The Blighted Earth - Chapter 2
The following day turned out to be just as aggravatingly cold as the previous one.
But at least the sun was out, and that meant that the lake was thawed and I could go back to the never-snowy city of Avamir. I could go back to the normalcy of tending to the royal gardens for the rest of my life. I could go back to living under the shadow of success instead of seizing that opportunity myself. I could go back to pretending that everything was alright and that the future of the kingdom wasn't under the threat of imminent destruction anytime soon. I could return home with a least a little bit of dignity left.
Instead, I decided to try my chances and speak with the duchess. I wanted to feel surprised as I told the maid that answered the door that Prince Ejas Avamir himself sent me back to the estate, I couldn’t. It was like attending the academy all over again. Except more intimidating.
The duchess was a pleasant contrast to her husband, at least in demeanor. She seemed warm and welcoming, and didn’t carry herself in a manner that looked akin to having a rod strapped to your back like everyone else in the mansion.
The guard, Ejas, stood at attention in the corner of the office. A knowing glint in his eyes was the only indication that he was interested in the meeting I had with the duchess.
“I couldn’t help but overhear the other day that you plan to travel to the other side of the mountain,” Duchess Reith Azunas said after we made our obligatory formal exchanges in greeting. “To study the Blight, correct?”
“Yes, Your Excellency,” I answered. “It’s only a research expedition. There are tells in the earth that suggest the imbalance is coming from the other side of the mountain. I believe the Blight might have something to do with it, but the only way I could be sure is if someone makes the analysis. Since no one else seemed willing to do it, I've taken the task upon myself.”
She regarded me with an intense stare. I expected my mission to be shut down then and there, and that I was taking the next trip down the mountain to return home.
“The Blight is where we send the dead,” she said. “Are you aware of the reasons?”
“Because the Founders dictated it.”
“Do you know why they put that in place?”
“So we keep the madness from spreading.”
“Precisely. Now tell me why you want to bring samples of madness back into our civilization? A society that took generations to build and ensure that we no longer succumb into the depravity that our savage ancestors once took part in?”
“The Founders' orders weren't enough. It’s already spreading.”
“Alir Cael, what evidence do you have to back this?”
“I… don’t, Your Excellency.”
“Then why, if you don’t intend to destroy everything? Because if you so much as hint that your motives suggest as such, your ‘expedition’ will end in this city and I will send you to the nearest prison.”
“If I may intrude, milady,” Ejas said, pulling himself from his post at the corner of the room. “I would be willing to accompany him along his journey.“
“Ejas?” Reith looked to the guard in askance. “Did... you read him?”
“I have, Reith,” he confirmed. “His intentions are good and he’s certainly trained in his craft. However last night, he expressed something I am concerned about.”
“Should I know about it?”
“That is Mr. Cael’s decision, milady. I am honor-bound to keep the specifics to myself while contracted as a guard, as you already know. Had the information been obtained if I was off-duty, perhaps. Still, what he expressed is nothing indicative of fault in his character, but I would rest easier if I were to keep an eye on him.”
“Are you sure? Dynn and I promised your father that you’d be safe here despite being so close to the Blight. We could send someone else.”
“Absolutely. After all, right now I’m a guard of the town of Gavallande. It’s my duty to protect and prevent any possible threats to its citizens, not to mention the kingdom I was groomed to watch over. Send whomever else you'd wish to join us, but I doubt they'd be able to manage a person such as Mr. Cael."
Duchess Azunas's face turned stern, reminiscent of the one her husband gave me right before he ordered me out of his mansion. I averted my eyes in response.
"Mr. Cael," she said. "You have three days to do... whatever it is you do as a horticulturist in the Blight. Do not, I repeat, do not bring anything from over there back into our civilization. If you need to analyze or run experiments, you must do it on that soil. And do not let anyone outside of this room know that I'm granting you permission. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Your Excellency," I said, my eyes tracing a nearby painting of the duke and duchess.
"Ejas," Reith directed to the uniformed man. "If he appears to falter even slightly into the grips of madness, I'm ordering you to kill him."
My eyes widened in shock as I snapped my attention back to the noblewoman.
"As you wish, Duchess Azunas," Ejas answered with a single nod of his head.
"Then if that is everything else you'd like to discuss, you'd best be on your way now, Mr. Cael," Reith said, hands folding neatly in front of her. "Your time starts now, and if you don't return within the allotted time with Ejas, I am going to assume the worst and lock the gates to the living for good."
"There is one more thing, Your Excellency," I said, wanting to make absolutely sure that she wanted me killed if I slipped, or to extend the time she was going to allow me in the Blight. I held my tongue, however, since she narrowed her eyes in annoyance. I changed my mind and clamped my mouth shut.
"Off with you. My husband won't take kindly to know that I didn't order you to return to the city, so you best make your departure discreet. Do not disappoint me, young man."
I bowed hastily and left the mansion, once again escorted out by Ejas.
"Don't get used to this, Mr. Cael," the guard said as he accompanied me to the inn to collect my belongings. "You're fortunate that Duchess Azunas is as pliable as she is."
"Wait a minute, you did that?" I asked, horrified at what he was implying. It's one thing for someone to use their talents to influence an old saltkeeper to add a pinch more to one's allowance or to loosen someone's tongue to reveal truths that needed a bit of prodding to scrape the surface. To impose one's own will against someone else's? My stomach churned in disgust at the thought.
The urge to run from last night overcame me once again.
And again I found my feet rooted to where they stood. Now I wondered if all of that was Ejas's doing.
While royalty held themselves to a higher standard to conform to living in humility, respect, honor, and dignity; Ejas didn't seem to cling to those values as strictly as his forefathers. If it weren't for his powers to induce a confession out of me the other day, I'd even doubt his status as an heir to the kingdom to begin with. Confessionists were descendents of the first kings of Sülkoras, after all.
"I know what you must be thinking, Alir," he said. "But I've stayed in this town long enough to notice patterns in the dead they send through those gates every season. And it all started ten years ago. I'm sure you find that span of time significant."
"You think that my... uh... condition is related?" I asked.
"I do. But if your intuition is correct, I believe that you're well equipped to find the answers to questionss that I myself have been having of the Blight. I want you to succeed, which is why I had to cross the line and... change the duchess's mind."
It was not an explanation that I readily accepted, but if it weren't for Ejas, I wouldn't have the opportunity for the expedition in the first place. Duchess Azunas was ready to send me home, that much was obvious.
"Thank you," I said. I did not like the feeling that I was condoning his actions. "Especially for letting me know that you... did that."
"Truth for a truth," Ejas said. "Deception can only get you so far, but honesty can bring you further. Let this be a lesson for both of us, especially since we will be wandering unfamiliar territory. It won't do to have a travelling companion where you aren't absolutely sure they won't drive a dagger in your back if the opporunity arises. Or more like a large thorn, in your case."
"I'd never do such a thing."
"Mere words, Alir. Make sure your actions conform to them, at then they'll truly have merit in my eyes."
"I swear by Sülin and Korin, I'd never fall into the blood-bathed savagery our ancestors engaged in. I'm appalled that you think I'm capable of doing anything of the sort with my magic. I'm a scholar first and foremost."
Ejas paused. His stoic face was void of any emotion as he analyzed me, the yellow flash of his irises indicating the use of his magic to detect a lie in my words. He didn't divulge in his conclusion about me.
Instead, he said, "I'm impressed that the academies still teach its students the old tongue." His face remained impassive. "But I doubt the sun and the moon would stop you should you decide that I'd look better skewered on a rosebush."
I was about to protest again, but the tiniest quirk of a twitch at the corner of his lips told me to let it go. It confounded me how someone so bland and serious would have a sense of humor. A rather disturbing and... deviant sense of humor at that. How fitting that someone from royalty would so openly and without shame joke about something that lurked in the nightmares of all of humanity.
Then again, he'd be in the running to be the next person responsible to carry the weight of combatting that nightmare.
At least it matched up with his intentions of going into the Blight with me. He wanted to make sure that whatever it is that was causing the shifts in the earth wasn't a symptom of it spreading. He'd likely be more of a help than a hinderance to my cause.
Well, ignoring the possibility that he might have to kill me, of course.
But that brought up another possibility that worried me.
Was that order from Reith Azunas? Or Ejas Avamir influencing her?