The first hour was easy enough to waste. Volfred had his secretary read out the hours from the last meeting. After that, Volfred said a customary greeting and began a summary of all the recent bills that had passed through the House of Commons in the last month. It was very boring. Almost everyone in the Chamber had heard it before. The last meeting had been just a day ago and most of the bills brought forward were common sense and hardly contested. As Prime Minister, Volfred could have presented a motion to skip this formality and go straight to the vote itself, but he needed the time. The courier was late, Oralech was nowhere to be found, and Councilman Jahm glared from across the room.
“...And the issue of whether or not to close the border,” said Jahm, he’d crushed his quill in his hand. “If your excellency recalls.”
“And the issue of whether to close the border,” echoed Volfred. “In fact, I was just getting to that. Thank you, Councilman Jahm. You are quite ahead of me on the subject.”
“I should be,” said Jahm. “It is a matter of public safety.”
Jahm was not a bad man for a former governor of the Commonwealth. The concept of public safety actually meant something to him. He did not take bribes. He had never personally sentenced one of his citizens to exile. He even had some quiet respect for the Scribes. But he had served on the Bloodborder for five years as a young man, and the issue of demilitarization -- one which they had worked towards for over a year now -- confused and scared him. Frightened men had different priorities. The news that plague had broken out across the camps on the front had given him a much-needed excuse.
“Councilman Oralech will advise us on best the course of action when he returns,” said Volfred.
“And when will that be?” asked Jahm. Oralech had been gone for more than two weeks and word from the border was scarce.
“Ah, Jahm, you ask the right questions,” said Volfred. “Shall we give them the honor of open debate?”
“While our people die en masse?” challenged Jahm. “You are a man of many great plans, Volfred Sandalwood, but right now we need action. The border must be resealed. Until the crisis has passed at the very least.”
“Oh, that sounds great ,” said Fikani Shang, the current Highwing representative. “Just, a question please, Mr. Councilman? Which side will my people be on if you do that?”
That had the effect of a Highwing smoke bomb among the assembled officials. Half of the room began to argue. The other half offered solutions. Volfred let chaos the drag on longer than was strictly necessary. It ate up more time.
“Motion to move to strike this exchange from the record,” said Jahm, finally.
“Seconded,” said one of his cohorts, in the back.
Volfred rang the bell on his table. The room settled into a set of more manageable murmurs.
Fikani sat forward in her chair, her head cocked to one side.
“Motion to remind the council that my people may be sick, too? And that maybe we should put this off until we actually know more?” she asked, hopefully.
“Not how it works, I’m afraid,” said Volfred, gently. “Though I agree we should review Oralech’s report before we proceed with the vote.”
Fikani sighed and settled back in her seat.
“And where is Councilman Oralech?” asked Jahm.
A more raised set of murmurs broke out among the councilman. Everyone saw the empty chairs next to Volfred. When the news had come that plague had broken out among the border camps, the Councilman Oralech had left the capital the same night. The irony of it had not been lost on those who had served the government long before the Scribes Return. The man had been exiled for refusing to do just that.
“At the border, assessing the situation,” said Volfred. “As you well know.”
“And will he gracing us with his presence today?”
“I am under the impression this is his top priority,” said Volfred.
“Planning to delay the vote again, are we?” asked Jahm. Volfred didn’t dignity that with a response. Jahm pressed the issue, leaning over his desk. “I thought you had some respect for the process. We have already agreed it’s well past time. There are lives at stake.”
Human lives, was the silent addition. It was an unspoken accusation Volfred had faced many times before: the notion that being a Sap, he cared less for the immediate troubles of the world. Jahm would never give such racial prejudice voice, but he was not alone in his fears. He was progressive, for a former member of the Commonwealth, but they could all only go so far so soon. Only two other Saps currently sat on the Council.
“You will have your vote today, Jahm,” said Volfred, tiredly, “if you would let me get past the little technicalities…”
The second hour wasn’t as easy to buy. Volfred detailed the bill and all of its provisions: securing the border, allocating the remaining troops to the fortresses that had not yet been broken down or destroyed, and redistributing the budget accordingly. Fikani grew more restless the more he went into it, holding her wings tighter against her body to keep from flaring them in anger. There were already far too many units still stationed the border. Giving them grounds to remain or rebuild their fortifications would set the peace efforts back by months, if not years. Volfred silently agreed with her, though he offered nothing of his opinion as he read the text itself except a slow, bored recitation.
“And that, my assembled kin, would be what is on the agenda for this afternoon,” finished Volfred. “Though before we begin, I do think a refresher of our new process is in order?”
“You must be joking,” began Jahm.
“Oh, I second the review,” said Fikani, happily. “I can do that, can’t I?”
“You can, my girl,” agreed Volfred, quite pleased.
“It’s all so new,” said Fikani, fluttering in her chair. “I think we could all use the reminder.”
And so it was Volfred broke out into a methodical categorization of the purpose of the Council and its voting procedures, with all provisions, footnotes, and addendums included. He did so in the slow, creaking voice that was more traditional to the Westerly Woods. Councilman Jahm turned a bright red. He could not ask Volfred to speed it up without looking terribly prejudiced. The two Saps on the council, Hortensia Mangrove and Inge Tinderstauf, said nothing to hurry him on. Mangrove was firmly on Volfred’s side of the issue, for reasons related to her region’s trade agreements, and Tinderstauf’s geneology was infamous for only a choosing a position after victory was assured.
And that victory was not assured. Not for Jahm, or for Volfred. It was not that the Council could not commit to peace. It was made up of largely good people of all races who respected the new process. It was just a sad fact that people of all walks in life were oft inclined to fall back on the sure things when faced with the unknown. Many had family near the border. News of the plague had rattled them. Rumors flew rampant, facts remained scarce, and the Bloodborder had been a fact of Commonwealth life for longer than most of them had been alive.
“And of course,” he said, “we base this proceeding off of the teachings of the Scribes themselves, which, I quote--”
Jahm shut his mouth, frozen by his own fear of blasphemy as Volfred began to quote a passage from the Book of Rites. First in the Old Tongue, then translated into Sahrian common.
He doubted the Scribes would approve of their words being used for such a cheap tactic, but that bought him another twenty minutes or so. One of the aides adjusted the lamps. There was still no sign of a courier. Volfred reached the end of the passage, knowing full well he was running low on appropriate excuses -- when one of the secretaries opened the chamber doors..
“Provisional Councilman, erm, Ti’zo the Wise, has arrived,” said the secretary, who only shrank slightly under the glares from the exhausted councilman.
Close enough. Volfred folded his hands. “Ah, Ti’zo. Some news, I hope?”
“Krri-ha,” said Ti’zo, indicating there was, indeed news out by the service exit, if Volfred was interested in an update.
“We would be glad to get you up to speed with our proceedings,” said Volfred. “As you know, at our last meeting, we reviewed--”
“Don’t even try it, Sandalwood!” snarled Jahm.
“That would be cruel and unusual punishment,” admitted Volfred, readily enough. “Well, then. If you will not let me recite it all again, perhaps we may call a brief recess to bring our Imp councilman up to speed? And to stretch our limbs, I imagine you are all quite stiff.”
The council on a whole found that far more palatable than the alternative. Jahm’s glare only redoubled in ferocity, but he had no way to object.
“In the meantime, I’m sure Ti’zo the Wise may provide an interesting outsider’s perspective on the issue at hand.”
“Krriii,” said Ti’zo, who knew very little about the Highwing-Commonwealth conflict, but was very happy to pretend he did if it gave Volfred the time he needed to slip away. Volfred left his seat. Ti’zo hopped into it instead, puffing himself up to double his size as he began to deliver what was -- in the imp language-- a most eloquent speech.
A rider was waiting outside the service exit, in the process of offering his horse a bucket of water and a brush down. It seemed more for the rider’s benefit than the horse’s. The horse was happy for the rest. The rider was trying his best to keep his hood over his face. He was Volfred’s closest aide, and someone would notice him if he loitered too long.
“Not too tired, I hope,” asked Volfred.
Flushed and covered in sweat, Hedwyn shook his head.
“I’ll be fine. I’ve done worse runs. I’m just sorry I’m late,” said Hedwyn. “We couldn’t find a horse that didn’t spook. The Chief Physician sent me ahead. I didn’t want to leave him, but... He insisted.”
“I’m sure he did,” said Volfred, who knew Oralech all too well. Hedwyn handed Volfred a wrapped parcel, bound in animal skin.
“The written report,” explained Hedwyn. “Should be all of it. I hope it’s enough.”
“It should be. Thank you, my boy,” said Volfred.
“Can send something the other way, if you’d like.”
“My business has taken up enough of your time.”
“The horse is strong. So am I,” said Hedwyn. “If there’s something left for me to do, I’ll do it.”
“You have already gone beyond the call,” said Volfred, “but, if you could carry a return message, I would be more than grateful. Tell Oralech to come directly to the chamber, and to wear his raiments if he isn’t already. We could use a bit of providence.”
“For the Nightwings,” said Hedwyn, with a wry smile. “That’s simple. Tell Fikani I’ll be with her soon.”
Ti’zo must have run out of things to say about the Bloodborder, because he was reciting a list of his favorite Union fisheries by the time Volfred returned. Most of the councillors couldn’t understand him. They nodded and ‘hrm’ed at the appropriate spaces. Fikani, who could understand Ti’zo to some degree, hid her face behind her wing.
“Well stated, Ti’zo,” said Volfred. “I agree entirely.”
[ ...Your husband sends his regards, my girl, ] relayed Volfred, in Fikani’s mind, as he creaked back into his chair.
Fikani’s stifled laugh faded, but the brightness in her eyes didn’t.
[And yours?] she thought back at him.
Councilman Jahm cleared his throat.
“Well, your excellency?” he asked, as the rest of the officials resettled in their respective seats. Ti’zo took up a spot on Volfred’s shoulder, pleased with his own performance. “Are we done with these theatrics?”
“My dear colleague, you are correct. I have wasted enough of your time. Let’s get to business, shall we?” said Volfred. He produced the package in his hand with perhaps a touch more flourish than necessary -- but it had the desired effect. It fell against the table with a snap, and all eyes were on him. “I have Chief Physician Oralech’s report. Would you care to read it with me, Councilman Jahm? I know that you can.”
That earned him another two hours. Oralech’s report was thorough and terse. He was never one to mince words. The handwriting was large, bold, and clearly belonged to Hedwyn.
Their trip to the border had gone about as expected: Oralech had arrived, relieved the local field commander of his post, and gotten to work at the sick camps. There were more victims than the initial reports had suggested, but fewer deaths than rumored. After some arguments with the field commander, Oralech had assumed control over local chain of command and rallied all available medical units -- teams of five each -- to the cause of bathing, feeding, and redressing the already ill. He’d set the remaining soldiers to clearing the camps of detritus. They’d dug out a spring to create a channel for a regular supply of fresh, moving water. Hedwyn and a number of outriders had killed about fifteen hundred rats.
They’d done this with the encampments closest to the foothills, and moved outwards to repeat the process through the valley. For each camp, Oralech detailed the number of ill, the number already dead, and the number currently in treatment. He detailed the symptoms of the illness, the mode of infection, and the various treatments his teams had tried on the afflicted. The death rate shrank, the number of those in recovery grew with each camp. He had even trained a few of those who had overcome the illness to tend to those still suffering. The worst of it lasted two days. No one caught it twice.
He ended with a long list of the supplies used and the supplies that would be required: more shovels, blankets, rat poison, grains, soaps, and water. If they could be secured in the next few days, it would be ideal, and the assembled medical units could take it from there. They were well trained and becoming more adept by the hour. The illness hadn’t spread outside of the valley. The predicted recovery rate was at 88%, and that was the pessimistic estimate. If supplies held and precautions were taken, the situation would be contained by the end of Lenorial’s high season.
“Provided you don’t lock us out of country,” he added, by way of a conclusion. “Again.”
The rest of the half-page was covered in an angry scribbled slash in the vague shape of Oralech’s name. This, unlike the rest, was his own handwriting.
A hasty postscript in the corner noted the previously acting field commander was in custody and would need to be evaluated for misconduct. Hedwyn had managed to jam that one in on the little blank corner under Oralech’s signature.
“And so we have it,” said Volfred. “It would seem that our Chief Physician has done his work. Wouldn’t you agree, Councilman Jahm?”
“He does serve,” said Jahm, shaking at his desk. In shock or anger, it was hard to say. “When he can be persuaded to even go the front.”
“Say that again,” said Oralech.
Silence in the chamber. No one had heard the demon enter room. No one had noticed the demon had been there, waiting, for who knew how long. He always had a way of moving quietly into unexpected spaces, no matter his size.
He walked down the row of desks, hands tucked into the sleeves of his robes. His horns were smaller, and he’d lost half a head in height since the Scribe’s Return, but in his white raiments with his hair bound back into a rough ponytail, he still cut an impressive figure as he marched to the center of the meeting hall, came to a stop in front of Jahm’s seat, and put one hand over the report. The gloves didn’t hide his claws.
“Chief Physician,” answered Jahm, bowing his head. He shut his eyes and swallowed. The color drained out his face. “I spoke out of turn.”
“Will that do, Volfred?” asked Oralech, without looking away from the pale councilman.
“It will,” said Volfred.
“Is the condition of the border clear to you?” asked Oralech.
“It is,” said Volfred.
“And have you had your vote?” asked Oralech.
“Not yet, I’m afraid,” said Volfred.
Oralech snorted like a bull. “Then what have you been doing all day? Stop wasting your countrymen’s time. We have so little of it as it is.”
“My dear friend, you are quite right. We ought to put the matter to vote. Your seat is waiting for you. Care to join us?”
“Not especially,” said Oralech, “but we will need the border open to send the necessary supplies. I vote no on the closure, and I do not much care about the rest. Tell me how it goes when it is over, Volfred. I am going to take a bath.”
And with that, the Chief Physician turned on his heel, and walked out of the chamber.
He stormed straight past Hedwyn, who’d been trying to make a quiet entrance of his own. Caught in the spotlight, the aide shrugged sheepishly, and stepped to the side, offering a weak wave to Fikani.
“Hi,” he said, with an exhausted grin.
“Hey,” said Fikani, waving back.
It was a little known fact that the Palace of Justice was built over an old imperial bath hall, with waters piped in from the cold River Sclorian itself, and warmed by special devices imported from the Westerly Wood a century or so earlier. Here, the justices of the past had wiled away many hours bribing each other between cases. Here, the baths had gone almost forgotten for the past three years since the Return. Here, also, Volfred knew to go once the council had adjourned. Oralech had no fondness for the place, but he was too practical to turn down the convenience. He’d converted it into a makeshift clinic in the days just after the revolution, and replaced most of the salts and perfumes with various medicinal cleanses.
The hanging lamps gave the hall a nearly green light -- the minerals in the water reflected that light back across the ceiling, leaving the space aglow. It was enough to nearly remind Volfred of the noxious springs found in the Downside, but only nearly. The air was steamy, but cloying. The scent was fresh and the water tasted sweet. A series of tiled steps led into the healing pool proper. Volfred stopped at the top, letting his roots trail over the edge.
Drifting in the shallows, Oralech lay on his back, eyes closed. He had thrown his raiments and his pouches over the nearest bench. Half of the bags lay scattered across the floor. His presence was well felt by the waters -- it sloshed across the highest step. The levels had been meant for human men, not a demon. His hair drifted around his head like one of the seaflowers Ti’zo had dragged from Solis many years ago. The green light brought out the paleness of it, and the paleness of his skin -- at least the parts of it unmarked by injury or by his transformation.
“Is it done?” asked Oralech. He didn’t open his eyes. “Or did we ride for three days for naught?”
“The the roads will stay open,” said Volfred, “and the border will have its aid. I had them read your report in full before the vote. You convinced them that the contagion was contained.”
“Because it is,” said Oralech. “I know my work.”
“I had no doubt.”
“Then what troubles you, Volfred?” The demon opened one blazing eye. Volfred said nothing. “Do not play at stoicism. I saw your face in the chamber. Did you think I would leave you to twist in the wind?”
“No, my agents kept me well informed on your progress. I only had to delay the vote by a few hours.”
That earned him a laugh, if a short one.
“Then did you doubt your young Hedwyn?” asked Oralech, a faint smirk twitching at the corner of his lips. “I thought you saw in him my successor.”
“No, I thought your shared experience on the border would leave you both well matched for the purpose.”
“And we were,” said Oralech. “He is spirited and a fast rider. You thought well of me to choose him. Then what, Volfred? Some threat against you that you failed to mention?”
“No, we have managed well enough in your absence,” said Volfred. “Our enemies have been kept well enough at bay. Their movements are known to me. It is simply…”
“‘Simply?’” Oralech raised an eyebrow. “That is not a word that suits you.”
Volfred knelt by the side of the pool. He let the ends of roots drift in the waters. They skimmed through Oralech’s drifting hair, and bumped his cheek.
“In these days I find myself ill at ease,” he said, carefully, “when you are not beside me.”
The water sloshed around them. Oralech opened both eyes. He looked up at Volfred, who was leaned over the edge of the pool. He met his gaze upside down.
“You have done without me before.”
“I have,” acknowledged Volfred. “I don’t care to again.”
Oralech sat up. Water streamed from his horns and down his chest. His hair hung in wet hanks, catching against his neck and the diminishing curve of his horns. He turned to face Volfred, legs bent under himself. Nude under the lights of the bath hall, the marks on his body were clear: the dark bands across his wrists and thighs, from his time in the Downside; and the scars across his chest and shins, from a time much more cruel than that.
“Sap,” said Oralech, blankly. He meant it as a reminder, not a teasing endearment. Volfred couldn’t quite hold his stare.
“I have always been aware of the inevitability of it,” he said, with a sigh, “I would never let it taint what I will hold close for how ever many more centuries I live, and have never wished for the impossible, but… sometimes, in my years in Wakewood, I wished for more than just three years.”
The water sloshed against Volfred’s roots. Oralech shifted. His hand closed around Volfred’s arm. He pushed forward -- not to fetch his clothes, but to rest his forehead against Volfred’s chest. Firmly, to let him know there was affection in the motion; but, also, carefully, so as not to scratch him with what was left of his horns.
“You old fool,” said Oralech. “You shall have me to yourself some years yet.”
Volfred put his hands around Oralech’s head automatically, palms pressed into the raised skin around his primary horns. The water soaked through his tunic. He didn’t move.
“In my small defense,” murmured Volfred, “you did just see to a camp full of plague victims.”
“I am a doctor. I know how to wash my hands,” said Oralech, “and before you make some fine speech about my courage, I shall remind you it was carried by fleas and I am likely still immune. A Downside constitution, at least, remains a benefit. I must make the most of this wretched body while I have it.”
“Not for much longer,” Volfred reminded him. “Your feet are no longer hooves.”
“And they ache ,” said Oralech. “Three days, Volfred! …But your Hedwyn bore the greater risk. Give him a commendation.”
“I intend to,” said Volfred. He rubbed his finger in a small circle around the back of Oralech’s head. The demon rumbled approvingly. Volfred rubbed more firmly, and Oralech pushed against him hard enough Volfred was forced sit down. “But you are well, aren’t you? I’d heard there’d been some conflict.”
“Your love for me has a thousand eyes and should be very well paid,” Oralech snorted. “Yes, it’s true. That damnable field commander took a shot at me when I stopped him from burning the camps. I snapped his musket and relieved him of his post. You will find the bruise over my right hip. The shot only grazed me. If you’d like to worry over some old injury, a harp speared me through my leg when I was a boy. You’ll find that scar to the left.”
Volfred did find it. A small, circular patch of rough skin, hidden by the black demon marks on his thigh. He pressed his hand over it in a calming circle. Oralech rumbled in approval. Volfred’s hand moved up unwittingly over the deeper scars at the small of his back.
“Will you count them?” asked Oralech, with some tired amusement.
“I already have,” said Volfred.
“Hmm. Lose count, tonight. My injuries are not your score to keep.”
“You are quite right. I am not the one who needs to be handled gently.”
“Nor am I,” said Oralech.
“May I, though?” asked Volfred.
“You’ll take sick if you stay in the water too long.”
“May I, though?” Volfred asked again. He pressed one hand between Oralech’s shoulder blades. Oralech made a low noise against Volfred’s neck.
“If you do that again,” said Oralech, “then yes.”