Ilendia slept for the majority of the next few days, slipping in and out of consciousness as she tossed and turned in her plush bed. Servants came periodically to set trays of food and pitchers of water at her bedside, but no one spoke to her, and she consumed the contents quickly, falling back to sleep with little memory of ever waking. Azair spoke to her in comforting tones all throughout the entire ordeal, but his voice was simply white noise in the background of her mind, the individual words he spoke lost in the fog that enveloped her head.
Her entire being seemed to ache━a physical and metaphysical shiver that ran up, down, and across her body like the cool edge of a knife. Despite her near-constant sleep, at the end of it all, when the bruises and the cuts had healed up enough to be presentable, she was still exhausted. One the morning of the fourth day, when she stepped out from under the covers, she grabbed a brush from her nightstand and began to fix her matted and snarled hair, looking into the large oval mirror sitting across from her bed. She felt like a corpse, trying in vain to break from death back into the world of the living, and sat there for hours, brushing over and over again long past the point where it was actually doing anything.
Her parents had never come to see her. Not that she had expected them too. They were far too busy managing the affairs of the estate and the city to bother with their broken, bloodied, insane little girl.
Ilendia? Azair almost shouted the question in her mind, as if this was the last try in a long string of attempts to get her attention. It probably was.
"What?" she said aloud, though she almost gasped as the word echoed in the room. It seemed like ages ago since she last heard the sound of her own voice. She brought her hand up to her mouth, dropping the brush, and then jumped as it hit the wood floor with a clatter.
Ilendia, you need to wake up.
"I am awake," she said, her voice a monotone as she stared down at the brush. It was so...beautiful. Just sitting there, undisturbed. The bristles seemed to wave back and forth at her, despite the fact that she was no longer brushing.
No, you're not. Wake up, Ilendia.
"Shh," she mumbled, reaching down to grab the brush again. She returned to her grooming. "Leave me alone, Azair. I want it to be quiet."
Ilendia, you're not thinking right. You need to be here. You need to be awake.
"I don't know what you're talking about. I am awake."
Ilendia! The words were practically a roar.
Ilendia cried out and dropped the brush again. She stared at the wall for a long minute, breathing in gasps. She made a whimpering sound and then collapsed on the bed, engulfing her head in a pillow. And then she cried. Long, hard, and without a trace of reservation. It had been a long time since she had done that. It would probably be a long time before she would do it again. Either way, the fit ended quickly, and with its demise brought the bottling up of her more raw emotions once more.
She wiped at her eyes and tried to block out the things she had seen, felt, and done in that horrible room in the corner of their estate for what had to have been the five-hundredth time. She had to be focused now. Anytime, her parents could decide she was finished with her solitude and bring her out in the open again for some kind of public showing or private abuse. Just another day in the endless cycle of her life in Isthus.
Are you well? Azair said.
Ilendia didn't really know how to answer that. Or even if she should. "What kind of a question is that?" she asked after a moment of thought. She reached down and picked up the brush on the floor, returning to the grooming of her hair.
One that you shouldn't be trying to avoid, Azair said. I'm worried, Ilendia. You're hurting and you keep forgetting.
"That's better than remembering," Ilendia said, pulling at a snag in her hair with the brush.
You're pretending. You like to think that you're strong, and you are, but you have limits. You're going to break if you keep doing this to yourself.
"You're so perceptive." Ilendia flushed. "Why don't you just go ahead and fix all of my problems, since you apparently know everything about what I think."
But I do.
Ilendia frowned. Of course, he was right. Azair knew her better than anyone. But did he know her better than she knew herself? She wasn't ready to admit that. Ilendia had to keep that boundary up. For some reason, she knew it was important.
"I don't want to talk to you anymore, Azair."
Why are you not answering my question?
"Apparently, you already know the answer. You know everything that's wrong with me."
Stop being like this, Ilendia. I'm trying to help you. You need to talk to someone. I know.
"I'm sorry," Ilendia blurted. "I...I just can't talk right now, Azair. I can't even think. I'm just so...drained still, somehow. I don't understand it. You're just not helping, and I don't know why."
I'm sorry. I'm not trying to make you angry. I just hurt for you.
Azair didn't say anything more, and Ilendia sat on the bed, brushing her hair for another hour or maybe more than that, long past the point when it was back to normal. She thought about her friend while she did so, wondering why she was feeling the way she was. She usually trusted Azair with everything, but lately she had been feeling...disconnected. Alone, somehow. Even though he was in her head, he wasn't beside her, and lately she had been feeling desparately lonely for that kind of companionship. She had never really had it in her life, and there was something magical about the thought of holding another person's hand or giving them a hug or just standing next to them and knowing that they loved you.
Azair couldn't give her that.
He had been there for her every step of the way, though, as long as she could remember, and she began to feel even more guilty for the way she had been acting towards him lately. She really did love him, more than anyone in the world. Her thoughts turned to her earliest memories━first getting to know Azair, long nights spent awake asking him questions. More often that not, however, it was him asking her the questions. He seemed to be growing up just as she did, learning of the world through her eyes and ears, marveling at the intricacies of everyday things just as she learned their functions. He still seemed like that child, especially with the way he spoke to her, as if he was never entirely comfortable with words at all. Were they really words? she thought. I just seem to know what he's saying in my head. I don't really sense...words. Just thoughts.
Her mind began to wander, and soon she was simply staring at nothing, eyes glazed over, lost in the white noise of her room. What had she even been thinking about?
Knock, knock, knock.
Ilendia jerked her head to look at the door to her room, pulse quickening. She braced herself for whatever might happen next, building up the walls as quickly as she could manage. "Yes?" she said. A moment passed, and she realized that she had barely mumbled the question. She repeated herself louder, struggling to keep her voice from breaking.
A woman's voice came from the other side. "Mistress, your father is asking for you. He says to clean up, wear your best dress, and meet him in the dining hall as soon as possible."
Ilendia let out an explosive breath, one that she didn't realize she had been holding in. It was just one of the household servants. "Thank you. Do you know what my father wants?"
"I believe there is going to be a dinner tonight, mistress," the woman said. "Your father wants you looking presentable for his guests. He said that he expects you down in no more than half-an-hour."
A dinner? That didn't make any sense. There wasn't a holiday anytime soon━unless she had slept much longer than she had thought━and her father didn't just invite anyone to the manor for dinner. This would be very important. Ilendia began running through etiquette in her mind. If she wasn't the perfect lady tonight, she would pay for it. She could be sure of that.
"I'm sorry," Ilendia said, putting a hand to her forehead. "Thank you. I'll be there." The woman bowed and left without another word. Ilendia was alone once more, an empty girl in an empty room. For a brief second, Ilendia wasn't sure that any of that had actually happened. Wasn't she still locked inside herself, wasn't she still safe? No, she was awake and she had to face a world that hated her. Maybe she hated herself.
Don't think like that, Azair said. This isn't you. You are strong.
It was moments like these when it was hard to distinguish between what were Azair's projections and what were here own thoughts. Was this all just a battle in her own mind? Or was Azair fighting for her? Maybe he was the only good part inside her. And she was all bad.
No! Azair pleaded. Stop it. You are good, Ilendia. You are strong. You are wonderful. You have to believe that.
Ilendia took a deep breath. "Thank you," she mumbled. Focus. Focus on the task at hand. She had to be presentable. She had to impress her parents enough to be spared another episode of torture. Gilded as she went by Azair’s soft words of comfort in her head, she bathed, dressed, made-up her face, and was heading down to the dining hall with two minutes to spare. Her long-sleeved, long-hemmed blue dress hid her bruises well. She supposed that was the most important, before anything. Her parents shouldn’t be angry.
She wished that they thought about things that logically.
The wood of the stairs that led down from her rooms to the main floor were shining and sparkling with the lights from the chandelier above. Ilendia assumed that they had been polished for the occasion, but had to admit to herself that she didn’t remember what they had looked like the last time she had seen it. It was quite possible it always looked that way. She usually didn’t pay attention to the decoration of the mansion. Why was she paying attention now? She was scared, that’s why. She didn’t want to see her parents again. Ever. She wanted to think about anything else. She wanted to run away. She was shaking.
The dining hall was before her, table set with the finest plates, goblets, and silverware. The tablecloth was red, a deep maroon that matched the single bouquet of dark red flowers that sat in a vase at the center of the arrangement. The table sat low to the ground, plush cushions for sitting surrounding it. No one was in the room. Ilendia glided tentatively into the dining hall, but no one appeared from around a corner. She was alone. Where was everyone? She waited awkwardly in the center of the hall, listening for sounds of anyone approaching. After a short while of nothing, she decided to sit down at the table. She folded her legs to one side and lounged on the cushion, practicing her stature as a proper lady. It was uncomfortable. She sighed.
It was, of course, the moment she was shifting herself awkwardly in her seat and exposing a considerable amount of leg that her father walked in the room.
“Sit straight, young lady,” Mitias snapped, his face darkening. “That is no way for you to behave.”
Ilendia lowered her eyes in submission, ignoring the flare of indignation she felt. “Yes, father. I apologize. It was an accident.”
There was a moment of silence, and Ilendia could tell that her father was trying to find some further fault with either her actions or her attitude. There was obviously nothing to find, and so her father sniffed disdainfully. "I do not need to tell you that it is imperative you are on your best behavior tonight. This is the first formal banquet we have had in months, and most of the town's leaders will be here. And that means you are the perfect daughter, do I make myself clear?"
Ilendia nodded. "Yes, father. I will speak only when spoken to, I will be the soul of curtousy, and of you and mother I will say only the kindest of words." It was a phrase that she had spoken many times over the years, a humble submission to table etiquette she had adhered to for as long as she could remember. Her father was very strict about his dinners. She was there to be a symbol, nothing more. If it was up to her mother, Ilendia doubted she would be here at all. But her father had used her innocent and girlish demeanor many times over the years to give his guests a sense of friendliness and peace at his table.
"Very good," her father said. There was no trace in his voice of anger, bitterness, or even remorse over what had happened with Ilendia a few days ago. He was just serious and stern, like he usually was. Like he always reverted to when he seemingly forgot his last beating. There would be an escalation━probably after the meal, if she made a mistake. And another beating. Hopefully she could stave that off for as long as possible. That meant being the perfect child. And so she would smile and accept compliments and eat like a graceful little girl, all the while dying inside.
Her mother entered the room, light brown hair drawn up into a bun and the finest make-up complimenting her face. Wearing a vanilla white dress that flowed down to her ankles like water, she was the picture of serenity. She and Ilendia's father made quite the imposing couple. Ilendia tried not to meet the woman's gaze, and luckily, her mother was not interested in her. "Mitias," she said icily. "Why is the food not set out yet? Our guests can only be entertained so long in the foyer."
Mitias threw out some expletive that Ilendia didn't recognize. For all the man's faults, he rarely swore, and neither did Ilendia's mother, and so many of the more colorful expressions remained outside of Ilendia's vocabulary. Sometimes, however, Ilendia would go out to listen to the workers in the spirath fields and catch some of the words herself. She found her rebellion, however small, in the little things such as that. "I will have that cook's head," her father was saying, looking at the table with disgust. "It was supposed to be finished by now. I'll talk to him." And he stormed off. Ilendia knew what talking to the cook probably meant. A beating. That was the way her father communicated, especially if he was angry enough to swear. What was so important about this dinner? Ilendia was still confused on that, though she decided that it probably wouldn't be wise to ask that question. If she needed to know, her parents would have told her. At least, that was what they had always tried to get her to believe.
Ilendia's mother left the room without a word to her daughter, ostensibly to go entertain their guests in the other room. Ilendia tried to calm herself as she sat, resisting the urge to fiddle with a knife on the table. After what seemed an eternity, her father returned from the kitchen. Ilendia could sense that he was still angry, but he was hiding it well enough that she doubted anyone outside the family would catch it. Most of the signs her father exhibited before one of his outbursts were not easy to recognize for what they were. Ilendia glanced down at the table after a brief look to make sure her father wouldn't want to say something else to her. Mitias went over to stand near one of the entrances to the dining hall, probably to greet his guests as they came. And soon enough, the guests arrived.
Six men in all, varied in age from thirty to sixty, every one of them a leader in the community. There was Dohnis, the captain of the militia, an older man with a rugged look about him and greying hair that was once a deep black. And Valine, the spiritual leader of Isthus. Not a Speaker or a priest, certainly not. Something entirely different━a call back to a more primitive time when men worshipped the rocks or the moons or fire dancing in the night. A shaman of sorts. Not that Ilendia had ever seen the wiry, short little man perform any sort of miracle, but that was what he called himself, anyway. Four other men followed them and all greeted her father in turn, praising his health and the beauty of his wife and home. And "Oh!" they would say, seeming to notice her all of the sudden. "A lovely daughter as well. Little Ilendia, the symbol of youth in our community." She had heard the flattery so many times before that she wondered how anyone fell for it. She certainly didn't.
The men took their seats, well accustomed to the demands of propriety in their seating placements and their courtesies concerning their fellow politicians. They chatted idly with one another as they each sat down in turn, and one of them, Kials the harvestmaster, gave her a passing compliment on her wonderful manners as she rose to greet them with light bows. As Ilendia seated herself once more, she glanced up to see one more person enter the dining hall, talking with her mother. Her heart caught in her throat as she realized who it was. Axohin. In the aftermath of her return to Isthus, she had completely forgotten her encounter with the strange man who could calm beasts with a song. Seeing him here gave her a thrill of joy and at the same time a spike of apprehension. He seemed to be courteous and accepting, similar to every other man in the room, of Ilendia's parents and their role as governor and governess of Isthus. That seemed to demean him in her eyes, somehow. Anyone who would be nice to her parents couldn't be that good of a person, could they? But no, that was a silly way to think. Axohin was nice to everyone. And there, the man was acting like himself. He hadn't been lying to Ilendia about his nature. He was a kindly old man who was skilled with animals and people all the same. And besides, what reason did Axohin have to dislike her parents? He had no inkling of what went on in this household. If only...
Dangerous thoughts. Best to keep her mind on her task. She was the perfect daughter. Axohin was simply another one of the guests. Her favorite one, no doubt, but she couldn't treat him any differently because of that fact. She would be kind and courteous. She would have time to talk to Axohin in person again. At least, she hoped she would. Ilendia's parents sat at each head of the table, and Axohin took the only remaining cushion, smiling slightly at...something. Ilendia noticed the slight lift of a smirk on the corners of his mouth. What was so funny? She felt a driving need to find out.
"Thank you all for joining me at this meal," her father said, turning every head in his direction. Ilendia sat at his left hand, the traditional place for a daughter. "I apologize that the food is not ready as of yet, but it will arrive shortly. As you know, I call you here to renew our bonds of friendship and loyalty to one another and to this city of ours. But you may not know the second reason I called this dinner. I would like to introduce to you Brother Axohin, a traveler and scholar from afar come to give us tidings of great import. His words have pressed my hand to action, and I thought it urgent enough to bring you here to bear witness to those same words." He nodded to Axohin, an invitation to take the floor, and the deeply-tanned man nodded back, his face solemn but his eyes still showing that flicker of amusement that Ilendia wondered if only she could see.
"Thank you, Lord Mitias," he said clearly. "For your hospitality and aid in giving me knowledge and direction for the task I undertake." Axohin glanced at Ilendia. "And for raising a lovely daughter that befriended me and guided me to your home to share in this most excellent night." Ilendia's father and the other leaders nodded in her direction in acknowledgement of the compliment. Though Axohin seemed to be speaking in the same grandiose manner that her father was indulging, his words were lilted with a profound sarcasm that Ilendia was now sure that only she was getting. Maybe these men were so used to deception and trickery that they were immune to being offended by any sort of perceived jest. "I will be brief, for as our Lord pointed out, the food will be arriving shortly. I trust that you all have noticed the growing hostility of the land. The aggression of beasts, the failing of harvests, the unrest of men?"
The gathered leaders nodded among themselves solemnly, obviously knowing exactly what he was talking about. Ilendia certainly didn't. Maybe she should be paying more attention to events outside of her own mind and body.
How had she missed it, though? She was always exploring outside the city, and a few days ago was the first time she had noticed anything amiss. The way the kanshell had looked at her still sent shivers down her spine. She supposed it was just her own fault, oblivious to anything but her own internal struggles. She sighed inwardly while trying to focus on Axohin's word, unconsciously sliding back into her depression. She was so selfish.
Ilendia... Azair warned. You're being too hard on yourself.
Well, maybe I want too, she thought back, suddenly angry. She tried not to let it show on her face. Maybe I need to be hard on myself. Maybe that's the problem here. I'm the problem.
It seemed as if Azair was about to say something further, but Axohin continued and Ilendia was drawn back into reality. "I am here because of this development," the man said. "I have been following this...epidemic from its origin point, and I think I may have found a way to stop it."
Kials the harvestmaster raised a hand to interrupt. "There is an origin point, traveler? A source of the blight? I had thought it to be a natural occurence. I do not give credence to ancient myths or curses." His words were heavy with skepticism, as if Axohin were about to claim that the disease was a result of some god's wrath on the world.
"Yes," Axohin went on, unperturbed. "I have tracked it from a land on the other side of the world, watched its spread, documenting the results as I went along. The blight has spread from region to region in a pattern that I believe I am beginning to understand. It always occurs in tandem with increased aggression and unrest from both the animal population and any men settled in the area. And I use the word settled very purposefully. It does not affect travelers in the area, but whether that is simply due to prolonged exposure or through some other, more mysterious means is beyond my capabilities to determine."
Kials seemed satisfied━and slightly taken aback━with this very logical explanation of the progress of the blight. He nodded tersely and coughed. "May I see these documents you speak of?" he asked politely, some of his airy superiority bled out of him. Ilendia had to look down so as to not betray a smile. Axohin knew how to handle these men. She was sure of it now.
"Of course, honorable harvestmaster," Axohin said, inclining his head. "As soon as the meal is at an end, I will show them to you. We can also discuss anything related to the blight that you would like. I know some small thing of plants, and that knowledge, combined with my documentation, may be of help to you in your efforts to save this year's harvest." Hmm. It sounded more serious than Ilendia had thought. Was the entire harvest failing? She tried to remember the way the spirath had looked when she had met the playful little girls on her way out of Isthus. Had it been sickly? She couldn't recall.
"Thank you," Kials said. "I would not shy away from your help. New eyes spot the blemish, as they say."
"Yes. They do say that." More amusement in his voice. "As I was telling you, my friends, I have been tracking this blight and its effects, and it has, unfortunately, come to this land. I can already see the signs of it in Isthus, and I gather that Argosson will be showing the labor pains as well. Lord Mitias' reason for gathering this meeting, of course, is so that each of you can hear my request for aid. I will most likely need to meet with every one of you to gather sufficient information on this region. And then I will be going on to Argosson to learn as much as I can there. It is entirely possible that the extensive libraries that your sister city could give me access to will be vital for my research. But I have decided to start here, and go on to Argosson when Lord Mitias and his family visit to finalize the official wedding betrothal of their daughter to Speaker Kirelon, son of the monarchs."
Ilendia tried to ignore that last remark, instead focusing on analyzing Axohin's other words. She could tell that his casual declaration of Argosson as Isthus' "sister city" made everyone in the room uncomfortable. As if there was still some kinship between the two. Ilendia knew that was not so. They were violently opposed. Related, perhaps, but no longer family. The more and more she thought about Axohin's proposed research, the more she longed to learn more. It sounded incredibly interesting, whatever he was studying, and she wished she would have the leisure to listen in on the talks he would be having with the people of Isthus. Maybe she could find a way to eavesdrop on one of them... She would have to be careful, though. Ilendia could tell she was on shaky ground with her parents at the moment.
"As much as I would love to be able to entertain a traveled man such as yourself," wiry Valine was saying. "We all have important tasks to attend to in this community. Trying to stop the blight is one thing, I wholeheartedly agree that brother Axohin should help Master Kials in his attempts, but what could he possibly gain by interrogating the rest of us? With all of this increased aggression and hostility, not only from our sisters in Argosson, but from the local wildlife itself, we need everyone focused on the tasks at hand."
Ilendia could tell that her father was insulted at this attack on his guest, but it was her mother that spoke. "Maybe if the traveler would explain himself further, we would have some answers as to your question of gain, Master Valine." It was not quite a statement in defense of either of the men. Just one that catered to her own self-interests, Ilendia did not doubt.
"Certainly," Axohin continued without hesitation. "I am not merely a horticulturist, my good Master Valine. I am also a deeply spiritual man, a biologist, a sociologist, a historian, and specialist in a host of other subjects that most people don't even know exist. I do not say these things to brag, but simply to tell you that I gather knowledge from all areas and use them all to figure out the way the world works. This problem is much bigger than a simple blight of crops, and anything you can tell me will aid in my search for the core of truth."
Valine squinted and looked away. "I do not see so big a problem as you seem to. My foreknowledge, given the signs I have found in the earth and the sky, is reliable. I do not foretell destruction." It was a petty power play made by a petty man who loved his status in the community. Ilendia could see that plainly. She was sure that Axohin did.
"Then you have not been looking at the right signs, Master Valine," Axohin said bluntly. At first, Ilendia was sure that he had made a mistake with that statement, pushing too far beyond his bounds into discourtesy, but as she looked at the faces of the others around the table, she realized that, once again, Axohin knew what he was doing. Valine was not terribly favored among the rest of the community, given the looks directed at him by her parents and the other leaders. Ilendia was hit in the face with her decided lack of knowledge in the area of local politics. She was sure her tutors had given her lessons about this sort of thing, but of course, she had not listened. For some reason, it seemed very important just now. She wanted to know why Valine was not favored. She redoubled her efforts to analyze the conversation.
"There is one piece of information I have yet to give you all," Axohin continued, looking around at those gathered at the table. The smells of the dinner were beginning to waft from the direction of the kitchens, and Ilendia knew that the food would be arriving soon. Axohin had timed this well. "The regions I have already been to, tracking the progress of the blight━not only were they inhabited by people similar to you, but those civilizations fell because of their inability to act to save themselves from the coming destruction. If I cannot discover more about the reason for the blight, then your city and Argosson will suffer the same fate as all of the cities before you. You will die."
Words ceased. The leaders of the community of Isthus looked at each other, a mixture of indignant disbelief and veiled terror passed through their gazes. Ilendia sat quietly, trying to take it all in. Axohin seemed older now, somehow, the great weight that she had noticed on him before, in their trip back to town, seeming to crush him with its enormity. This was a worn man, a man who had tried to help and had been rejected, had failed, had tried everything but still not gained his prize. He was a good man. Ilendia knew this. She wished she could do something to help him.
"It was for this reason I felt Axohin's message was so important," Ilendia's father said finally, breaking the silence. She glanced at him and saw genuine concern and even fear in his eyes. Lord Mitias, at the very least, believed Axohin's every word. "I would ask you all to give our brother every courtesy and piece of aid we can in his mission. I do not ask out of a desire to make your positions any harder, but for a very real concern as to the future of our beloved community. This is important to me, so I ask it would be important to you as well." The other leaders, after the briefest moment of hesitation, nodded. Mitias still had enough control over them for that much.
It was at that moment the food arrived. The cares of the wider world were forgotten for the time being as the household of Lord Mitias and his noble guests supped together. There was buttered bread, cooked and steamed vegetables, select pieces of fruits from the orchards and tarts and pastries made from those fruits, pitchers of goat's milk and clear mountain spring water, and the finest roasts of venison from the forests and boiled crabs from the lakes. Ilendia did not speak throughout the entire meal, calmly eating as much of the delicious food as was deemed ladylike. Before, when her nerves had been shaken and she had tried to use sleep as an escape from it all, she had abhorred food. Now she realized how ravenously hungry the last few days had made her. The meal was one of the best she could ever remember eating, and she wondered why that was. It was a much finer meal than she was used to, that was true, but it seemed to be more than that. She kept glancing at Axohin. He had something to do with this. She had no idea how, but his very presence somehow made this all better.
The gathered leaders shared words with Axohin as they ate, imploring him to tell them of his travels. Though he was decidedly vague in most of his responses, he did tell them a few stories of strange creatures he had encountered or a city built in an exotic place. He shied away from telling of different cultures despite Captain Dohnis' pushing of him to do so, though Ilendia couldn't discern exactly why. As Axohin spoke, she imagined the places and things he was describing in her mind's eye, and marveled at the wonder of it all. She had to put this in her story.
After the meal was finished and they had all pushed back their plates, Ilendia's father called the gathering to attention once more. "Our discussion does not have to cease here, but of course, I will not keep you for longer than this. Axohin and I will be at your service tonight to speak of whatever might be on your mind concerning the blight and its effects." Ilendia pursed her lips. Her father was really taking charge of this whole situation. She had noticed the failing relationships between the community's leaders only briefly, due to her relatively lax disposition to matters of politics, but she had known her father's grip on Isthus was loosening. This seemed to be a clever reversal of that. Lord Mitias was showing the gathered leaders that he was still in charge and that he knew how to handle crises better than they did.
Kials stood. "As much as I would like to, I must seek my home. I do have on request, however," he said, looking at Axohin. "Would you join me on the dawn tomorrow to look at the crop? Your expert input would be appreciated." Ilendia was not sure if the lilt she heard in the harvestmaster's voice was irony.
"Of course," Axohin said graciously. "I will gladly be at your service." He held up a hand to stay Kials' leaving, however, and then stood to face everyone gathered there. Ilendia saw her mother raise an eyebrow. "I would ask that before we leave the table, I would have a request of my own to the good Lord Mitias and his wife.
"And what would that be?" Ilendia's father said neutrally.
"Would it be too much if I asked for your daughter's help in my research?"
The question sent a shiver down Ilendia's spine.
"Why?" Ilendia's mother asked icily. "What could you possibly want from my daughter?"
"I have need of an assistant. There are many things that I need to document, and I know that your daughter is skilled in writing. I also would, of course, take her tutelage upon myself, seeing as she would be spending most of her time with me. I assure you that I would take her education very seriously."
Ilendia looked at Axohin, an apprehensive hope rising in her chest. Please, she prayed to any god that would listen. Please, let my parents say yes. She had to do this. She wanted to do this, more than she had ever wanted anything before. And she didn't know why.
Ilendia's parents looked at each other, and for a single moment Ilendia knew they would refuse. Her mother opened her mouth to speak, but it was the words of Valine that were suddenly reverberating through the dining hall. "I hope I am not out of place in my saying this," the spiritualist said hesitantly. "But I believe that would be beneficial to young Ilendia. We are all aware of her...failing health. Some fresh air and fresh ideas may be exactly what she needs to get her back down to earth. Back to bearing her name with pride."
Ilendia barely paid attention to Valine's words, beyond that they added a sliver of light to her chances. She had heard similar things from other people. They all thought she was crazy. She had learned not to pay attention to it. Ilendia's mother scowled at the spiritualist, but Mitias seemed to grow placid. He was thinking about it. Ilendia's stomach churned as the emotions inside of her were jerked back and forth between fear and hope. There had to be a chance here...please. Mitias glanced at his wife, seemingly weighing her sentiments against his own. There was an agonizing moment of tense silence. Ilendia could see the other community leaders holding their breath. She had no idea what they were thinking. Kials had long since sat back down, his face as intent on the conversation as the rest of them.
"You do understand, brother Axohin," Mitias began. "That Ilendia is pledged to be married to the son of the monarchs in Argosson, to promote peace between our cities. She will not need an education beyond what she already has."
Ilendia wanted to scream. What kind of an answer was that? Always before, her father had demanded that she be educated, be productive, be bored to tears by scores of passionless tutors, but as soon as an opportunity came along that she was actually interested in pursuing, he resisted. What had changed? But she knew exactly what had changed. The marriage had been proposed to Speaker Kirelon. She had been auctioned off and she was no longer needed beyond that task.
But Axohin was not finished. "I do not ask this lightly, Lord Mitias. I have given it great thought. There is no aristocracy in the world that does not gain from education. She will be more of a prize in every regard if she is educated to the full before being wed. What else does Ilendia have to spend her time on?"
Mother quickly broke in. "She must study, of course, but of the matters of court in Argosson, and nothing else. Nothing else matters."
Contradiction... Azair said in Ilendia's mind. That was more astute an observation than usually came from Azair. He must be as intent on this conversation as she had been. Maybe he was that way because she was. First they say do not educate you, then they say they must.
I know, Ilendia thought back. What should I do, Azair? Should I say anything?
No, he said simply. There is nothing you can say. Accept what comes.
Of course. She didn't even know why she had asked him. There was nothing she could do either way. She would either be apprenticed to Axohin or she would not.
Axohin obviously saw the contradiction himself, but chose not to address it. "I am confident that she can manage both areas of study. You will, of course, no longer be allowing her to roam the wilds, like she has been? I imagine that after what I have told you, you would no longer consider it safe to allow such things?"
Ilendia felt another chill. "That's not━" she began to protest, but quickly silenced herself when she saw a flicker of anger dance in her mother's eyes. Stupid, stupid. Why did she say anything? She would be punished for that.
Her father was still considering it all. He pursed his lips and swirled the wine in his glass. "Of course, she will no longer have those times. She has been reckless and that recklessness nearly cost her life. Luckily, you were there. I believe that it is well within your right to ask this boon of me, and though I am hesitant to give it, I understand that it is probably the right thing to do." He stood. "Very well, traveler. My daughter is at your service in this matter, provided that you give her enough hours in the day to continue her lessons on court politics."
The tension that had been blanketing the entire room seemed to bleed away. Except for one point of burning intensity━Mother's eyes. Ilendia didn't know whether to be overjoyed or terrified. She didn't know what to feel anymore.
"Absolutely," Axohin agreed. "I do not ask for a slave, merely an assistant. Ilendia's safety and education are important to us both, I believe, and I think this arrangement will be beneficial in both regards."
Mitias nodded. Ilendia's heart was in her stomach. No more adventures... Azair whispered despairingly in her mind. Why? Why did Axohin say this?
It wasn't his decision, Ilendia reminded him. I'm sure my parents already decided that, though I was too wrapped up in myself to see it.
No more adventures... Azair echoed.
Axohin glanced over at her and smiled, but Ilendia couldn't find it in herself to return it. She had won; she could learn from Axohin. But she was a prisoner now, more so than she had ever been before. She would have little to no time to herself. Her parents would expect her to be learning and being productive from sunrise to sunset. She wouldn't be able to disappear when they were angry with her anymore. They would send her to Axohin. It got rid of her all the same, but it wasn't what she had wanted. She wanted to be able to help Axohin, but she didn't want to give up her freedom to do so. It felt selfish, but she didn't care. She had lived so long under someone else's expectations that all she wanted was to be that selfish girl. She had to be━it was the only thing that gave her purpose. Everything else seemed counter-productive.
"We will start tomorrow morning, then, at sunrise," Axohin said to her, still smiling. It was a genuine smile, but somehow it held the rattle of chains within its length. He looked at the harvestmaster, who was standing to leave again. "We will be there to aid you in whatever we can, Master Kials."
"I look forward to it," Kials said. And then he excused himself.
The dinner was over, and the guests who were staying retired to the sitting room to discuss weighty matters with Mitias and Axohin. Mother kept her burning eyes upon Ilendia until everyone had left and it was just them alone in the room. Ilendia felt a trickle of sweat bead at the base of her spine and snake down the skin of her back. Mother kept staring. This was it. Here it came. More. More.
I'm sorry, Ilendia, Azair whispered. I'm so sorry.
But her mother just stood up and walked away, leaving Ilendia alone, sitting on a cushion in an empty room. A great flood of emotion seemed to well up in her and then dissipate, leaving her a cold, lifeless shell of a girl. She felt nothing. Nothing except weariness. She was so very tired. And so she stumbled up to her room and crumpled on her bed, falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.
In sleep, the pain could not follow.