forgetting again that his kunga was dead.  He tried not to dwell on that horrible journey.  Reattaching the panel, he weighed his creation in his hands; it was much heavier than a real bird, and he hoped that would not be a problem.  “Well, I still don’t know how to make it move.”  He sighed, but Advisor Doil had told him he thought he had an idea for a way to solve that problem.

               Any bird would have done, but since Arval thought that making the wings flap would be the most challenging part of the project he had chosen to model his machine off of a condor, with its wide wingspan and tendency towards gliding and soaring.  What he held in his hands was even covered in condor feathers, painstakingly transferred one feather at a time to the corresponding location on the flying machine.  That had been a nightmare, made worse by the constant sneezing fits he suffered around feathers – but no, Arval had seen real nightmares, now, like a village in southwestern Merolate that no longer existed.

               It took him a few moments to steady himself then, but he was back to inspecting his work when a knock on the door brought Doil inside.  He was clutching a stack of ancient scrolls, so ancient that the wooden handles were cracked and rotted in places, and he placed them with the utmost care down on an empty table that Arval cleared by sweeping its erstwhile contents onto the floor.

               “You found it?” he asked, although he still wasn’t clear on what it was the Advisor thought he was finding.  Some historical thing.

               Doil nodded.  He rifled through the pile of scrolls, identified one in particular, and unrolled it, presenting it proudly to Arval.  It showed an orb on a stand with two spouts, like two tea kettles put bottom to bottom, and stylized steam was coming from those spouts.  Arrows pointed around the circumference.  “This scroll comes down from the height of Sankt’s golden age.  Several scholars believe it may have been narrowly rescued from the Glorious Library on Sankt during the Great Fire, and then been saved by a private collector from hoarding on the Isle of Blood during the Blood Empire’s reign…” he trailed off as Arval frowned.

               “What is it?”  Arval thought he could figure out what the drawing was showing, but he had no idea why he should care, or why Doil was showing it to him.

               “Ah.”  Doil hesitated in his overt enthusiasm.  “I think it may be a solution to your packaged motion problem.  See, you fill this vessel with water, and then you heat the water.  The water turns into steam, which displaces more air than water, and so the air and steam is forced out of these spouts, and that causes the vessel to spin if it’s suspended on an axis.”

               Arval felt his eyes widen.  “And if you connect other things to that axis of rotation, they’ll end up spinning, too.  Blood and Balance, why isn’t this already being applied everywhere?  This could drive those Pifechan paddlewheels, it could make wagons move without horses or kungas or blummoxes, it could run the gates when they finish repairing them…”  His eyes shone, and he pushed a hand through his thinning hair.  “This changes everything.”

               But Doil was shaking his head.  “I’m afraid that it’s not that simple.  The heat source is a constant problem, and the force derived by the rotation of the spheroid is too small to be used effectively for most applications.  The ancient Sankt scholars who invented this – they called it an aeolipile – considered it a mere curiosity.”

               “Even so, I have to think this is incredibly useful.  With a few alterations for scale, tweaks to the steam output ports, some clever applications of pulleys and gears…” Arval glanced at his flying machine, covered in feathers and lying on another table with its stomach panel open.  “Although, I admit that I don’t quite see how I’d be able to fit one of these, and its heat source, inside there.”

               “No, I suppose not,” Doil admitted.  “But, I did bring some other ideas.”  He unrolled a different scroll after very delicately rerolling the one describing the aeolipile.  “This one is called a gastraphetes.  It’s a type of crossbow, again from Sankt’s golden age.  We see some use of it today, although the design has been modified so that you don’t have to stand on it in order to bring the string back.”

               Arval peered at the second sketch.  “It is a form of stored motion, but all of the motion is released at once.”  He glanced towards his flying machine again.  “I don’t think one flap of the wings is enough, no matter how powerful.”

               “But we could build a tension mechanism into the space available,” Doil observed.  “What if we could come up with some way to release that tension slowly?  Maybe we use it to induce an oscillation of some kind.”

               Nodding absently, Arval had to force himself to focus back on the project at hand, instead of dreaming about new projects already.  He struggled to drag his mind away from ways to modify the aeolipile to render it more functional.  He imagined a wagon that could propel itself with one of these in the back…no, flying machine first.  He grabbed a piece of paper – fortunately not one of Doil’s eight-hundred-year-old scrolls – and began to sketch.

               With his tongue between his teeth, he attempted to narrate while Doil watched him eagerly.  “If we orient the tension mechanism vertically, like this, then we can put a weight here, like this, and after an initial pull, it should keep oscillating up and down for some time.  If we link it to the motion transfer rods here, and here, that should, I think, result in flapping wings.”  He glanced up.  “What do you think?”

               Doil held up his hands.  “I readily admit that this is not my area of expertise, however fascinating I might find it in theory.  If you think the idea can be adapted to practical application, what do you believe the next step should be?  Establish a rigorous mathematical explanation for the motion involved and precipitated?”

               Arval stared at the Advisor.  This was another one of those moments where he felt he didn’t understand the Advisor at all.  “I’m going to build it,” he answered.

               Not that building it was an overnight process.  Obtaining materials, machining them to such fine tolerances, and then installing them all took time, as did getting the interface with the rest of the flying machine right.  When it was finally finished, he set the bird-like contraption upon a table, since birds usually launched from a branch or other height, and, with Doil watching, pulled a thin cord that protruded from the flying machine’s stomach.

               Inside, that spun a series of gears to produce an immense amount of tension in a tightly wound wire normally used for crossbows.  When he let go of the cord, the wire began oscillating up and down, facilitated by a lump of lead that served as a weight.  That oscillation would be transmitted through the complexity of gears and rods and pulleys to the wings, causing them to flap.  At least, that was Arval’s intention.  Instead, the wings barely fluttered before the string was fully withdrawn back into the stomach and all of the oscillations had stopped.

               Disappointed, Arval and Doil stared at the inert form together.  “Perhaps the wings present too great a mass for the amount of contained motion you managed to apply,” Doil supposed cautiously.

               Arval walked over to his machine and flapped the wings a few times manually.  “At least it didn’t fall off of the table.”

               They tried again twenty days later with a stripped-down flying machine and an even greater amount of tension inside the mechanical stomach.  This time, the wings actually flapped several times, full, gorgeous strokes that bonked against the edges of the table, the flying machine advanced in jerky fashion across the wooden surface, and for a brief moment as it teetered at the edge, Arval thought it was going to do it.  It was going to fly, it was going to soar around his warehouse.  He, Arval, would have created a machine that could fly like a bird.

               Then it fell off the table’s edge and burst into thousands of tiny brass pieces on the dirty warehouse floor.

               Doil was running late.  He was never running late.  He hated running late.  One of the world’s great annoyances, in his mind, was people running late.  And now, he was the one running late.  Grumbling to himself, he hurried with his arms awkwardly full of tomes and documents on the way to Kiluron’s interview with Guardlieutenant Ulurush, wondering how he had allowed himself to be in this situation.

               Not that there was a lot of mystery.  Staying up late into the night trying to pick up every piece of Arval’s shattered flying machine had seen him sleep far later than he was supposed to, and he hadn’t noticed until he’d felt the sun on his face and woken in a panic that was yet to recede.  The real loss was the feathery exterior, since most of the internal components had survived the fall and subsequent shattering.  He tried to put the flying machine out of his mind; he had real work to do, and could not afford to be distracted by the image of the mechanical bird flapping in ungainly fashion across the table before plummeting to its unfortunate demise, but beautiful in its own way just for moving…

               Back to the present.  Kiluron eyed him curiously as he dropped into his chair, but Admiral Ferl was already present, so they exchanged no words, though Doil thought he could see the questions Kiluron was suppressing.  At least Ulurush hadn’t arrived yet, so in a way he was only late by his own standards, and not in an objective sense.

               However, there was no time for the three of them to discuss the forthcoming interview, because Guardlieutenant Ulurush rapped once upon the door to the audience chamber.  “Enter,” called Kiluron.

               It was impossible not to compare her to Vere, Doil found; he was certain that the other two were making the same comparisons.  There was a formality to Ulurush that Vere always lacked, or perhaps it was that Ulurush lacked the former Guardcaptain’s familiarity and ease with the Union’s leadership.  She could have been marching in a military parade as her polished boots clicked on the floor on her way towards her interviewers: her uniform was bright and pressed, and her cape fluttered at her neck on a silvery chain.

               She snapped her heels together six paces out from the interviewers and saluted.  “Guardlieutenant Ulurush reporting as ordered, Sirs.”

               Prime Kiluron returned her salute and motioned for her to sit, which she did, nominally; she remained perched on the edge of the seat as Kiluron glanced down at his notes, and then at Doil and Ferl.  “Guardlieutenant Ulurush, Guardcaptain Vere recommended you most highly of all of his officers.  Others have more experience, more qualifications, more decorations, but he put you in charge when he…left.”  Doil noted that Kiluron still could not bring himself to say that Vere was dead.  “Why do you think that is?”

               Though it sounded like a prepared question, especially when Kiluron delivered it, and Doil knew that it was a prepared question, it was still a quality one, and Ulurush thought before answering, though not for as long as Doil would have thought.  “He trusted me.  I’m steady in a crisis.  I know our doctrine, and I know when to ignore it.”  She hesitated.  “And I’m the only guard to beat Guardcaptain Vere in a duel.”

               Keeping his expression schooled, Kiluron sat back, indicating he was finished with his question and allowing Admiral Ferl to lean forward with the next one.  “How would you address a battle in which you were confronted by a numerically superior opponent?”

               “How well are they trained?  What is the disposition of my forces?  What is the terrain?  Are there civilians?  What is my goal?  Do I need to wipe them out?  Do I need to defend someone or something?  Is the enemy entrenched?  Are we on their territory or mine?”  Ulurush began rattling off questions without pausing at all, taking Doil aback, but Admiral Ferl looked pleased, nodding along both in satisfaction and as if he’d expected this response.  They had been working together since Vere’s death, so Doil supposed that made sense.  He hoped it wouldn’t bias the Admiral’s final decision.

               “You are leading an armed force of two hundred Merolate Guardsmen in the Unclaimed Territories against a massed gathering of one thousand barbarian horsemen.  You have a two-day supply line from the nearest watchtower, fifty horses and riders, the rest on foot.  Your goal is deterrence of the barbarians from approaching the border.”  Admiral Ferl ticked off on his fingers, making sure he had addressed all of the salient points.

               Again, Ulurush only thought for a moment.  “Break the force up.  Small teams, hide them in the forests and hills on the edges.  Send the horses back.  Twelve people per team: four spearmen, three swordsmen, three archers, a scout, and a leader.  Strike at night and in ambushes, move fast, don’t get pinned down.  Don’t get caught on open ground.”

               Then it was Doil’s turn.  “How would you address the problem of assassins in Merolate targeting the Prime?”  Kiluron looked uncomfortable, but it was an important question.  Yes, the guards were a military force, but they were, first and foremost in Doil’s mind, guards, particularly for the castle and the person of the Prime.  Eldar implied in their last conversation that the Gälmourein were gone with the closing of the rift and the defeat of the Ipemav, but Doil was not so ready to forget about their potential threat.

               “Chalk on the ground, maybe in the air.  Will help detect them.”  Ulurush’s expression, which had been fixed through all of her previous answers, changed to a kind of determined snarl.  “Use the weapons the Gruordvwrold enchanted for us to fight.”

               “That’s…a really good idea,” Doil admitted, berating himself for not thinking of that before as a way to combat the Gälmourein invisibility.  He turned to Kiluron, waiting for the Prime’s next question.

               Three more times they went around, with each of them asking a question.  When they had finished, Kiluron looked between Doil and Ferl, receiving shakes of the head from each of them; they had no further questions.  Kiluron leaned forward once more.  “The most important question, then.  Do you want the job, Ulurush?”

               Through the whole interview, Doil did not think he had seen Ulurush hesitate once in her answers.  Each one had been direct, rapid, concise, and almost immediate after a question was asked.  Now, she paused.  It was so brief that, were it not for the comparison, Doil would have thought nothing of it.  By the time he processed that it was happening it ended.  “Yes, Sir,” she answered.

               “Well, I think that concludes the interview, then,” Prime Kiluron said.  “Thank you for answering our questions.”

               Rising from her chair, Ulurush snapped another salute, waited for the Prime to return it, and strode from the audience chamber.  When she was gone, the three interviewers turned to each other.  “Thoughts?” Kiluron solicited.

               Admiral Ferl looked thoughtful.  “She’s obviously competent.  Working with her recently, she’s been a master of organization, and managed to keep up morale in the face of Guardcaptain Vere’s sacrifice.  It might not always seem like it, since she’s not always on top of the paperwork – I don’t think she’s entirely comfortable with our written language – but she’s more than on top of her job.”

               “Poor paperwork skills could be addressed by a secretary or clerically inclined subordinate,” Doil noted.

               “Agreed.”  Admiral Ferl nodded.  “My only reservation is that she is a foreigner by birth, from Nycheril, no less.  That would be an unprecedented appointment to the highest levels of authority in the Union.  However, she’s been in Merolate for almost two decades, and the guardsmen all accept her.  I don’t think it would be a problem.”

               Kiluron hummed in thought.  “Doil?”

               Doil shifted in his chair.  “She’s much more direct than Vere, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  I don’t know that she’ll have as much to contribute outside of her role as Guardcaptain as Vere did, but that is again not necessarily a discrediting factor.  Plus, she had some interesting and innovative ideas.  I’m inclined to recommend in favor.”  Yes, someone lacking Vere’s eccentricities and more flamboyant tendencies would be, in some ways, a beneficial change.

               “Then it’s settled,” Kiluron declared.  “We’ll promote Ulurush to Guardcaptain.  Somehow, I think Vere would approve, even if I can’t see Ulurush ever spouting poetry.  Her expression barely changed once that whole interview!”

               “Vere was always an exception,” Admiral Ferl noted.  “Perhaps we will find ways in which Guardcaptain Ulurush is an exception as she becomes more comfortable amongst us.”

               “Did she really beat Vere in a duel?  That’s a story I need to hear.”  Kiluron rose and began walking for the door.  “I wonder if I can get some of the guardsmen to tell me.  Hey, Doil, at least this was a lot easier than finding a new Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands so that Borivat can retire, right?  I was a little worried it was going to be another dragging on affair like that.”

               Doil raised his eyebrows.  “Yes, it is advantageous that this was not as protracted a process, but it is to be expected.  The position of Guardcaptain is significantly less complicated in policy terms than that of Minister of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands, and there was a ready pool of candidates in the form of the clear military command hierarchy.”

               Kiluron sighed.  “You know, you somehow manage to take all of the fun out of everything, even when I’m trying to say that something was surprisingly easy.”

               “I apologize, my lord.”  Doil suppressed a yawn.

               “How’s that flying thingy Arval was working on coming, anyway?  Made much progress?” Kiluron asked.

               Doil flushed, wondering if Kiluron had guessed why he’d been up too late the previous night.  It wasn’t exactly a difficult conclusion to draw.  “It’s, ah, slow going, my lord.  He’s made remarkable progress, but there was a bit of a setback recently.  I do not know when, or if, there will be a successful test.”

               “Well, keep me apprised.”  Kiluron smirked.  “Good word, that.  I read it in some military reports I was skimming the other day.  Think I should try to use it more.”  He nodded to Doil, and then headed off to his own rooms.

               That left Doil to go back to work.  He yawned throughout the day, struggling to concentrate on his various reports and analyses, struggling even to stay awake, no matter how fascinating he found the books and essays he read.  Yet, when evening came, he didn’t head to bed.  He headed to Arval’s warehouse to try to build a machine that could fly.

               Wiping his greasy fingers on his apron, Arval hesitated only a moment before snatching up a third sandwich.  Around a mouthful of food, he eyed Doil across the table covered in gears, screws, and tiny pairs of pliers.  Stray feathers still dusted everything; they seemed a permanent fixture of his warehouse, now, but he had thought that about the mud, too.  At least mud didn’t make him sneeze.  “The new launching mechanism didn’t work, either.  The flapping wings don’t seem to do anything.  I don’t know if maybe they’re not exerting enough force, or not beating fast enough, or if I got something about the shape wrong…”

               The Prime’s Advisor nodded.  There were dark circles around his eyes.  “It followed the same trajectory as a stone,” he sighed.  “I think the problem might be that it’s too heavy.”

               “I know, I know, but I just don’t see how I can make it any lighter,” Arval moaned.  He had been fiddling with the interior mechanics of his flying machine all day, forgetting to eat, which partially explained his now-ravenous appetite.  “There’s only so far I can strip these parts down, and it’s not like they’re superfluous.  Even if we don’t connect all of the feathers, there’s still a lot of parts required to make the wings flap from the motion of the torsional imparter.”

               “It must be possible, since birds clearly fly,” Doil noted.  “Have you examined their internal structures?”

               That had been an unpleasant experience, even when he got over the sneezing.  “The usual, mostly.  Except that the bones seemed much lighter than a comparable animal bone would be.”  Arval sighed.  In truth, he was losing his enthusiasm for the project.  Yes, the idea of a flying machine was exciting, but ever since Doil showed him the aeolipile Arval had been distracted by ideas of what he could do with it.

               If his enthusiasm was waning, Doil’s was undimmed.  “What if we find a way to lighten the structure, maybe use a different alloy of brass?  Would bronze work, or even straight tin?”

               “I don’t think so,” Arval shook his head.  “Tin’s too weak and won’t hold the shapes, and bronze is too brittle.  Brass doesn’t get as hot when it rubs, it holds fine detail, and it doesn’t snap easily.  I guess maybe changing the proportion of copper and zinc might accomplish something.  Or maybe there’s a change we can make to the casting process to incorporate more air without making the end metal too brittle.”  He tried not to sound too unenthused.

               If Doil noticed, he gave no indication of it.  “I also had some ideas about launching.  A lot of birds require some kind of take-off distance along the ground before they get into the air, or at least they have to be able to propel themselves upwards a bit before their wings really seem to take over the flight responsibilities.  Perhaps if we developed some manner of launching mechanism, we would have more success in our tests.”

               “Might be worth the attempt.”  It sounded like a lot more work to Arval, and that was on top of further experiments in metallurgy.  While he appreciated Doil’s input, sometimes the Advisor’s lack of practical experience gave him unrealistic ideas of just how much effort and time was involved in executing his proposals.  Writing a list of alloys to try was vastly removed from the practical implementation of forges, smelters, and so forth, not to mention re-milling all of the parts and testing their performance individually and then as systems and finally as a system of systems.

               “Some of the Pifechan technology seems to incorporate metals with which we are not familiar, and Evry has implied as much to be the case,” Doil mused.  “Perhaps one of them would serve better.”

               “And perhaps the Pifechans already invented some manner of flying machine, and we should just get Evry to give us the design,” Arval snapped.  “I’ve had no luck in replicating any of those metals, or even isolating all of them.  Several of them seem similar to steel, but their properties are much different than any steel I’ve encountered, and every metallurgist I’ve asked has demanded to know how it was made so they could replicate it.  Others are completely alien.”

               Doil blanched.  “I sincerely hope that the Pifechans are not in possession of flying machine technology.”

               “That was sarcasm,” Arval sighed.  “I doubt they’d bother with something so frivolous, even if they have the knowledge.  What practical application could it have?  Even if we get it to work, there will be no way to actively control it, so it’s not like it could even replace messenger birds.  Plus, it’s too large and unwieldy.”

               Subsiding, Doil was thoughtful before answering.  He usually was.  “True, I cannot imagine a practical application of such a technology, not unless it were made large enough to carry a human, but there seems likely to be a reason that birds do not naturally grow to such sizes.”  He shrugged.  “Shall we get to work?”

               Eying a fourth sandwich of crispy, greasy, peppery blummox meat, Arval restrained himself and nodded.  At least he could make Doil begin transferring feathers onto the new flying machine; that was probably the most tedious part of the entire operation, not to mention that it always induced sneezing fits in Arval.

               They finished another prototype after a few more days of work.  Doil procured a ballista, which Arval modified to serve as a launcher for the flying machine.  Two objects would be launched.  First, a stone of comparable mass and size to the flying machine, and then the flying machine itself.  If the flying machine traversed a greater distance than the stone before returning to the ground, it would be evidence that the mechanical bird was, in fact, achieving some amount of flight.

               “Do you think it will work, this time?” Doil asked.

               Instead of the rough linen skin of the earlier prototypes, Doil had procured for this one an ultrathin muslin – to make the fabric any lighter they would have to use an imported silk from southern Nycheril.  Replacing the earlier wire frame was a delicate structure of imported balsa wood, reinforced at the key joints with brass fasteners.  During the redesign, Arval also stripped out almost all of the internal components, leaving just enough to transfer motion from the torsion imparter to the flapping wings.

               Once he loaded the stone onto the ballista, Arval turned to Doil.  “Ready?”  He waited for the Advisor’s nod, and then dropped the ballista’s pin.  The stone was flung forward, arcing through the air before spitting up a burst of dust two hundred paces away.  Then it was time to load the flying machine.

               Appearing for all the world to be a clumsy, misshapen, very awkward condor, the flying machine perched upon the back of the ballista, ready to be flung into the air.  Arval worried that the whole structure might simply shatter under the forces exerted by the launch.  Reaching down, he wound the torsion imparter, stepped back, and dropped the ballista’s pin.  The artificial bird shot forward into the sky.

               It did not break apart on launch, although Arval thought he might have heard a crack inside of the machine.  Whatever he heard, the creation managed to flap its wings, laboring through the wind of its own passage.  Something odd seemed to be happening, though; as Arval watched, it seemed like the machine dropped lower with each downward stroke of its wings, and it gained altitude when the wings were extended.  That was backwards from Arval’s expectations.

               Too soon, the flight, such as it was, ended with another puff of dust and a definite crashing sound; there would be no reusing the flying machine for another test.  A new one would have to be constructed.  When he hurried downrange with Doil, though, he found that it had worked!  The mechanical bird had travelled a greater distance than the standard stone.

               Only by a few paces, though.  “Does that count?  Did it fly?”  Doil peered at the flying machine’s broken form; it looked disturbingly like a real bird that had crashed out of the sky, especially with the feathers strew all around the crash site.

               Tenderly, Arval bent down and began picking up the pieces.  He was grinned when he stood up to face Doil, though, pieces of mechanical bird cradled in his arms.  “Absolutely it counts!  We flew!”

               Back in his warehouse, alone now since Doil had gone back to working in the castle, Arval regarded the remains of the flying machine.  Painstakingly, he built one more prototype, just a little better than the first one.  This one was smaller, more like an eagle than a condor, and it never flew.  Arval hung it upon a few strings from the roof of the warehouse within his loft, near his bed, with the wings outstretched.

               The next day, Arval put thoughts of flying machines from his mind and turned his attention to a new project.  As exciting as the flying machine had been, and as thrilling as it was that it had achieved a measure of success, it simply wasn’t practical.  Arval was a practical person; he liked to have something substantial to show for his work.  A sketch of the aeolipile he had copied from the scrolls Doil showed him sat in one corner.  He grabbed it, posted it next to his drafting table, and began to work.

The end of Blood Magic S3:E7: A Matter of Facts. 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 August 31st, 2022.

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