Roland told the Argonauts about the encounter, then mentioned some extra details to Jason afterward. For your and my convenience, I'll narrate the story myself, as if Roland were my protagonist—just like I did a while ago, on Hoon, albeit without announcement.

Clunk! Jason was knocked out. So far as Roland could see from his awkward position on the floor, a solider walked over to Jason, picked him up, and carried him away. Roland felt an urge to do something in response, but he figured that Jason wasn't in immediate danger, and so there was no reason to make a fuss right now.

"You may rise." said Akolos. "Now, Adventurer, what do you wish to speak to me about?"

Again, Roland had to restrain himself from behavior that would send him to the dungeon. Doubtlessly, the king knew quite well what the Argonauts were here for. "Your Majesty, I come here as an embassy of Gyeeds, and for Mayor Stanley Ironbone in particular. It recently came to the attention of the Interdimensional Council that you possess some technology that makes Projectile Shields less effective. As you no doubt know, such a technique could theoretically be very powerful on the battlefield versus an enemy that lacks it.

"The council wished to contact you regarding this development, but you have ceased all communication with it since week twenty-four. For that reason, Mayor Stanley sent me here. I have come on two errands: first, to ask you why you have isolated your nation from the Interdimensional Council, for although the Starving Sea is not a member, the council bears no ill will towards you or your people; second, to request that you share with the council the technology you alone seem to possess."

Akolos replied "I took those cautionary measures, many weeks ago, for Dojum's protection. The Sea is full of aggressive, less civilized nations than Dojum, which are a constant threat to its prosperity. Last winter, in particular, I became aware that my enemies were planning a full-scale attack with the help of more powerful nations in nearby verses. I imposed a strict policy of isolation to impede their progress, discourage further efforts, and discreetly communicate that I knew their scheme.

"They never followed through on their plot, and so I consider the maneuver a success—I can tell you of this now that the threat has passed. Also, seeing as Dojese isolation has obstructed legitimate trade and communication, and the problem it was put in place to solve no longer exists, it ends now." He glanced at a footman. "Spread the word, sirrah."

"At once, Your Majesty." said the man briskly, and went away.

"As for your second item, what the Interdimensional Council's spies witnessed was a demonstration of a new weapon that Dojese alchemists recently developed: Piercers. My wizards have discovered a method of enchanting bullets in a way that allows them to destroy Projectile Shields much more quickly than normal. I don't know if this is the same technology behind the Raincatcher massacre. In any case, though it may have been discovered independently by someone else, I haven't shared the secret with any other party. To this day, I refuse to make it public. It is a powerful asset to Dojum's military, which I don't wish to relinquish. No one need bother make any offers for it; I won't trade it for anything."

There was a long pause as Roland took in everything he had heard. At length, he said "Your Majesty, I thank you on behalf of Gyeeds and the IDC for allowing the free flow of travelers into and out of your nation once more. However, the council is unlikely to look kindly upon your refusal to share the secret of Piercer manufacture. You are not legally bound to share technological discoveries with the council, since the Sea is not a member, but you are expected to share any discovery of this magnitude, considering how technological asymmetry tends to give rise to predatory wars."

"Dojum will not be moved by threats." Akolos said simply. "Is there anything else either of you wish to discuss?"

"No, Your Majesty." said Roland and Talbot in turn.

"Then you are dismissed."

"So I guess it's all a lot less sinister than we expected." said Jason to Roland in their quarters that evening. In three days, they'd be allowed to return to Gyeeds via dimensional gate. Curtis was sleeping in one of the rooms left vacant by dead Argonauts. "Certainly, everything worked out a lot better than I expected."

"That assumes that Akolos was telling the truth." said Roland.

"Yeah, but what would be his motives for lying? What he says is certainly plausible. If Jake could figure out how to make Piercers, why couldn't anybody else?"

"Who knows?" said Roland. "At any rate, the fact that he's unwilling to share Piercers with anybody else is not so great. Other nations, Gyeeds included, could respond very hostilely."

"Wouldn't it be worse if he did share the technology?"

"No, it wouldn't pose much of a danger to anyone if everyone had it. The danger lies in asymmetry."

Jason nodded. "Still, it's nice that nobody died today on this island. Now, um… about Curtis. How'd you and Talbot recognize him?"

"He is, as he's no doubt already informed you, one of the best Imagination mages in the world. While he's not a celebrity per se, in the same way that you and I are in Gyeeds, he's well known among serious spellcasters. So, tell me how you got of the dungeon and ended up returning to the ship with him."

Jason did. "How about that blood-brother thing, eh? I did the right thing, didn't I?"

"Are you joking? Most definitely! Not only did you completely escape from that mess, you made yourself a powerful friend."

"Wait, are you telling me that being his blood brother would be a good thing?"

"Of course! As blood brothers, you'll be expected to fight for and defend each other; Curtis should make for a mighty defender. We're sure to encounter more trouble in the near future, and in such circumstances, the young prince will be much more of an asset to you than your treasured olfaction."

"You talk as if blood-brotherhood means something to you. It certainly isn't a prevalent custom in Gyeeds."

"Yes, but one must be willing to recognize and respect other cultures' traditions." Roland almost scowled as he said this. "Gross as it may appear, it's just an oath of friendship in disguise."

"I wonder how this plays into your ideas about marriage." Jason mused aloud.

"Never mind that. Curtis will live with us. He can sleep on the living-room couch, or I can get another bed for your room—if it gets too cramped, we'll just move to a larger apartment. We can afford it. Just—please, Jason, make good on your promise. I care very much about promises."

Jason was reminded once again of the oath Odin and Loki had sworn, and told the adventurer about it. Eventually, he grumbled "Fine, I'll do it."

The little ceremony took place on the bow of the ship the following morning. Jason and Curtis stood, facing each other, on the port and starboard side respectively. Roland stood before them, pocketknife in hand. The whole setup reminded Jason disturbingly of a wedding.

"Do you swear" said Roland solemnly, staring at their faces, "to forever stand by and aid each other?"

"Yes." the boys said. Jason was on edge. Curtis looked quite calm, as if he did this every day.

"Do you swear never to accept a favor unless both of you are offered it?"

"Yes." Jason's eyes wandered. Here was the Starving Sea, in all its perfectly horizontal glory, and there were the streets and buildings of Rorosion.

"Do you swear, no matter how often small, inconsequential disagreements arise between you, never to seriously oppose each other?"

"Yes." Suddenly, Jason noticed something odd on the deck, several yards to his right.

"Do you swear to live as brothers forevermore?"

"Yes." said Curtis.

But Jason had no ears for Roland now. His gaze, and his thoughts, were transfixed on what he'd spotted: a little rat with crimson fur, staring back at him. He was fascinated not by the animal itself—it was hardly remarkable—but by the strange feelings that had gripped him as soon as he'd looked at it. He was filled with a burning curiosity and impatience with his own ignorance. He sensed that within this humble vermin there lurked some great secret, a secret he ached to learn. The real nature of it was completely unknown to him, yet he felt he simply must discover it. The only way to discover that secret was to follow the rat; not literally, but in some metaphysical way: the rat would lead him there. Yet he did not know how to follow it. And as he thought that, the animal scurried out of sight, and the feelings ceased.

"Jason?" said Roland.

Jason looked back at the other two. Curtis seemed puzzled, and Roland seemed troubled. "I… I…" He glanced at the spot where the rat had been; it was gone without a trace. "Did you guys see that?"

"See what?" said Roland, vexed. "What are you doing, Jason?"

"The red rat."

"Uh… I didn't see any rats." said Curtis. "Who cares?"

"Don't you have any respect for ritual?" said Roland.

"Guys… this was no ordinary rat." Jason licked his lips nervously. "There was a rat sitting on the deck, a rat with fur the color of blood, and when I saw it, I was… overcome with strange feelings." Now both of the other two looked at him like he was crazy. "It was just like that time with the bird in the park, when I was escaping from Ernest's house. Remember, Roland?"

"Vaguely. Can we continue the ceremony, if you don't mind?"

"Just hold on a minute." Jason did his best to explain to both of them how seeing the rat had made him feel, and then told Curtis about the bird. "So we have two possibilities here: (a) I'm nuts; (b) someone with very esoteric magic is watching me and possibly trying to do something to me. (a) seems unlikely, since there's no other evidence backing up such a hypothesis. I say it's (b)."

"There's no other evidence backing up that hypothesis, either." Roland pointed out.

"Okay, that's true. But! Whoever heard of somebody going crazy in a very particular way twice, in two completely different circumstances, and otherwise being perfectly sane? (b), on the other hand, is actually kind of plausible."

"No, it isn't." Roland insisted. "There's magic that can manipulate emotions, in certain, narrow ways, and there's limited shapeshifting magic. There isn't any way a person could take the form of a small animal and cause such peculiar feelings, especially without appearing to cast any spells."

"Is it so far-fetched that such spells could've been discovered and kept secret?"

"Yes." said Roland. "The discovery of such spells would inevitably involve several breakthroughs. These experiences you've had are simply your mind reacting poorly to all of your recent misadventures."

"That's what they told Johnny Dixon. But they were wrong, weren't they? And it turns out that magic, in a certain form, really does exist! I swear, somebody's after me. I'm not making this up."

"Regardless," said Roland loudly and impatiently, "let's continue, shall we?"

"Fine, fine." said Jason. He turned back to Curtis. It looked like the prince hadn't been paying attention to this altercation at all, or at least the last few exchanges.

"All right, let's try this again." said Roland. "Do you swear to live as brothers forevermore?"

"Yes." said Jason and Curtis.

"Excellent. Please hold up your forearms." Roland drew the blade of his knife and carefully cut a small wound in each boy's outstretched right arm. Jason gave off a faint cry of pain; Curtis only winced. "Now, hold the wounds together and let your blood intermingle."

The two pressed their arms against each other. A little of Jason's blood flowed into Curtis's veins, and a little of Curtis's blood flowed into Jason's veins. Curtis smiled. Jason frowned, worrying if he'd get infected with something. Then again, whether or not he'd get sick from this was the least of his concerns. There was so much to think about! There was the question of whether his becoming Curtis's blood brother really was for the best, after all; there was also the matter of the bird and the rat. And there were all those mysteries related to Piercers.

Ultimately, the most pressing matter, in Jason's mind, was that of the increasing fantasy of his life. He remembered how he'd thought of this shortly before leaving on his little Quest for the Golden Fleece. Yes, his life was a series of improbable adventures; he'd pretty much gotten over that by now. At least this journey hadn't been nearly as eerily like the myth-Jason's journey as he'd expected. He'd encountered trials along the sea-road to Dojum, but none were even faintly analogous to the ones the mythical Jason faced—the lone exception being that both Jasons had helped out a king at one point. Certainly, Jason Blue's little adventure on Dojum had gone over much more smoothly than the other Jason's adventure at his destination. For one thing, Akolos, however unfriendly, wasn't nearly as murderous as the owner of the Golden Fleece, Aeëtes.

Come to think of it, Curtis was kind of like Medea—he was a powerful mage whose father was the king, and he'd saved Jason out of fondness for him. Moreover, this very blood brotherhood was akin to the wedding of the myth-Jason and Medea. On the other hand, the analogy failed in two crucial respects. One, a boy who is one's blood brother is very different from a woman who is one's wife; two, there didn't seem to be an evil bone in Curtis's body, whereas Medea was a murderer herself.

At any rate, it would certainly be interesting to see how things developed from here.