The Blighted Earth - Chapter 1
There were many things the Academy of Avamir had taught me.
How to write an abstract on my experiment of the effects of a magically-grown weed compared to a nature-grown one, how to circumvent sabotage of said experiment because a pyromaniac elementalist wanted payback for someone growing a topiary in life-sized caricature of her ex-fiancé, how to write a letter to the Headmaster of the academy that I was not the horticulturist responsible for the event.
For all that I’ve learned, nothing could have prepared me with the task of presenting the proposal of exploration of the Blight to Duke Azunas of Gavallande. The elementalist fiasco possibly, but she was nothing in comparison to the nobleman.
“No,” the duke said, setting down my written proposal onto the wooden desk in front of him.
“If I may explain further, Your Excellency,” I said, “I believe it’s prudent that I make this expedition. There are signs in the earth that–“
“Whatever your reasons are, Mr. Cael, no one has passed through the gates to the other side of the mountain in centuries. For your safety, I suggest you keep it that way.”
“Your Excellency, you know I–“
“You want my permission? I am not giving it to you.”
The shadows upon Duke Azunas’ visage flickered in time to the candled sconces in the room, his piercing stare accentuated by the din of the evening. My nervous breaths passed through my lips in clouds to meet the wintry mountain air. I lowered my gaze to admire the unassuming rug beneath my feet.
I steeled myself and tried again. “With all due respect–“
“Get out!” the duke ordered, slamming his palms against the desk in front of him as he shot up from his chair.
“Please, sir, I–“
“No, I’ve heard enough. To think the king would approve of such nonsense coming from the academies. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
He gestured to a uniformed guard that stood at attention at a wall before the nobleman disappeared behind a set of curtains behind his desk.
The guard approached me, a slight frown pulling his hardened features and an eyebrow quirked upward, silently urging me to comply with the leader’s command. I sighed and shuffled for the room’s exit and shivered at the sudden rush of cold that passed me as the door opened. I tugged the collar of my coat tighter against my neck.
"You're an idiot," the guard said bluntly.
"I know," I said, defeated.
"You're still stranded up here until the day thaws the lake."
"Just stay warm and stay out of the way of the duke, and you should survive the winter."
The guard grunted, unimpressed with my responses. "You know, you know. Do you know that your plans could destroy the island?"
I grew indignant at this, forgetting the cold that nipped at my cheeks as I whirled around to hurl at the uniformed man's face, "It's not going to destroy anything! Why can't anyone just open their eyes and see what good this will do?"
"Things are different here compared to the city, and with good reason. Don't cause any trouble."
"We reduce your daily allowances."
"My allowances..." I trailed off, images of mentally depraved people wandering around with little control over themselves because they refused to take the doctor’s recommended dose came to mind. I gasped and pulled my hands to my chest like a child holding a prized possession, fearful of what could be taken from me. "That's inhumane! Magic is in my blood as much as it is in yours."
"But it's better served for a law-abiding citizen than a trouble-maker, hm? Best to not waste such a valuable resource when its access is limited this time of the year."
"Wouldn't your criminals go mad?"
"Some do, but the prisons can handle them." The guard shoved me outside of the duke's mansion into the unabated winter. He looked me up and down as he lingered in the open doorway, the frown still etched onto flesh-toned marble.
"Stay a moment," he instructed me as he clicked the front door to the estate shut.
My eyebrows furrowed as I continued to shiver violently from where I stood in the snow-covered world. My face puckered in distaste when I saw cold white flakes creating a considerable pile on top of my boots. On top of my shoulders. On top of all the foliage that dared to survive in the harsh environment.
How could people even want to live in a place like this?
Before I could properly curse my situation under my breath, the door opened once again, the same guard returning. He held a folded bundle out, which I took with trembling fingers. I unfurled it to see that it was a cloak.
"I forgot that you're a horticulturist," he explained. "While the cloak’s not ideal, hopefully it will make up for your lack of a means to stay warm. Good night."
With another click, the door swung shut and the muffled scrape of the bolt sliding into place was my cue to leave.
The encounter with the duke left me with a bitter disdain for the mountain town of Gavallande; but at the very least I wasn't left to seethe on this while slowly freezing to death. The woolen cloak that the guard gave me was composed of multiple layers to keep out the bite of winter as well as a hood for me to hide my face, red with shame. I knew I was no longer welcome in the presence of the nobleman, that much was certain. However, I was not going to let the matter go. I needed to find a way to speak with him again.
After a night's rest, though. And before I forgot, I needed to make sure I didn't lose my head as I slept, of course.
I made sure to make my way to the local saltkeeper. The stress from my audience with the duke didn’t rest well within me, and the hours-long journey up the mountain prior didn’t allow me to seek out a place to draw an allowance from. I already started feeling my thoughts starting to lose focus, and I didn’t want to push my luck by waiting until morning like everyone else did.
The saltkeeper in Gavallande turned out to be a frail elderly woman who looked much too old to continue the business.
"A bit late to be getting your allowance, youngling," the wispy old woman crooned jovially as she welcomed me into her home that appeared to double as the town’s salt storage.
“My boat didn’t arrive until earlier this afternoon,” I explained. “I made my way directly to Duke Azunas as soon as I got here and didn’t spare a moment to get my daily allowance. You can even check my pouch; there’s not a grain on me.”
She crooked a wrinkled finger in my direction. “Let’s see it then.”
I obliged, holding out my issued leather pouch and turning it inside out for the old lady, revealing to her that it was empty.
“Your name then, young man?” she said, pulling out a yellowing ledger and thumbing through to a blank line in the book. The end of her quill hovered over the spot, ready to make a new entry.
“Alir Cael, madam,” I responded. “If it’s not too much to ask, might you be able to spare a pinch more today? I’m afraid I’m going to be too busy tomorrow trying to bring my case to the duke again. I fear madness by the time I am finished.”
“Oh, you know the king’s orders: no more, no less,” she said, taking the teaspoon in her hand and getting a scoopful of the minuscule, glittering white crystals from a barrel and into my proffered pouch.
I frowned in displeasure. I really needed that extra pinch to help me last the rest of the night and the following day.
I looked around her dwelling as she leveled off the salt in the spoon to its exact measurements with a finger. All around, I saw wooden carvings of roses and tulips adorning the walls, furniture that continued the floral motif, bright colors of spring flowers painted on porcelain china in a nearby curio cabinet. The old lady definitely had an affinity with flowers.
I looked back to woman as she dumped the spoon's contents back into the barrel, mumbling to herself about an imperfect dose.
"Did you do all these carvings, madam?" I asked.
"Oh no, my husband did," she said after handing back my pouch. "He travels back and forth from the town to Avamir quite often. He used to bring me flowers that grew readily around there, but they can't survive in such a harsh environment like Gavallande in the winter. So he decided to try to capture their beauty in his woodwork. He's away on another business trip and is likely going to buy me another plate like the ones you see in that cabinet over there as a souvenir."
I nodded and exited the front door of her home, leaving the saltkeeper with her hand outstretched to give me my salt. I didn't make any move to retrieve it just yet.
With a start, the woman called after me. "Don't you want your allowance?"
I smiled, gesturing to a snow-covered patch on the ground. I kicked the despicable flakes aside with my boots to reveal the frosted ground beneath. It was a bit tricky, since the earth was in a state of wintry slumber, but I managed to coax a rose from the unwilling dirt. It was a wimpy, frail little flower, much like the delicate woman that was so stingy with the salt she kept; but the wonder in her eyes at seeing such a rarity in the winter told me that it was enough.
"For a beautiful and radiant lady," I said to her with as much charm in my voice I could muster, handing her the flower I had just grown and picked. She smiled and added a pinch more salt to the pouch she was withholding from me.
"For a charming young gentleman," she replied in kind. She wiggled the fingers of one hand to me, conjuring an image of a scarlet butterfly giving me a light kiss on the cheek before it disappeared in shimmering, fading motes of light.
I hid the shudder of disgust within the confines of my loaned cloak and bowed in forced graciousness before I left for the inn, my precious pouch of salt tucked safely in the inner pocket of my own linen-blended coat.
I was in the middle of kicking off the snow from my boots on a rug in the inn's foyer when a heavy hand latched onto my shoulder, eliciting a gasp of surprise. I turned around to see that it was the guard that escorted me out of the duke's mansion from earlier.
"What? Not finished rubbing in my face that I'm in over my head in this town?" I bit.
"I caught you making that flower earlier," he said.
"And what of it? Are flowers illegal in Gavallande? Sorry, but it’s a part of what I do.“
"Give me your pouch."
Whatever heat that hadn't been drained from me from being in the unforgivable snow outside certainly left me in that moment. I drew more than what was my fair share of salt allowance from the lady. And the guard saw every moment of it.
The same guard who was at the beck and call of the duke.
"W-wait, I can explain," I sputtered, scrambling with the pocket my pouch resided in. My changes for getting another audience with the duke suddenly came into question. There was no chance he would ever consider letting me through the mountain pass to the other side if Alir of Avamir was labeled as an embezzler.
"If you must, do it when we're alone," he said, hand outstretched to take possession of the bag I handed him. He tossed it lightly into the air, eyebrows furrowing as if he came to the conclusion that yes, there was more than what was allowed in the bag. He curled a finger at me and commanded, "Come with me."
I had half the mind to run away, since I knew that whatever was going to happen wasn't anything in my favor. But the guard had my salt. There was a chance that I could at least get it back, though with less contents in the pouch than what was in it originally. Forget my pride, my sanity was more precious.
So I followed him.
He grunted in approval, a slight nod in my direction to acknowledge that I was complying with him. He tossed my bag back to me. I was not expecting to get it back so easily. I caught it, my heart leaping into my throat as my mind reeled at what was happening.
What was happening, anyway?
"Manipulative, aren't you?" the man said. "You must lack a sense of honor by stooping so low as to guilt an elderly woman into getting what you want."
"I didn't ‘guilt’ her," I defended. "I merely asked if she could spare any more. She said no. I decided to do something nice; so I gave her a flower. What she did after that was not of my own doing."
"Alright, you didn't guilt her. Bribe her is the term I was looking for. I warned you not to get into trouble."
"It's just a pinch more."
"And what were you going to do with the excess, hm? Why draw a full allowance when you could have gotten a partial one to last the night? You’re not deprived, are you?”
I hesitated, the urge to run growing ever stronger. There was nothing more that I needed from the guard, since my salt was safely in my possession once more. I didn’t know the man well enough to owe an explanation either.
Yet here I was, enough at ease to engage in a conversation that was too friendly and familiar – albeit somewhat heated –than what was warranted with a man I had only met a few hours ago. It wasn’t until now when I started to question it.
Dread opened in the pit of my stomach when I saw the yellowish flash of his dark irises to disappear into an innocent twinkle of mischief that was unbecoming of a serious man in uniform.
This guard was a confessionist.
Oh, not good. Definitely not good.
“Alir, correct?” the guard asked, sudden merriment gone under the constant frown that appeared to accompany him everywhere.
I nodded warily in response. I was too afraid that I might end up saying more than I intended to say knowing what abilities he had.
“You know what I am,” he said. “And I know what you did. But considering the circumstances, I’m not going to bring you in.”
My mouth gaped in shock. This guard was full of surprises, wasn’t he?
“If you answer this one question for me, I won’t ask any more,” the guard continued. “How long have you lived with this condition?”
“You still won’t bring me in after giving you my answer?” I asked, finally finding my voice.
“On my honor,” he said.
I took a deep breath, and the answer was dry at the tip of my tongue. “Ten years. It started when I first found myself in the city of Avamir.”
The guard gave a soft grunt in response.
“Get some rest,” he said after some deliberation. “Duchess Azunas overheard your proposal with her husband earlier today. She wishes to see you in the morning. Tell any guard or servant that asks your purpose for being in the mansion that Eĵas sent you. They’ll bring you to her.”
“Eĵas Avamir, at your service,” the guard said with a slight bow of his head and left.
Just “Avamir?” Not “of Avamir?”
I knew I was getting in too deep if an heir to the kingdom had to facilitate my plans.