Chapter 12: Asylum Seekers
Almost a week after the incidents at Ferndell and the Ferrum border, Arjan and the Rose’s Whyte cell were invited to take afternoon tea with Lord Dux. Accompanied, now routinely, by two centurion guards, they entered Lord Dux’s chambers to find him seated at his desk with a magnificent hawk’s feather quill in his hand.
“Ah, good,” he said, taking the wooden rocking blotter and rolling it over the parchment on which he had been writing. “I appreciate your punctuality. Please take a seat.”
Dux indicated the large comfortable sofa next to the leaping, sparking fire, which was filling the room with the warm aroma’s of seasoned cherry wood and charred pine cones. As he joined them, he paused and turned to the guards in the doorway.
“Thank you, officers. You may leave us now. Please, wait outside… and close the door.”
After a moment’s hesitation, they left, closing the door behind them.
Dux eased himself into his well-worn, leather armchair, his eyes as always, creased at the corners as he smiled.
“I wanted to tell you all how very impressed I have been with all of you and the way you have all coped, these past few days,” he said. “You have put in a lot of work, and I know that it has not been easy, coping with this level of security, on top of all your extra tuition.”
He sighed, sitting back in his chair, shaking his head and rubbing his chin as he mused. His face clouded.
“You deserve to be rewarded with some better news. Regrettably, however, we have received reliable reports that Ferrum’s capital, Glynisfarne, has fallen to the Djinn, along with most of Ferrum’s border region.”
He watched sadly as their smiles waned. Arjan reached for Rose’s hand. Clasping it between his fingers, he gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Lee appeared puzzled.
“Isn’t the First Battalion Lignum Vitae barracks at Glynisfarne?” He said his brows drawn together in a confused frown. “Are they not supposed to be the fiercest and most skilled soldiers in all of the Afterlands? I am sure I read that in Cognito. If that is true and yet they are to be so easily defeated, then what hope have we?”
The novices exchanged anxious looks, though Rose seemed merely distracted. Dux took a breath to answer, but before he could, Rose had intervened.
“However good the army,” she said. “They’d still find it difficult to fight the fyre of the Djinn. That type of power can only be stifled with magic. Lord Eldwyn knew that, which is why he did not predict that an army would defeat the Djinn, he predicted that we would.”
“No, that is not exactly correct,” said Lee pedantically, “more specifically he prophesied that you would.”
“Actually, according to most scholars,” said Dux with a wry smile. “The general interpretation of the prophecy is that ‘she’, who most of us now accept to be Rose, would have the power to unite all of the casts of the Afterlands in victory over our enemies.”
“Do you know what’s happened to them?” Said Auriel suddenly, her face troubled, “the people of Glynisfarne and the refugee Bloods, did any of them manage to escape?”
“Ahh yes,” said Dux “We do have some news. Not a great deal and most of it not good, but it appears that some members of the Ferrum high council and Lignum Vitae did manage to escape. They are now in the process of forming a small resistance army. Apparently, and somewhat surprisingly, they are sequestered within the Ebony Forest. We are arranging to have some supplies sent to them presently. There are some Twocast peddlers in the city, they are known in the forest and can move freely within it.”
“Twocast?” asked Rose with a blank look.
Auriel’s jaw tightened as her cheeks flushed and her eyes blazed furiously.
“The natives call them Immundus, the unclean,” she said, her voice terse. “They are outcasts Rose, the prodigy of mixed marriages between native casts. It is illegal for casts to intermarry. When they do, they are ostracised. They are not permitted to live in the cities or communicate with their families, so they exile themselves in the Ebony Forest.”
Angrily she spat out each word as she went on.
“They are treated worse than animals. Of all my readings, this has been the only thing that has made me feel ashamed. I’m ashamed of the natives for imposing these values, and I’m ashamed of the ascendants, for allowing it to continue for so long.”
Their eyes fell uncomfortably on Dux, who was shaking his head in regret. His melancholic eyes looked up towards the richly adorned ceiling. Letting out a deep sigh, his voice became wistful.
“It is a matter of deep regret to me also, Lady Auriel. The Aurum high council has been attempting to address this cruel injustice, for as long as I can remember. We have made some headway in Aurum. Twocasts have been free to barter and trade within Aureus, and other Aurum cities for many years now, but I am afraid these bigoted attitudes are deeply ingrained within the native culture. None of the native casts will move on the issue of equality legislation for the Twocasts, and most of them continue to follow the old ways. In their minds, they wish the Twocasts did not exist and so they treat them accordingly, to them they do not exist.”
“So are the Twocasts of the Ebony Forest working with the Ferrish resistance?” asked Rose.
“That, I am afraid, was not made clear from the apis. Though I doubt any organisation could flourish within the Ebony forest, without the cooperation of the Elder Witch.”
Responding to their vacant expressions he elaborated.
“She is their Sharman, their mystical leader, and has been for hundreds, possibly even thousands of years. Legend tells that she is the result of an ancient and unique pairing, between a Ferrish native and an ascendant, but no one knows for sure. What is known is that she is most certainly not mortal. There are also many reports of her having some potens, although, with no ring, it is unlikely to be strong. However, it does appear to be strong enough to frighten and subdue the natives.”
They were interrupted by a sharp knock on the door. One of the guards entered tentatively.
“Excuse me, Lord Dux,” he said cautiously, “ but there is someone….”
Three black hooded figures pushed passed him into the room.
“Halt! Halt!” Centurion guards shouted as they rushed in after them, their weapons drawn.
Dux and the novices sprang to their feet.
The tallest of the three figures, a woman, held up her hands as she spoke.
“I am sorry Lord Dux,” she said hurriedly, “we mean you no harm, but it is imperative that I talk to you urgently. I have news from Cynnabar, news of Lord Ka.”
Dux unobtrusively signalled for the guards to stand down as he stepped squarely between Rose and the strangers, hiding her from their view. The others took his lead, protectively surrounding Rose and pushing her behind them.
“Who are you,” said Dux, “ who mistakenly, thinks it prudent to force your way into the High Councillors quarters when we are in a state of war?”
The woman pulled back her hood, revealing a shock of scarlet hair, slanted black eyes and the beautifully sculptured, pale features of a Blood.
“I am El-on-ah, Blood ascendant and Chief Alchemist of the Hydrargyrum House of Leadentar.”
El-on-ah, noticing Dux’s clumsy attempt to hide the young Whyte ascendant, barely managed to keep the shock from her voice. Now she knew for certain that her assassin had failed. All at once her mind was spinning as she realised that this would change everything.
“Lady El-on-ah, yes,” said Dux, appearing to relax a little. “It has been many years….”
“My Lord, I am sorry, but I am afraid that I have no time for such pleasantries.” Said El-on-ah, as she gathered her thoughts, “I was sent here by Lord Ka…”
The guards redrew their swords and lunged towards her.
“Wait,” said Dux, raising his hand. “Lady El-on-ah is taking a big risk coming here. She must know that she risks her life by telling us this. Whether or not she speaks the truth, I would like to hear what she has to say.”
“Thank you, my Lord,” she said softly, her heart in her throat.
El-on-ah pushed at the tip of the sword that the guard held to her chest. Reluctantly he withdrew it, keeping it unsheathed at his side.
“I cannot lie to you my Lord,” she said softly “I am an Ophite and have been for many years. I had longed for the day when Lord Ka would return to us and lead the Afterlands into a new era. He promised to provide us with a world where the lives of the Hydrargyrum Bloods were not restrained by our barren lands and where we too could benefit from the rich fertile lands and riches of Ferrum and Aurum. However, now that he has returned, I fear that we have awoken a sleeping monster.”
Rose stepped gingerly out from behind Dux. As she looked across at El-on-ah, their eyes met and locked for a long moment, until Dux realised and stepped between them once again.
“May I ask?” said Dux, evidently intrigued. “What has Lord Ka done to generate this sudden ambiguity in your loyalties El-on-ah?”
“Lord Ka has perfected a way of reversing the Djinn’s assimilation process.”
Dux’s eyebrows rose ever so slightly.
“What do you mean by reversing?” He said.
“Phlegon attempted to assimilate Ka, but when Ka entered the crucible, he was able to reverse the assimilation using a charm. So instead of Phlegon assimilating Ka, Ka was able to assimilate Phlegon, and now he lives within the body of the Djinn. Ka now controls them all, the Djinn, the Ophites and the Afreet.”
Dux pensively pursed his lips, but his eyes did not stray from El-on-ah’s unfathomable face.
“But is that not what you wished for my dear for Ka to take control?” Said Dux, “how has your Lord Ka changed so much that you come here seeking…. what? Asylum?”
“Yes, I seek asylum, for myself and for my servants,” she said.
She indicated to them to pull down their hoods. Tu-nek-ta and Che-vah-ra nervously obliged.
“We seek asylum because Ka has instructed all ascendant Ophites to enter the crucibles of the Djinn. He has ordered us to use his potion and incantation to assimilate the Djinn and take control of their bodies. However, not only is the thought of going through with this repugnant to me, but the process is severely flawed. What occurs is not purely assimilation, but a melding of two individuals. The outcome is a distorted combination of two bodies and more worryingly, of two minds.”
El-on-ah shook her head, seemingly in disbelief.
“Lord Ka truly has become Phlegon; evil, ruthless, cruel, and devoid of any compassion.” El-on-ah paused briefly and then her tone hardened. “That is why I did not obey his order to go through the assimilation process, and why I come here now, to ask for asylum and to offer you my help in defeating this monster.”
Wavering momentarily El-on-ah seemed uncertain as to whether she should say more. She bit her lip hard.
“I come here also,” she said, with a nervous sigh, “ to warn you that it is Ka’s intention to begin his assault on Aurum within days. Which is why I think it would be wise, my Lord, to get the young Whyte ascendant, who hides behind you, well clear of the city.”
Rose stepped from behind Dux. The guards tensed, raising their swords as she casually approached El-on-ah.
“Lord Baroque is, I understand,” said Rose “an Ophite like you.”
Rose edged in closer, her voice dropping until it was barely a whisper.
“He was sent to annihilate me, and judging by the look on your face when you saw me, you were well aware of this Lady El-on-ah, and yet you expect us to trust you?”
Che’s body stiffened as he sensed El-on-ah’s panic, but she kept it well hidden and when she replied, her voice held steadily.
“I was not only aware of Baroque’s attempt on your life Lady Rose,” said El-on-ah, “but it was also I who gave the order.”
Che sighed deeply as he raised his eyes towards the ceiling in exasperation. Then with a nervous cough he turned and exchanged an uneasy glance with Tu-nek-ta.
Arjan and Ash pushed protectively between Rose and El-on-ah, whose head was now bowed.
“I regretted it almost immediately,” she said guiltily, “ but it was too late to rescind the order. Please, I would very much like the opportunity to make up for this. I would offer you my protection, Lady Rose, if you would take it?”
“Oh, I believe that I have enough protection Lady El-on-ah,” said Rose indignantly, “but I will take the matter under advisement.”
“Lady El-on-ah,” said Dux, moving again to Rose’s side. “Rose is right, your words have given us much to discuss. For now, I would ask that you go with the guards,”
He nodded toward the guard at her side.
“They will take you to our guest chamber and arrange for some refreshments. You will, of course, remain under guard. Get some rest, I will speak to the high council on your behalf and let you know of our decision before dusk.”
“Thank you, Lord Dux,” said El-on-ah, “ I appreciate your advocacy.”
She turned again to Rose, her expression almost sorrowful.
“I promise that I will not let you down again, Lady Rose,” she said.
“Oh, I am sure that you will not,” said Rose, her voice cold.
As they were escorted out of the room Rose moved towards the others.
“I do not trust that woman,” she said quietly.
Ash smiled quizzically.
“Well, I can’t imagine why not?” he said with a snort, “I mean all she did was to arrange to have you killed.”
Dux returned to them with a solemn expression on his face.
“I am afraid that, as you can imagine, this changes things somewhat,” he said. “I am going to have to leave you for a while. Please make yourselves comfortable. Do not leave this room until I return. I will ensure that the guard on the doors is increased. Rose, may I speak to you privately for a moment?”
Dux took her arm and led her over to the doorway.
“What do your instincts tell you, Rose?” He asked. His tone was barely a whisper.
Rose’s voice, though equally quiet, did not waver.
“They tell me,” she said, her brows drawn together in a concerned frown, “that something is not right about all this. They tell me that she is not to be trusted, but for some reason that I cannot fathom, they also say that we have to trust her. I don’t know why, but I felt a strong connection with her the moment I saw her. I felt pulled to her. She is meant to be here with me; somehow I know that her place is here. I feel it, and the feeling is strong.”
Dux placed his hand on her shoulder, his eyes flickering with an expression of illumination as they looked deep into hers.
“It is the four Rose,” he said knowingly, “Although they are without voice, they still speak to you. Trust what they tell you, trust your instincts. I will investigate the validity of what Lady El-on-ah has told us, and then speak to the high council. I will return as quickly as I can.”
He gave her shoulder a brief squeeze and then he left.
Rose joined the others by the fire. Now, feeling hungry, they were all tucking into the pyramid of pastries and sweet cakes laid out on the small occasional table in front of the sofa.
“Have some pastries, Rose,” said Ash with his mouth full of food. “These purple cream ones really are bloody gorgeous. He looks after us, always puts on a good spread for us, Lord Dux, doesn’t he?”
Arjan laughed. “He does no such thing. Have you not realised yet. Our Lord Dux has one very sweet tooth. He always has a tray full of pastries in his quarters, they are his one weakness.”
“Lucky for us then,” said Ash, his mouth dripping with purple cream.
Lee was feeding Sloley with fruit cake that he had carefully prepared, cutting it up into small, perfectly uniform and equally sized portions. The little loris was curled up on his lap contentedly. Auriel, Rose, and Arjan settled down on some cushions next to the fire.
Ash went to join them, after grabbing the last of the purple creams but hesitated briefly as he noticed the precision with which Lee was arranging Sloley’s food.
Lee lined up the small squares of fruitcake in sets of three, taking great care to ensure that they were all the same size and the same distance apart. When he was satisfied, he picked one up and fed it to Sloley who was waiting patiently his tiny jaw agape.
“You know you’re weird right?” said Ash with an amused frown, “You’re really starting to worry me mate. The fate of the Afterlands in our hands...”
“I would think that you should know,” said Lee, raising his brows condescendingly, “that being precise is not a flaw, especially for an Alchemist.”
“You’ve got me there,” said Ash. “I can’t argue with that, after seeing what happened to Tammy’s singularis potion when she got it wrong, but do you really need to count the raisins in every square of food?”
“It ensures that Sloley’s diet is in perfect balance,” said Lee, who seemed confused by Ash’s apparent lack of understanding. “Precise, logical thinking can never be a bad thing, especially when considering our present situation.”
“Okay Lee,” said Auriel with an impish pout “How about you use your logic to predict what the High Council will suggest we do next?”
“Well, I don’t really think that there are many options really,” said Lee, considering the question carefully. “In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is only one. We have to leave the city, and we have to go alone.”
“Why alone,” said Auriel, “surely they will evacuate everyone?”
“Of course they will, that goes without saying,” said Lee with a sigh of irritation. “Really, all that knowledge cluttering up your brain and you still cannot use it to reason. They will want to keep Rose’s whereabouts secret, to ensure her safety. So logically, they will want to keep us away from the rest of the ascendants as they would obviously be the first to be targeted. It would also be prudent to keep clear of anyone else who could lead them to us. So....”
“We should go to the Ebony Forest, in Ferrum,” said Rose suddenly. “The resistance are in the forest, and Dux said that some Twocast peddlers were about to travel to there to deliver some essential supplies. No one would expect us to be with them.”
“Err, excuse me.” Said Ash, with his mouth full of pastry and spraying purple cream everywhere. “But isn’t the Ebony Forest full of things that we’ve been told to avoid like black bears, weaver snakes and rougarou? Not to mention the Elder Witch and the rest of the Twocasts, who hate us so much that they probably would like to kill us all.”
“You’re right Ash,” said Auriel “all of that is true, but I think Rose is right. They would not think to look for us there. Anyway, I would rather take my chances with them than with Lord Ka and the Djinn.”
All seemingly convinced that Rose’s idea made sense, they said no more about it. The rest of the evening they sat solemnly with their thoughts and watched the flames flicker in the hearth. Periodically they fed the fire with wood as the flames dwindled until the evening bell sounded.
Arjan sat by the fire, propped up on some cushions next to Rose, who seemed to be hypnotised by the dancing flames. Furtively he gazed at her delicate face, its captivating alabaster features lit and warmed by the firelight. The flickering amber glow picked out the highlights in her silver-white hair, making them appear golden. She looked like a Gold he thought, like him.
“I’m sure that everything will work out Rose,” he said, putting his hand over hers, a warm smile in his eyes. “You’ll be okay. Eldwyn prophesied that you would prevail and as far as I know, he hasn’t made an error yet.”
Rose made a weak attempt to return his smile.
“I want to believe as you do Arjan,” she said, without taking her eyes from the fire. “You say he has made no errors, but the last time Lord Eldwyn went against Ka he did not survive, and I have yet to see any sign of an incantatio. Without it I have little with which to challenge Lord Ka who, unlike Eldwyn, did, it would seem, manage to survive.”
“Eldwyn did not die, Rose,” said Arjan, gently taking her hand in his. “He survives within you. You are the embodiment of not only his spirit but the spirit of the four. Ka has never had to face such an ascendant before. This time you will prevail, this time, you will rid us of Ka for good.”
Rose looked down at their entwined hands and smiled.
“Thank you, Arjan,” she said huskily, “I needed that.”
The door swung open with a crack that jolted them from their reveries. Dux rushed inside.
“Ah good,” he said as their faces turned towards him expectantly. “You are still awake. Please remain where you are, it has been a long day.”
He sat down in a chair beside them.
“We have checked out El-on-ah’s story, as well as we could do under the circumstances,” he said, “and it appears that it is accurate.”
“How did you manage to find out so rapidly?” asked Lee curiously.
“We sent an apis to Lord Alder,” explained Dux. “He leads the resistance in the Elder Forest, and it appears that they have a young Blood refugee who corroborates what El-on-ah has told us. We, therefore, have to take her warning of an imminent attack seriously.”
He glanced down at the plates on the table with a look of anticipation and then disappointment as he saw that only two small orange creams remained.
“Hungry were you?” He said, lifting an eyebrow. “I had rather hoped that there might be...”
Dux rubbed at his eyes, suddenly seeming to tire.
“Anyway,” he said, taking a deep breath which was verging on a yawn. “The council and I have formulated a plan. Tomorrow at dawn you are all to travel to the Ebony Forest in Ferrum with the Twocast peddlers.”
Dux paused, expecting to be questioned about this decision, but instead his announcement was met with a roar of laughter. Arjan pushed Rose playfully on the arm.
“Way to go General!” He said, turning to a puzzled looking Lord Dux. ” Rose said that we should do the exact same thing. I guess it has to be the best plan if both Rose and the High Council came up with it.”
“Yes well, that’s, err... good,” said Dux, “very good, it certainly saves me a lot of time and effort trying to convince you. It’s interesting that you did that Rose, maybe next time we should have you join us.”
Taking an orange cream, he settled back into his chair. Popping the pastry into his mouth, he hesitated for a second, and then his eyes, full of trepidation, fell on Rose.
“Did you also decide?” he said cautiously, “ that it would be a good idea for El-on-ah and her servants to travel with you?”
Dux cringed at the looks of incredulity on Arjan and Ashes faces.
“I know,” he said uncomfortably. “This was not an easy decision to come to, but El-on-ah and her servants could have intelligence that would be invaluable to the resistance.”
“It makes sense,” said Rose. “I have a strong feeling that it is the right thing to do and so I agree that she should come, but I still do not trust her.”
Dux rewarded her with a brief look of respect. He nodded.
“Good,” he said, “I am pleased that you concur. I shall awaken El-on-ah and her servants at dawn to tell them that they are to accompany you.”
He looked suddenly grave.
“I wish you to understand,” he said gravely, “I do not intend for them to know about this tonight, and they must never be told of your destination. Please don’t believe that I am so naive that I have not considered that this may be a rather daring and ingenious trick on Ka’s part. So to be safe, I think that we must all assume that it is indeed a trick, and we must act accordingly. Say little, always be on our guard and ensure that Rose is kept safe.”
Auriel lifted her anguished face, blinking away tears from brimming eyes and with a trembling pout upon her lips
“Where will you and everyone else go?” She asked soberly.
“Oh, Lady Auriel,” said Dux softly. “Please do not trouble yourself about us, my dear, we will be fine. We have evacuation plans in place for the four most populated Aurum cities and all twelve battalions of Centurion Guards have been mobilised and remain on standby.”
Rubbing his eyes, he stifled a yawn and then glanced at the clock.
“It’s very late,” he said, “So I suggest that you all get some sleep, it has been a long day and you have an even longer one ahead of you tomorrow.”
Subdued and thoughtful they went quickly to their beds.
While in a room only yards away, El-on-ah and Che were leaning out of an open window and attempting to strap a message pouch around Puk’s neck, as he hovered in mid air.
“We have no option now Che,” said El-on-ah, as she slipped a roll of parchment into the pouch. “The attack has to be moved up. Lord Ka will need this reconnaissance of their evacuation plans and it is imperative that he is made aware that the Whyte ascendant remains a threat. One I intend to eliminate as soon as I have the opportunity.”
“Do you really think that your story was good enough?” said Che with a frown “How can they possibly trust us after everything that’s happened?”
“Oh, I am absolutely certain that they do not trust us Che, but I believe that I may have convinced them that they need us, which is why we remain safe, for now.”
She turned back to Puk.
“Now Puk,” she said, her voice hushed. “Take this directly to Lord Ka. It must not fall into anyone else’s hands, do you understand?”
Puk whistled and chirped. El-on-ah placed a finger to her mouth.
“Shush,” she said. Her voice tensing as she rapidly attempted to quieten him. “That’s good; now fly, my friend, swiftly.”
The three of them watched as the tiny dragon flew out into the dark night sky.