This week, Ilendia begins her tutorship with Axohin. And they begin to dig into the mystery of the blight and everything else that has been plaguing the town of Isthus.
As always, here is a link to the Google Docs version of the chapter. Feel free to comment and tell me how you like the story so far.
The morning came far too soon. Ilendia was woken by a slight nudging of her mind from Azair. It was something that they had decided on early in their friendship━Azair was always the one awake first, so he would get Ilendia up when she needed to be. Azair enjoyed mornings in a way that she simply never could. She longed for quiet evenings spent reading or writing, curled up with blankets or sitting at a desk pouring over notes. She tended to love sunsets more than sunrises, probably because she tended to be more lucid when she saw the former.
She hesitantly opened her eyes and was disgusted to see that it wasn't even light out yet. She squeezed her eyes shut again and buried her head underneath her pillows. This was not a time for humans to be awake━it was unnatural and she wanted no part of it.
Ilendia... Azair gently pushed again. She could sense his eagerness to be off. She was at once jealous and sickened by his joy at being up before the sun. Ilendia, you have to wake up now.
"No," she said, her voice muffled by the pillows. "Go away."
"Nice try, dearie," a voice came from beside her bed. It was decidedly feminine. "But I'm not going anywhere."
Ilendia almost jumped out of her skin. She cried out and threw a pillow at whatever stranger stood at her bedside. With her bleary vision, she couldn't tell if she had hit the woman or not. Truthfully, if it hadn't been for hearing the voice, Ilendia wouldn't have been able to tell whether or not it was even a woman. "Who are you?" she asked, her voice slurred but edged with panic.
"Oh, calm down," the woman said. As Ilendia's vision cleared, she could see that the woman was middle-aged and plump, standing with her hands on her hips and a stern but calm look on her face. One of the servants? Ilendia didn't think she had ever seen the woman before. Who was this person who just felt like they could walk into her bedroom unannounced while she was sleeping? Did her father know about this?
You sound a little petulant, Azair said chidingly. Remember: You're not a highborn. Your parents always say as much, even if they act like they were the king and queen of Argosson itself. That was an astute observation. And a scathing one. Ilendia sat up in bed and tried to be patient and calm. It was fine. She wasn't going to be attacked, it was just a servant. No problem at all. She had to be up anyway. Maybe the woman had been sent to help her dress?
Ilendia noticed the woman had been looking her up and down with an inquisitive and somewhat disapproving expression. "This won't do at all," she said, wagging a finger at Ilendia. "We need to get you ready for a hard day's work as a scribe. The weeks ahead of you are going to be long and tedious, most likely. You'll need to be strong, fit, healthy." The woman reached out and pulled the sleeve of Ilendia' nightgown up off her arm. "Sky above. You look like a malnourished goat, young lady! We need to get some meat on those bones."
Ilendia just stared at her in puzzlement. "Who are you?" she asked again, the edge of panic gone, her tone sliding into sleepy confusion. "What are you doing in my room?"
"My name is Gaya. I'm here to help you get dressed, young lady," the woman said with a wag of her finger. "Tsk, tsk, let's go. Up out of bed, off with the nightgown. And what to do with your hair."
Ilendia had no choice but to let herself be dragged out of bed and tugged out of her nightgown. In a matter of minutes, she was dressed in a sturdy but comfortable summer dress that was more practical than fancy. She looked down at the brown fabric and its utilitarian design and had to smile. This was definitely not one of her dresses. She wondered what had possessed her parents to have someone make this for her. Apparently they were taking this apprenticeship as seriously as she was. She wasn't sure how she felt about that.
"I don't think I've ever seen you before, Gaya," Ilendia said as the plump woman tied Ilendia's hair back in a tail. "What do you do in the manor?"
"I'm new, dearie," Gaya said as she finished the tail. "Just got hired two days ago. I doubt you've seen me, since you've been up in your room for awhile." The woman didn't intend it as a reprimand, but Ilendia still winced at the reminder of her extended absence from everything that had been going on. "I've just been helping with the cleaning, but per Master Axohin's request, I'm to be your full-time lady’s maid. I'll be here to make sure that you're up at a decent time each morning, that you get to your appointments with Master Axohin and Master Nasen without tardiness, and that you're not dilly-dallying along the way. Do you understand?"
Ilendia blinked. Gaya did not talk like any maid she had ever had before. It was refreshing, but also slightly unnerving. "Yes, I understand," Ilendia said, not trusting herself to say anything else.
"Good," Gaya said, nodding to herself more than to Ilendia. "Now, here are your things." The maid went over to Ilendia's writing desk and grabbed a brown satchel that looked sturdy and filled to the brim. Ilendia made an involuntary gasp as she noted that the desk had been cleared and organized. Ink and quills were set to one side in a neat row, along with blank sheets of paper. Ilendia's books━including her journal━were nowhere to be seen. "Oh, calm down," Gaya said as she handed Ilendia the satchel. "It's all in there. I didn't read any of it, I just organized it. Put what I thought you'd need in there. You're not going to be doing much else of anything today except scribing for Master Axohin, so you shouldn't need your journal, but I packed it there just in case. Now, is there anything else you think you might need before you head off? You should be down in the foyer to meet Master Axohin soon."
Ilendia tried to keep a scowl off her face as she thought of the woman touching her journal and all of the notes for her book. She must not have done a good job, since Gaya gave her a no-nonsense look in return. Ilendia finally sighed, surrendering to the older woman. "No," she said. "Nothing else. I should be fine."
"Get moving, then," Gaya said, hands folded over her chest. "You've got a long day ahead of you." Ilendia moved towards the door, preparing herself for the day to come, but she stopped before she exited the room, hand still on the knob.
"Thank you," the girl said simply, accepting Gaya's help and companionship in one phrase. Gaya inclined her head and smiled for the first time that morning.
Ilendia left the room and headed down towards the stairs, feeling groggy and giddy at the same time. "Oh, and breakfast is on the table!" Gaya called after her. That made Ilendia grin despite herself. She was hungry. Maybe having a lady’s maid wouldn’t be so bad after all. She certainly wasn't the worse maid she'd ever talked with. And besides, the early hour wasn't her fault. That was Kials and Axohin's doing. Ilendia couldn't really bring herself to be angry at any of them, and so she let her pent up frustration bleed out of her as she raced down the stairs towards breakfast. She could already smell the aroma of the food wafting through the foyer. Her mouth was watering by the time she reached the bottom of the stairs and made her way to the table, where a plate of steaming food was waiting for her. Gaya had very good timing, that was for certain. This must have just come out of the kitchen. There were strips of bacon and some slabs of dark bread slathered with butter, as well as some fried fish and a cup of chilled fruit juice. Ilendia consumed the food quickly and rather noisily, barely having time to savor any of the tastes before she headed off into the foyer. She felt as if she should hurry, though Gaya's soon was rather ambiguous in terms of when she had to be meeting Axohin. Best to be early than late, she supposed. And then she hesitated before the archway that led into the foyer. When had she ever supposed that? Late to rise, always wasting time and getting what she had to get done at the last moment. This wasn't her.
Well, it's not me, Azair complained as she directed her thoughts towards him. I've been trying to get you waking up early for years now. You've never listened to me before. It was that maid, then. Sky above, she felt great! Is this what being a morning person felt like? Had she been missing it all these years because of the fifteen minutes of misery just after she awoke?
"Don't be so smug," Ilendia muttered to Azair's projected thought of satisfaction. "This isn't over yet. I'll probably keel over dead from exhaustion in an hour." She walked into the foyer to find Axohin standing at the window looking out on the eastern horizon. The sky had just grown purplish in tint as light encroached into the world once more and banished the night. Axohin had changed out of his rough traveler's clothes, but only for a more sturdy outfit of the same type, dark brown in shade with normal Isthus trousers and a plain shirt rolled up at the sleeves. His back was to her, but Ilendia could somehow sense the sweet satisfaction the man felt at the view of the mountains beyond.
"Come in, Ilendia," he said without turning around. "Please, come and watch the sunrise with me." It was such a heartfelt plea that Ilendia couldn't imagine anyone turning away that request. She walked slowly up beside the deeply tanned man and looked out over the scene before them. As the minutes ticked by, the sky slowly started separating into layers of color, purple above, pink below, stretching out over the canvas of the morning like fields of planted hues. And then suddenly there was a flicker of light between two distant mountain peaks, and the sun appeared in a blaze of brilliance that stilled every emotion Ilendia had and then amplified them all into a sense of wonder that almost brought her to her knees. It was as if it was the first sunset she had ever seen. Not that she had seen too many of them, but there was something special here, as if this was the first day of history and the world was new and full of life and energy, ready to be explored and enjoyed.
Ilendia felt a drop of water slide down her cheek. She hadn't even noticed that she was crying. Axohin put a hand on her shoulder and they both soaked in the last fading brilliance of the sun's ascent. It was the full of morning now. Ilendia remembered where she was in a sudden intake of information. She looked up at Axohin. "Good morning," she said sincerely.
"Good morning to you, child," Axohin said, smiling down at her. "A beautiful day, isn't it?" It seemed a paltry statement to compare with the wonder they had just witnessed.
"Yes," she said mutely. That affirmation too, felt hollow and empty, given the awe she had felt at the sunrise. Somehow that bothered her. That there could be things in the world that words could not express. She felt suddenly as if she had been mocked by the sun itself, the brilliant orb daring her to somehow put her experience into words. She itched to pull out her journal and sit down to try to write it all out. But then she remembered why she had gotten up so early. "Aren't we supposed to meeting the harvestmaster?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes," Axohin seemed somewhat distracted. As if he longed to stand here forever and soak in the sun's rays. She shared that sentiment most keenly, and so she couldn't help but feel a pang of disappointment when Axohin nodded towards the door. "Let's get going then. I said we would be at his service at sunrise, and that's just passed. He seems like a reasonable man, though, so he should understand our tardiness. That sunrise..." He shook his head and then headed towards the entranceway of the manor, his long strides bringing him to the other side of the foyer in a matter of a few seconds. Ilendia trailed after him, adjusting her satchel as she went. Time to get to work.
"I have to say," Axohin said as they left the manor and walked down the huge stone staircase to the city proper below. "I very much enjoy Isthus. I have been out walking several times since I arrived and it is a beautiful place. Hardship has become a way of life, that is true, but to see simple happiness still flourishing despite those hardships is an encouragement."
Ilendia didn't know what to say to that, and so the two of them walked in silence for a while. Soon they passed a group of children playing some sort of skipping game on a side road that flowed off the main thoroughfare they were following down through the terraces. Ilendia recognized one of them as the girl she had met playing in the spirath several days ago. The girl was wearing Ilendia's slippers. They were dirty and worn now, but that somehow made them more important than they had been when Ilendia had wore them. Ilendia smiled and focused on the road again as they passed the children.
"It's the children, I think," Axohin said.
"What?" Ilendia said, scrunching her brow.
"It's the children that make this place a good place to live," Axohin explained, smiling to himself and glancing back over his shoulder at the carousing boys and girls. "They always seem happy with what they have, no matter how little it is. That's not something you often see with adults."
That was true enough. Ilendia's parents had never seemed particularly greedy for money, but power was something they relished more than anything, and they always wanted more of it. It wasn't enough for her mother to scold her, she had to torture her as━
The thought threatened to send her into hysterics. No, don't think about that now. Not with Axohin here. Azair, please help me... She flung the words at her friend, her mind almost collapsing around her as her memories started replaying.
I'm here, Azair said, and his words seemed more powerful than a thousand sunrises. He pulled her back from her own mind and back into reality. She was back on the road with Axohin and the man was giving her a pitying look. They had stopped walking and they stood looking at each other for several heartbeats before Axohin spoke.
"Are you alright?" he asked quietly. His face was soft and gentle. Like a father's face should be when he was speaking to his daughter.
"Yes," she said, sighing. "I'm fine. I had some bad dreams last night. They're still plaguing me, it seems." It was a lie, but a small one. She lived a nightmare every day, after all. "Please, let's keep going." Ilendia started walking again, and after a short time Axohin caught up with her and took the lead once more, though he glanced at her once more with that same pitying expression. How she longed to tell him everything. She wanted him to know what only Azair had been privy to in her life. But she couldn't. She had never spoken those things aloud. Never. And she wasn't about to cement her nightmare into reality by speaking them now.
The harvestmaster's house was in one of the lowest terraces, near most of the planted spirath and other crops. Kials was a bit of a recluse, spending most of his time in the fields tending to this plant or tilling that soil. The only people he really talked to on a regular basis, besides Ilendia's father, were his workers. And that was what he was doing as Ilendia and Axohin strolled up to his house. The man waved at them distractedly and then looked back at the three laborers in front of him, deeply intent on their words.
"It was a whole field this time," one of the laborers was saying━a tanned and mustached man in his forties. The other two looked like they could have been his sons. All four of the men had dark bags under their eyes. "A whole field, Kials. I don't know what we're supposed to do if it keeps taking them like this in the middle of the night."
Kials put a hand to his forehead and sighed. "I don't know, Odeas," he said. "We'll just have to keep going as we always do. The minute we stop trying, it will be the entire city that dies in the night." He dismissed the three men and they left as if they were going to their deaths. Kials glanced at them and met Axohin's gaze. "Please, tell me you have something for me."
"I have my dedication and willingness to help you fight this," Axohin said, nodding grimly. "And all of the knowledge and cunning I can muster."
Kials kept his eyes directed on Axohin with the gaze of a man who is on his last strength. Ilendia had never seen the harvestmaster this drained before. Or this emotional. He had always been the calm, analytical man who took everything seriously. To see him like this now made Ilendia question whether or not Isthus would be able to survive the next few months. She felt ashamed that she hadn't known how dire the situation in the city was. Ilendia determined, then and there, to try her hardest to make the best of her lack of freedom and focus her efforts on helping her people.
The main image in Ilendia's mind as she made her decision was the sight of one girl wearing dirty silk slippers as she played with her friends.
"Let's get started, then," Kials said, nodding and turning to go inside his house. Axohin and his scribe followed. The harvestmaster's house was relatively large for this area of the town, more of a manor with attached buildings, but most of the complex was comprised of storage sheds holding farming equipment and supplies and plant sanctuaries. Ilendia wasn't sure what was expected of her, so she simply followed behind Axohin and tried to pay attention to her surroundings and to the words that were being spoken. The overwhelming smell of earth filled her nostrils as the three of them went through the door to the main building. This was supposedly Kials' residence, but with the shelves filled with tools and sacks of grain and various other agricultural odds and ends covering every inch of the walls, it was hard to imagine it as anything else but a place for the harvestmaster to take quick naps before getting back to work. A small cot lay in the corner of the room━and there was only one room that made up the large building━complete with rough wool blankets, but that was the only thing that gave any hints to the fact that someone lived here.
"I'm sure you understand the seriousness of losing a whole field like that," Kials said to Axohin as the harvestmaster went over to a workbench to inspect a wilted spirath shoot kept in a pot of soil.
"Starvation is near," Axohin said bluntly. "If the blight continues to escalate at the same rate, Isthus will be dead within a month."
Kials took a small knife and sliced off a thin sample from one the spirath leaves, squinting as he tried to inspect it more closely. He took a step towards an open window and looked at it under the light. "I need a way to fight this thing, Axohin. And it's not a war that can be won with swords and spears. I need information. Why is the crop failing?" He set the sample aside and looked at Axohin across the room. "You say that this is connected to the increasing aggressiveness of the animals in the area. Well, how does knowing that help us?"
"Part of it, at least," Axohin said, standing with his hands folded in front of him calmly. "Is that same shortage of food. Animals get testy and territorial when meals are scarce. But it's also something much deeper than that. Something I'm not sure any of us really understand."
"You're dodging the question," Kials said, scowling. "You obviously know something that I don't know, Master Axohin, so please, just tell me. I'm not a child, I can take it."
"I do not mean to speak to you as if I would a child," Axohin said, obviously pained. "I apologize. The truth is that I don't completely understand this phenomenon, and I don't want to confuse you by telling you of speculations that may be completely baseless."
"Sky above," Kials said, pounding a fist to the wall in exasperation. "I have nothing, Axohin. I will take baseless speculations over nothing. Speak."
They looked at each other, hard-eyed. Ilenda stood awkwardly to Axohin's right, trying to busy herself with studying the design of a scythe hanging on one wall. It was clear from the tension in the room that both men were incredibly intelligent...and had their own opinions on how things should be done. Axohin was not trying to cause such a reaction from Kials, but the harvestmaster had been increasingly pushed to his limit today and this calm, steady, infinitely patient man was not helping his own desperate outlook on the situation. One glance at Kials face revealed everything to Ilendia. Axohin had annoyed the man precisely because of his patience. Kials wanted the newcomer to share his sense of urgency and passion about the hopelessness of the situation. The man wanted empathy. Help him do what he needs to do, Ilendia asked Axohin in her mind. Give him something, anything that will bring him hope.
"Ilendia," Axohin said, and the girl jumped and put a hand to her mouth in a silent gasp.
"Yes?" she asked in a small voice.
"Please, get out a notebook. I need you to write down some points for me as I lay them out. It will help to be able to see a list to reference back to later."
Ilendia nodded and quickly got out her things, laying them down on a worktable that had a small bit of cleared space and dragging a stool over. "I'm ready," she said after she had finished.
"As I told you last night," Axohin began, leaning over a potted plant and inspecting its leaves one by one. "I have been to many places that have suffered the same blight and changes in nature and society and in every case the city died. I have been gathering as much information as I can to try and stem the flow of death here, but it is only a matter of time before this place is destroyed as well. Unless we find the answers to some important questions."
Ilendia wrote "Important Questions" at the top of her current piece of paper.
"The blight, the aggression of animals, the decay everywhere around us━these things are merely symptoms of a larger problem. We can't start with them as the basis of our inquiry. We have to go beyond that. We have to go to the deeper web of interconnection that life creates."
Blight, Ilendia wrote. Aggression of animals, decay. These are symptoms. Larger problem... She glanced up as Axohin spoke, flicking her gaze towards Kials. The harvestmaster was still frowning. That last sentence was a bit to take in, she had to admit. What did he mean by the deeper web of interconnection? She looked back down at her paper and tried to stay focused on Axohin's words.
"What do you know of Domination?" Axohin's question sent a chill up Ilendia's spine.
"What most people know of it," Kials said tentatively. "You're the one who is from the outside here. What do you know of Domination?"
Axohin smiled a patient smile. "More than you do, I promise. I have been studying the subject for longer than anyone else. Please, explain to me, from your perspective, what is this thing we call Domination?"
"The way the nobility controls those below them," Kials said with a dark look on his face. Axohin's calm admittance of intimate knowledge with Domination would cause anyone to be suspicious. Security was gone the moment Domination entered the playing field. "Some less academically-minded people might call it magic, I suppose. It's always been very mystical in nature. I don't think anyone in Isthus really understands it. None of us have ever had the propensity for it. We're not from noble stock." The accusation in Kials' last sentence was obvious.
"Neither am I," Axohin said, almost sadly. "I am the least noble of men."
"But you know more than I do about Domination? What does that even mean, Axohin?"
"I've traveled the world, Master Kials. Domination exists everywhere. The specifics of what people do with it, what they think of it, and how they deal with its reality are different, yes, but it is always used for the same thing━oppression of a lower class. I have found no other use for it. It is a magic, as you say, filled with blood and death and evil. I wish it had never come into the world."
Kials dark expression slowly softened. "Alright," he said, relenting. "So you've seen it performed many times? And you know much about it from observation?"
Axohin nodded, pulling his eyes away from the plant he was inspecting for the first time. "Yes. I've seen more of Domination than anyone could ever have the stomach for. And I promise you that I have never done it, nor will I ever do so. It is a despicable practice and I am glad that I do not have the...propensity for it, as you said."
"Well, what does this have to do with our problem?" Kials said, though much of the fervor of his argumentative passion had faded away.
"Everything, I think," Axohin said, looking back down at his plant and tearing off a leaf with a swift jerk. "Domination is a disruption of the natural order of the world. A linking of minds that does not cause companionship or closeness, but rather a sense of violation that disturbs both practitioners. I've seen the effects many times and it never, in the end, creates a healthy society, no matter how much control someone may have. And so where natural friendship creates a linking of minds that both strengthens and enriches both parties, Domination invalidates one individual while the other imposes...dominance."
Ilendia found herself leaning closer to Axohin as she scribbled her notes, intent on his every word. She was sickly fascinated with the entire subject, and though her ears seemed to burn, she could not stop listening. Don't show it on your face, Ilendia told herself. Don't even think about it.
"What are you saying?" Kials asked. His eyes were still intent but his voice wavered.
"I'm saying that I believe Domination is what is causing the collapse of the world, piece by piece. It's very essence is a defiance of nature itself."
Kials shook his head slowly. He opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. Ilendia could hear the roar of the wind outside. She looked up from her note-taking to glance out the window nearest to her, noting the few trees outside swaying in the air's strong current. She looked down at her paper and realized that her hands were shaking. "How?" she said without thinking. "How can we stop Domination?"
She could feel Axohin's eyes on her immediately, and she met his gaze with a wince. "I don't know," the man said, looking very tired. "That is why I am here. To try to understand these things. I will try to learn as much as I can here and help you push back against what nature's abuse is causing, but there is only so much I can do here. I will have to go to Argosson. I will have to meet with the Speakers and learn what I can of the way they use Domination. And then I will have to figure out a way to destroy every last trace of it."
Kials was still shaking his head. He walked away, muttering to himself.
"He thinks what you say is ridiculous," Ilendia said, once again wincing as the words slipped out. She was never this direct with her tutors. But was that really all Axohin was? A tutor? No, he was more than that. He understood her. And that was more than she could say about most people in her life.
"He is rightly worried about problems that seem to have no solution," Axohin corrected gently. He crushed the diseased leaf he had been holding in his fingers and let the particles scatter across the floor. "Come with me, Ilendia. I tried to explain to Master Kials that my theories were just that...theories. He did not listen. I will have to show him some sign of good faith on my part for him to cooperate with me to the extent that I need him to." Ilendia gathered up her things and followed Axohin out of the house, closing the door softly behind her. The pair went towards the closest spirath patch, which looked unhealthy and dark compared to the fields surrounding it.
Axohin knelt without reservation for his clothes in the dirt, inspecting the base of the plants closely. Ilendia stood behind him, nervously tugging at the strap of her satchel. What is he doing? Azair asked. Ilendia didn't know.
He knelt like that for a long time, inspecting each plant and almost crawling through the dirt among them. He did not ask Ilendia to write anything down, so she just shifted her weight from one foot to another, watching him with trepidation as a few workers wandered over to see what was going on. Finally, Axohin went to one knee and sighed. "The earth is so wounded," he said to no one in particular. "Anything I do will only be a temporary bandage to stop the worst of the bleeding. The wound will open soon enough unless it can be stitched back together."
"What do we do, then?" a worker asked to Ilendia's right. It was one of the men who had been talking with Kials when they had first arrived. He looked young, probably only just above Ilendia in age, and had dark circles under his eyes that marred his boyish features.
Axohin didn't answer. He produced a flask from...somewhere, Ilendia couldn't tell, and unstoppered it. He poured out a trickle across the dirt much more liberally than Ilendia thought he could with such a small container. And then he stood and moved to another patch of spirath, repeating the action over and over again to the entire field. Ilendia and the small crowd Axohin had gathered followed him as he worked, their eyes hopeful and skeptical all at once. Finally, as Axohin was sprinkling what looked like the last drops of the flask on the last patch of spirath, Kials came out of his house to join his workers. He raised an eyebrow as Axohin stood and met his gaze. Axohin nodded and started walking back towards the house. At first, everyone stood in silence, confused as to what the flask had accomplished. But a young cry broke through the air as the young man Ilendia had noted earlier called from that first patch of spirath. He hadn't gone along with the rest of them watching Axohin.
"The blight is gone!"
The crowd rushed over in a frenzy of motion and then a collective cry of surprise went up among them. Ilendia glanced back at Axohin but then went with the crowd to see for herself. As she pushed her way through the throng, she heard whispered words of awe and wonder, speaking of magic and change. The warm thrill of hope and the icy chill of fear played across her skin in a battle for supremacy like the clouds in the sky. She finally broke through to the front of the line and stopped as she looked on the once-blighted field. The plants were green, healthy, and above all logic, looked to be ripe and ready for harvesting a month ahead of season.
Who is that man? Azair projected within her mind.
Ilendia didn't know.