by Rey Nichols
This story won a Honorable Mention during Quarter 1 of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest in 2020.
Light entering the doorway blinded Panseg, causing him to bolt upright on the bed. How long had he been napping? Ashe’s silhouette stood in the doorway’s arch. Without looking, he knew her arms were crossed, and she was displeased. Panseg yawned while rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and looked up at his blond-haired colleague as she stepped inside his dormitory. Her white dress seemed to drag the hallway light in with her.
“Ugh, what is that smell?” Ashe wrinkled her nose as she entered the room and stood by the desk chair opposite Panseg’s bed.
“Evening, Ashe. Please come in, make yourself at home.” Panseg stretched his neck and stood up. He walked over and placed a shirtless arm around her shoulders. “That lovely aroma you’re inquiring about—” Panseg paused to sniff the air— “is probably me. Irresistible, right?”
“You’re so disgusting.” Ashe rolled her eyes and pushed Panseg away. “Put some clothes on. The professor needs to see us in thirty minutes. Please find some soap between now and then.”
Panseg grinned and watched Ashe exit the room, leaving him standing alone. He closed the door and sniffed the air again. Solis burn me…I do reek, he thought. He removed his pants and took a fresh change of clothes from the wardrobe, then entered the adjoining bathroom in the back of his chambers.
He turned the faucet on and got into the shower. The shower fascinated Panseg. Aphoden was one of the few nations in which several of the major cities had plumbing systems. It was a modern convenience that made him grateful he was a scholar and had the ability to take advantage of such a luxury.
I wonder what this is all about, he thought as he looked in the mirror after his shower. Panseg brushed the waves of his red hair back into something more appropriate for a meeting with the professor, then pulled his shirt straight and adjusted the belt clasp on his pants. He fastened his shirt cuffs and put on his vest, buttoning it in the front. Panseg left the bathroom and slid into a pair of comfortable black shoes before exiting his chambers.
The hallway outside was narrow and the lack of windows made the multitude of wooden doors that led to each individual student’s dormitory rooms seem endless. Several other students nodded and pressed flat against the wall as Panseg passed. As a senior-level student with his graduation test around the corner, he enjoyed a certain amount of prestige.
Panseg finally reached the end of the hallway, which emptied into the Academy’s entrance – a large circular atrium with giant wooden pillars that held a similarly circular wooden dome aloft. Ashe stood there, waiting with her back against one of the pillars, her arms crossed and her otherwise beautiful face stuck in a scowl.
“How nice of you to wait for me,” Panseg said.
“Pfft. Took you long enough. Let’s go, the professor said it was urgent.” Ashe walked next to Panseg as they headed down a wide hallway that led towards the professor’s study.
“Do you know what it’s about? This isn’t a normal lesson day.”
“No, I don’t. He just said to me in passing that he wanted to see both of us as soon as possible.”
“Hmm.” Panseg was curious. Instructions from the professor were usually profoundly direct when they were delivered.
The professor’s study was located behind a pair of giant arched doors at the end of the hallway. Ashe knocked once they arrived.
There was no response from the other side. Panseg stared at Ashe, and she shrugged her shoulders. He turned the knob, opening the door, and allowed Ashe to enter first.
Professor Dalig stood hunched over, examining a series of plants on the far side of the room. Panseg looked around the study with wonder. The room was devoid of bookcases or any traditional furniture. Instead, the hexagonal-shaped room with its floor to ceiling windows seemed more fitting for a greenhouse rather than a professor’s study. A multitude of potted succulents and small potted trees lined the walls, and a circular apothecary’s table in the center of the room had a series of glass vials with various liquids in different colors on it.
Ashe coughed, and the professor straightened his posture. “Ah, you’ve both arrived. I’m glad you came.” Dalig’s voice was gruff, revealing the years of the elderly man’s age.
“Professor,” Ashe said, “You asked to see us, sir?”
“Yes, yes.” Professor Dalig rubbed his graying beard and walked over to where Panseg and Ashe were standing. “I have a matter of utmost importance that needs my attention, and I will require the assistance of the two of you in my absence.”
Panseg and Ashe locked stares. What could be so important that he would ask for assistance from them, a pair of students, instead of a more accoladed colleague?
“What can we do for you, Professor?” Ashe asked.
“I need someone to watch my garden while I am away, as I’ve been summoned to an audience with the king. Seeing as the two of you are my top-level senior students, I am entrusting this task to you both.” Professor Dalig often referred to his study as his “garden.”
“Yes sir, it would be an honor,” Panseg said, bowing his head. Ashe also nodded.
“Excellent.” The professor’s apothecary robes dragged across the floor as he pushed past the pair. Panseg noticed the professor was carrying a leather travel bag on his arm. “Instructions for each of the plants in this room are on the table. If you have any questions that cannot be answered by those notes, well, you both know where the library is.”
“How long do you expect to be—” Panseg never got to finish his question. The professor had already spirited himself away.
Ashe raised an eyebrow. “Well, that was odd,” she said.
“Agreed.” Panseg poked his head into the hallway, but could not find any sign of Professor Dalig. Or any of the other instructors on this end of the Academy building. The halls were suspiciously quiet.
“I wonder what was so important that he received a royal summons and had to leave so quickly.” Ashe’s voice was barely above a whisper. Her fingers ran lightly across the foliage of the plants while she circled around the room. It was very rare for Professor Dalig to invite students into his study, much less for them to be its caretakers. The plants inside the room all had properties that were either medicinal or lethal. “What we are supposed to do now?”
“I don’t know,” Panseg replied.
“Pan? I know that look. Whatever it is you are thinking, don’t do it.” She crossed her arms as she glared at Panseg.
Panseg was already standing halfway out the door. “Ashe, I agree with you that something is off with how rushed the professor left. I want to know what’s really going on. Aren’t you at least the slightest bit curious as to what is happening?”
“I am curious, Pan. I just don’t want to cause trouble. I don’t think interfering is wise. The professor gave us instructions to oversee this garden for a reason.”
“It’s only interfering if I get caught.”
Ashe snorted and rolled her eyes.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. Just stay here and wait for me,” Panseg said.
Panseg heard the door to the Professor’s study close behind him as he headed down the hallway, turning at the next junction that would lead him to the royal palace.
It didn’t take long for Panseg to catch up to Professor Dalig. Panseg hid behind a column in the courtyard and waited a few moments to put more following distance between himself and the professor. Once the professor entered the palace’s side entrance, Panseg casually made his way across the courtyard.
The courtyard was a simple square-shaped area surrounding a giant olive tree. The massiveness of its twenty-foot-tall height always impressed him. The tree was a symbol of Aphoden’s history and legacy as a nation of peacemakers and negotiators. Rumors were that the tree had been gifted to Aphoden by Solis himself, if one were to believe such tales. The olive tree truly was majestic.
Panseg entered the side door of the palace. A pair of guards nodded to him as they passed. It was not unusual for members of the Academy to be seen walking the palace halls. Besides the guards, the hallway was unusually devoid of people.
It’s still early in the evening…where is everyone?
He watched the guards as they rounded a corner and headed in the other direction towards the throne room.
He was only a few steps down the hall when he noticed a palace maid run hurriedly past him. Panseg only saw her face for a moment, but that was all it took for him to catch her worried expression. The maid tripped, dropping the towels she was carrying.
“Are you alright?” Panseg asked as he helped gather the towels.
“Thank you. I’ll take those.” The maid snatched the towels out of Panseg’s hands.
“No need to be hasty, I could’ve just handed them to you,” Panseg said. The maid’s face wrinkled with disgust.
“Ugh, these are dirty and useless. I need to go.” She dropped the towels onto the hallway floor and picked up her skirts, running away.
How strange, Panseg thought. What is going on?
He left the towels where they were dropped and followed the maid. Panseg soon found himself in an antechamber belonging to a section of the palace he had never been before—the royal suites.
Of the several doors that surrounded the antechamber, there was one that caught his attention. It had been left slightly open, and candlelight from inside seeped out. Curious, Panseg strode over to investigate.
As he inched closer to the door, Panseg could see the professor standing inside, back to the door, hunched over a dresser that had been turned into a makeshift apothecary station. Other men wearing instructor’s robes passed by the door. Panseg quietly cleared his throat, and slipped inside, darting behind a set of table and chairs that were close to the room’s entrance.
It didn’t take long for Panseg to realize where he was. The instructors surrounded a man lying on a bed. It occurred to Panseg that the incredibly large room he found himself in was the king’s bedchamber.
“Quickly, Dalig. There’s not much time,” one of the instructors said.
“Patience, this is a matter of precision. If the mixture is even slightly off, it will only hasten the spread of the disease, instead of stalling it,” Dalig replied.
“We need to discuss the other matter of what will happen if he succumbs to the sickness. The king is unmarried, and without an heir named in the Book of Succession, it will be utter chaos,” expressed another one of the instructors.
“I am very well aware of the importance of the matter at hand,” Dalig sounded frustrated. It was unusual for Panseg to hear the professor speak so gravely. What was the sickness they were referring to? “Ah, there we go, it is complete.” Dalig stood, and held a vial with a blue liquid that Panseg did not recognize in his hands. Panseg remained crouched behind the table while he watched the professor hold the vial up to the king’s lips and titled the vial forward.
The king coughed but did not appear to awaken. Several of the instructors smiled, including Professor Dalig.
“What’s the plan now, Dalig? We can’t leave him unconscious forever. Eventually, he is going to have to die. We will have to figure out how to get around the succession rules and soon, if we want the Black Rose to regain authority in Aphoden.”
“Plan? All I did was buy us more time, Darius. You created a disease that worked a little too well. The best I can do is stall its effects.” Dalig paced back and forth, and Panseg could hear the swish of the professor’s robes as they dragged across the stone floor. “Our timeline just got moved up, I hope that puppet of a boy you are training as a replacement will be ready.”
Succession rules? Black Rose? Sickness? And what was that the professor said about a puppet?
Panseg furrowed his brow. He had heard of the Black Rose before, but never imagined that he would be trapped in a room full of the fanatics, or that the professor he admired so much would be one of them. He needed to get out of the room and soon. If the king died now, it would be chaos. Aphoden did not need a war instigated by a group of usurpers.
Thankfully, to Panseg’s relief, Dalig, Darius, and the rest of the instructors left the room of their own accord, leaving him alone with the sleeping king. Once he felt that they were out of earshot, Panseg stood, and walked over to the king’s bedside. His pulse quickened; he felt his heartbeat with the cadence of drums that were used to lead armies to war. He had never been this close to His Royal Highness, King Maug of Aphoden.
Maug’s hair was wet from fever sweat and stuck to the sides of his face. He was similar in age to Panseg, but the pale color the monarch’s skin made it difficult to discern any more defining features. Sore patches covered the king’s hands. Panseg immediately placed his hand over his mouth. He had seen these symptoms once before, in one of Aphoden’s outlying villages.
King Maug was afflicted with the plague.
A disturbing thought squirmed its way into Panseg’s mind. Was the plague that had once spread throughout the kingdom a test for assassinating the king? Whatever the Black Rose was scheming, Panseg knew they had to be stopped.
The door slammed shut behind Panseg when he returned to the professor’s study. Ashe was at the apothecary table in the center of the room, going over the professor’s notes.
“Was that really necessary, Pan? The door didn’t do anything to you.” Ashe looked up from the table. “What in the name of Solis happened?” She ran towards Panseg and helped him to sit on a nearby stool. He was breathing hard, gasping for air.
“Ashe, there is something you need to know. I followed the professor. King Maug is afflicted with the plague. Professor Dalig is part of the Black Rose.” Panseg coughed into his hand.
The back of her hand pressed against his forehead.
“Pan, are you not feeling well?” Ashe asked. “We just saw the king a few days ago, how could he be dying? And the professor, you’re accusing him of treason?”
Panseg removed Ashe’s hand from his forehead and turned to face her. “I saw it with my own eyes, the king is dying. Fever, the sores, the skin color – it’s just like when we were first-year students traveling with Professor Dalig and providing medical services to the border villages. The plague has come here, and has been given to the king.”
“The Black Rose. They infected him with it somehow. I overheard their conversation in hiding. Professor Darius administered it to the king. Dalig gave the king a blue potion of some sort to stall the effects, but I don’t think it will last for long.”
“Pan,” Ashe sounded worried, “this can’t be true. Perhaps you’re mistaken.”
“I know what I heard, and what I saw. They mean to assassinate the king, but they can’t let him die until his replacement is ready.”
“They intend to put someone else on the throne? How?”
“I don’t know. But we can’t let the king die. If that happens, a thousand-year lineage will be broken. He’s unmarried without an heir. Aphoden will descend into anarchy if a blood-heir is not produced, or if someone is not named in the Book of Succession.”
Ashe snorted, “Even fanatics can’t afford to let their plans fall into anarchy.”
Panseg’s breathing returned to normal, and he slowly rose from where he sat.
“So, what should we do?” Ashe asked.
“The professor’s notes, did you go through them while I was gone?”
“Yes, but there was nothing in direct reference to—” Ashe snapped her fingers with excitement.
Panseg followed her to the other side of the table and watched as she quickly sorted through the pages of Dalig’s notes. “Here, this one!” she exclaimed, holding one of the pages in front of Panseg. He took the page from her to examine it.
“Ashe, this is an entry about lilac flowers. No one has seen a tree like this in Aphoden for generations. The plant is practically a myth, and as you and I both know, Professor Dalig is not one to believe in fairy tales.”
Ashe sighed, “I thought so too, but if what you said about the professor is true, then perhaps we don’t know him as well as we thought. Think about it. Why would he keep a note about an extinct plant in this room if it didn’t have some educational merit? He might be a fanatic, but he is still a professor.”
She has a point, Panseg thought. Now what am I supposed to do?
“Hold on, I’m thinking.” Panseg closed his eyes and placed his hands on the table. “Okay I have a plan.”
“To save the king?”
“Possibly. I don’t know where any of what I’m about to do will lead, but I have to try something. Especially after what I witnessed earlier tonight. May I take this with me?” Panseg held up the paper with the entry about lilacs on it.
Ashe nodded and he tucked the paper inside of his vest
“I’m going to the library to see what I can find. Can you cover for me if I don’t return to the dorms before curfew?”
“Sure, but Pan, curfew is in two hours. Do you even know what to look for?”
“Not in the slightest, but if I don’t do something, then there definitely won’t be a solution.”
Ashe hugged him tightly around the neck. “Be careful, Pan.”
Panseg removed her arms and held them at her sides. “Don’t worry about me, I’m always careful.” He smiled, then left the study to head for the library.
So much for being able to work unnoticed, Panseg thought. The Academy’s library was much more populated than he had anticipated. Every table in the lobby had one or more senior level student sitting at them studying. It was something Panseg would have also found himself doing, had he not been summoned to the professor’s study.
He looked up at the giant wall clock that hung in the back of the lobby. Panseg only had ninety minutes until curfew. He took out the paper he had tucked away in his vest and headed for the section of the library that contained books on horticulture.
Luckily for Panseg, this section of the library was empty. He walked down the aisle, brushing his hands across the spines of the leather-bound volumes that sat on the shelves. The amount of dust that fell told him that he was the first visitor to this section in a long time.
What am I even looking for? Panseg wondered. He reached the end of the aisle when one of the books on the shelf had caught his eye. It was leather-bound, covered in dust like the others, however instead of the standard reds and browns found on most research tomes, this one was pink. Intrigued, Panseg removed the book from the shelf and returned to the center of the library, taking a seat at the only vacant table.
The book had no title on the cover or on the spine. Knowing that his time was short, Panseg placed the page with the lilac on the table, then opened the book and began to read. The writing on the first few pages was of eloquent penmanship.
I must ensure that the tragedy that befell us today never happens again. I’m taking the flower to our secret place, the one that only we knew about. This way, it can grow it in secret, without fear of retribution.
I’m including instructions. It is important that only those who can be trusted are able to understand the gravitas of the situation. The cure worked, the agreement was made, but he still died. I need someone to know this was not my fault, that no one could have known how weak his body was before the cure was administered.
There was a lot of power in the research I conducted. I fear in my hubris I revealed too much without considering the consequences that would follow. Those with ill intent were watching too closely. The flower must be preserved even it is a last-minute fail safe. I will keep this promise. The fires have already destroyed the rest.
Panseg immediately closed the book upon seeing Illodren’s name. First Traitor to Aphoden, she was called. Once considered a great scholar by some, she was executed for the crime of murdering the king during the early days of Aphoden’s foundation. He wondered why words of a heretic would be in the Academy’s collection. Something didn’t make sense.
Opening the book once more, he carefully examined not just Illodren’s words, but the way they were written. The obvious emotion in her words didn’t add up with what he had been taught, something about it nagged the back of his head.
Panseg turned to the next page.
“Solis burn me—” he whispered.
“Shh.” A student at a nearby table held one finger in front of their mouth, glaring at Panseg. Apparently, he hadn’t whispered.
His eyes returned to the page. Written in the same eloquent and precise handwriting was a chart of known diseases, their symptoms, and their cures. Every student at the Academy, whether apothecary or not, was taught this chart in their first year. Panseg himself could recite the words on the page on command if asked.
The only difference was the last entry of the chart—that one was new to Panseg. He looked up and saw that students were beginning to clear out of the library, there was only fifteen minutes until midnight. I’ll need to move quickly, Panseg thought, as he returned his gaze back to the book.
“Disease – Plague. Symptoms – fever, sores, loss of skin pigmentation. Cure – combined oils from the lilac flower and the olive fruit,” Panseg read aloud, but no one made a move to quiet him, as the library was about to close. He looked up at the clock, he still had five minutes left. Panseg turned to the next page, it contained a record of the formulas for the previously listed cures, including the one for the plague.
No way I can be this lucky, but this is all I have to work with.
Panseg felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Sir, the library is closing,” the librarian said. Her eyes squinted at him from behind oval-shaped spectacles.
“May I borrow this?” he asked, closing the book and folding the page from the professor’s notes back into his vest.
“Of course, I’ll send someone by the dorms in the morning to retrieve it.”
Panseg picked up the book and held it close. The bell on the clock began to chime. If he ran, he could make it back to his room before the twelfth ring.
Ashe broke Panseg’s fall when he tripped through the doorway to his room.
“Get off me!” she exclaimed, pushing Panseg off onto the floor. The pink book slid under Panseg’s bed.
“I had to get in before the clock finishing ringing—practically had to dive in to make it.” He took a moment to breathe before speaking again. “Sorry,” he said.
Panseg stared at the ceiling, gasping for breath. It was the second time tonight that he had to run quickly to get somewhere. “Speaking of which, why are you in my room?” He looked over at Ashe, who was sitting up, rubbing her shoulder. The strap of the bag she had with her had dug into her neck when she fell.
“Don’t worry about that. Did you find anything useful?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Panseg paused. “Well, I’m not sure.”
“What do you mean?”
Panseg reached under his bed and retrieved the pink book, then sat up, leaning against the bed. He handed the book to Ashe.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“If I’m right, which to be honest, I’m is hoping it’s not, this book is a journal of Illodren’s research.”
Ashe dropped the book on the ground as if she had been burned. “Solis ablaze! Panseg. The First Traitor?”
“Superstitious much?” Panseg teased. Ashe narrowed her eyes and punched Panseg in the arm. He picked the book up and opened it to the page with the cure formulas. “Look here, on this page.”
Ashe leaned in close to take a look at the chart. “This writing, it’s beautiful. Hard to imagine someone so vile, being able to compose something so refined. Was that all you were able to find?”
Panseg nodded, “It was all I had time for. It starts with a personal reference to what I believe is the Founding War, followed by the chart for known diseases and cures, then this page of formulas. What’s different about it is the last entry on the chart references the plague symptoms. We saw all those same symptoms years ago, and I just saw them again earlier tonight on the king.”
“Could it be connected?”
“Maybe? I don’t know.”
“What’s on the next page?”
“Let’s find out.” Panseg turned the page and paused. “Well that’s something,” he said.
“A drawing?” Ashe asked.
On the page was an intricate illustration of a wooden door set in a stone archway. Aphoden’s seal of the Olive Tree was etched into the top of the arch, on the left, the outline of a rose, and on the right, a lilac flower.
Ashe’s eyes opened wide and she snatched the book out of Panseg’s hands. “Pan, do you remember when we were kids, before we were first-year students?”
“Down by my father’s shop on the docks, there was that cave that led to the lagoon where we would go sometimes with all our friends.”
“You’re going to have to give me something more detailed to go on Ashe, I don’t see how reminiscing about summertime adventures will lead us to save the king’s life.”
Ashe tsked. “Just listen. In that summer before we joined the Academy, I had become angry with everyone about something—I don’t remember what exactly—and I stormed away from the camp.”
“I do remember that. It took us hours to find you.”
“Do you know why?”
Panseg shook his head.
Ashe continued, “There was a tunnel in the back of that cave. Maybe it was my stupid childhood curiosity, who knows, but I remember following it until there was no more light left. I couldn’t see in either direction, so I just picked one and crawled until I passed out from exhaustion.”
“That would explain why you were passed out when we found you.” Panseg vaguely remembered helping Ashe’s father carry her out of the cave.
“Exactly, but here’s the thing. As I was attempting to find my way back, I could have sworn I saw a door just like this one.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m fairly certain.”
Panseg was excited. He sat up straighter. “Can you take me there?”
“Now, Pan? It’s past curfew.” Ashe eyed the still-open door to Panseg’s room cautiously. She placed the book in her bag.
“Forget the curfew. I’ll risk a few demerits if it means the king’s life can be saved.” Panseg stood up and offered his hand to Ashe. He wanted to take advantage of the energy from his resolve while he still possessed it. “Are you ready?”
Ashe eyed Panseg cautiously, then took his hand.
Panseg and Ashe made it to the cave without incident. He held a small lantern forward with one hand. Ashe maintained an equally tight grip on his arm and her bag containing Illodren’s journal.
“I wouldn’t be scared Ashe, it’s just us down here.”
“Exactly. That’s what I’m afraid of, what if something happens? Who is going to find us? I was lucky the last time, because there were several of us here. No one knows we are here; no one will notice we are missing until morning at least. No one will know where to begin to look!”
“I wouldn’t worry about that right now. Let’s see about finding the tunnel and getting to that door.”
Ashe nodded and pointed towards the back of the cave. Panseg smiled weakly down at her, she was visibly shaken. He wished he could do something to dissuade her fears. It didn’t help much that their only source of light was the lantern, or that the radius of its light did not stretch very far. The pair moved towards the tunnel, keeping to the sides of the cave’s walls.
They could hear the sound of water splashing against rocks. The path they were on was narrow. One wrong step and they would both go crashing into the ocean cove below. Ashe gripped his arm tighter. Panseg made sure to move slowly, in order to keep her trembling from causing them to plummet. They reached the tunnel and Ashe’s grip loosened, slightly.
“I don’t remember the paths in the cave being that narrow,” Ashe said once they were in the entrance to the tunnel.
“We were children the last time we were here, everything then seemed much larger.”
Panseg entered the tunnel first, putting the sounds of the cave and the ocean water behind them.
The first thing that struck him as odd was the darkness. The lantern was still lit, but the tunnel seemed to consume all light that dared to enter. The light from lantern stopped at the glass containing the lantern’s flame. They could barely see each other’s faces in its dim glow. He handed the lantern to Ashe and felt his way along the wall to ensure that they kept moving.
“I want to go back now; I can’t see anything. This isn’t natural, this—” Ashe’s words were cut off by her own gasp. The tunnel had opened into cave that was smaller than the one at the entrance to the lagoon. It was filled with luminescent plants that illuminated the room with a phosphorus glow.
“It’s beautiful,” Ashe whispered.
Panseg shared Ashe’s assessment. As he examined the plants more closely, he realized the plants were not actually plants at all but were instead various types of coral that he had only read about in books. He had never been able to see such things up close until now.
“Look, over there, Pan!” Panseg turned to look in the direction Ashe was pointing, towards the back of the cave.
Her eyes were fixated on a large stone archway with a wooden door.
Panseg approached the door cautiously. It was too coincidental, but from what he could tell, the door matched the rendition of the drawing in Illodren’s journal. Hesitantly, he reached for the handle.
“Pan, wait! I remember now, this was one of the last things I remember before you and my father found me in the tunnel. I must have been too scared to remember this cave being here. I would be careful opening that door.”
“Ashe, there’s no time, the king is dying. I need to find out what Illodren is hiding behind this door.” He turned the handle and opened the door inward. Ashe closed her eyes.
Nothing happened. He turned to Ashe and smiled.
“See, everything is okay? Nothing is wrong here, Now let’s –”
Panseg never got to finish his sentence. The last thing he heard was Ashe screaming as a large vine wrapped around him and pulled him inside the archway before slamming the door closed.
The sweet fragrance of flowers assaulted Panseg’s nostrils, causing him to wake. His eyes squinted as they opened, they were momentarily blinded by sunlight? He didn’t know what to make of it; did he lose track of time? Panseg rubbed his temples. His brain felt foggy. He was surrounded by small trees in various shades of pink. Lilacs. So, they’re real? he thought. But why hide them here?
Panseg slowly stood up and glanced behind. He saw the back side of the door to the grove covered in thick vines. Did those things pull me through? He walked over to the door. There was no handle on this side of the door, and despite several attempts to push the vines, Panseg couldn’t get them to budge. I’m not getting out this way.
Panseg shuddered. The door and this place had to be magical.
Nature magic was uncommon in Aphoden, but not unheard of. Most of Aphoden’s citizens considered the practice to be an unholy art. What to do now? he thought. Panseg was trapped in a magical grove of trees, Ashe was on the other side of the door, and the king was dying.
A sweet scent carried by the wind grabbed his attention. He turned in the wind’s direction and saw a foot-worn dirt path that led down a hill. Panseg decided his best bet was to see where the path led.
He noticed that the trees were organized in sections by color. Following the path led him away from the section of pink trees near the door. The path soon became lined by white lilac trees on one side and deep purple ones on the other. Panseg followed the path, as it led him into a small clearing in the back of the grove. A solitary lilac tree with blue blossoms stood in the middle.
Panseg neared the tree but didn’t touch it. If this place was indeed magical, he didn’t want to set off another trap like the one that drug him in here without studying the tree first. Pacing around the blue lilac tree, he noted that it was no taller than any of the other trees in the grove. The trees here only stood a couple of heads above Panseg’s own height. The bark on the blue lilac tree appeared smooth
Why is this the only blue tree? Panseg thought.
He almost took another step, but his foot caught on something and Panseg tumbled forward, landing in small patch of grass at the tree’s base. Fearing he had somehow found himself in another trap, Panseg stood and looked around cautiously, raising his hands in a defensive manner. The wind continued to dance around Panseg in a playful fashion.
Panseg relaxed his arms and looked down and to see the cause of his fall. It was a pink book, very similar to the journal containing Illodren’s notes that he found in the library. He eyed the book cautiously for several moments, then knelt to pick it up. Opening the cover, he noticed that the pages were blank and that the first page had been torn out.
“What, the in the name of Solis?!” he shouted, dropping the book.
A warming sensation was felt from underneath his vest. The page from the professor’s study! He quickly took the page out from his vest. It burned to the touch and he dropped it on the ground. The wind picked up in speed around him. Panseg was surrounded by a tempest of wind and flower petals, making it incredibly difficult to see. He raised his arm to shield his eyes from the onslaught. If this is what magic is like, no wonder people consider it unholy, he thought.
The tempest stopped almost as soon as it had begun.
Panseg looked around at his surroundings. The grove was still perfectly intact, but the blue lilac tree had grown twice in size. The book was missing.
“I must thank you, for bringing that page back to me,” a woman’s voice said. Panseg jumped up and looked around. Where was the woman’s voice coming from?
“You’re welcome?” He couldn’t hide the nervousness in his reply.
“I will say, you look much different than the last time you were here.”
“Come again? I’ve never been here before.” Panseg wasn’t sure what the voice was talking about.
“Your hair is different, and you are shaped different. And you are much taller. Why have you come back?” The voice was coming from the direction of the blue lilac tree. It sounded almost child-like. Panseg was confused. I’m having a conversation with a blue lilac tree.
“You took the flower from me without permission.” The blue lilac tree sounded angry.
“You have me confused with someone else.”
A thought occurred to Panseg. Was the person the tree was referring to Ashe? Had she found her way inside this room on the day she went missing, and somehow forgot?
“You’re quiet, for one so young.”
“I’m thinking.” Panseg closed his eyes and concentrated. He recalled the color of the stabilizing potion that Professor Dalig had used on the king, and the formula he had read in Illodren’s journal. He was almost certain that the flower from this tree would be necessary to make the appropriate elixir.
“The person you are referring to earlier—I assure you that was most certainly not me, why did she take the flower?” Panseg asked.
“I cannot tell you.”
Think of another question, Panseg. “Why did you grow in size when the page was returned?”
“You saw it for yourself,” the tree replied. Panseg sighed. He was a student, a man of facts and rules. There was no science he could ascertain in the magic of the event he had witnessed. To be honest, he wasn’t exactly sure what he saw, or what he was currently experiencing.
“So am I to understand that if someone takes your flowers without permission, then it turns into what appears to be a torn page?” Panseg asked.
At this point, Panseg figured the best thing to do was ask direct questions. “If I were needing of one of your blossoms, what would I have to do to get it?” A moment passed before the tree responded.
“Tell me why you are here,” the blue lilac tree said.
The only option for Panseg was to tell the truth. “My king is dying. I came here in search of what I was hoping would be an herb or a flower to cure his sickness. If I don’t, then Aphoden may very well descend into chaos.”
“And what led you to this place? Illodren promised me I would be protected. That I wouldn’t be used anymore for war.”
Illodren? Panseg reflected back to the entry written at the beginning of Illodren’s journal. Is it possible that there was more to her story than history has let on? Illodren was a scholar. That passage was in that journal for a reason Panseg, use it, he thought.
“She kept her promise to you,” he responded, “it said so in her journal. But it has been generations since her time, and now our current king is dying of a similar affliction. Our land has not seen war in many generations, but if he dies, it could. All I can do is promise that if you help me, I will ensure that her promise to keep you safe continues.” Panseg’s primary thought was that if the tree’s blossoms could cure the king, then he would say anything.
“How will I know that you will not use the power of my blossoms for ill will?”
“To be honest, you don’t. You’re just going to have to trust I am speaking the truth.” Panseg was becoming impatient. “You’re a magical tree, can’t you just see into my soul and tell for yourself if my heart is pure?” He had no idea how magic worked, but if things like that happened in children’s stories, he had to give it a shot.
“You would give me permission willingly to look into your soul?” the tree’s voice was calmer, as it considered Panseg’s suggestion.
“Yes, anything to save the life of my king.”
The wind picked up again, though not as intensely as before, but its gust still knocked Panseg to the ground. The sweet scent from the lilac trees, along with the blue petals that swirled about his face overpowered him, and despite his best efforts, everything went dark.
When Panseg opened his eyes again, Ashe was kneeling over him shaking his shoulders. A look of concern on was on her face. He was disoriented and needed her help to sit up.
“Pan!” she shouted, hugging him tightly.
“Sorry. I thought you were lost until the door opened and a strong wind just pushed you out. Are you okay?” Ashe helped Panseg to rise on his still unsteady feet.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” That wasn’t entirely true, he was in pain, having just been tossed into a wall, and Solis knows what else.
“What happened in there?” she asked.
“I—” he began, “I don’t remember.” What had happened in there? Why couldn’t he remember any of it? Panseg tried to take a step, but slid down the wall.
“Careful Pan, you’re hurt.”
“I’m aware,” he grunted painfully as he sat.
“What’s that?” Ashe pointed.
“In your hand.” His right hand was closed in a fist. Ashe carefully lifted it and uncurled his fingers. What she saw amazed them both.
Memories of his conversation with the magical tree came back to him. In his hand was a blue lilac flower blossom. Ashe carefully removed the flower and placed it in her bag.
“This isn’t good,” Ashe whispered in Panseg’s ear, as they approached the center atrium of the Academy. Panseg held a finger up to his lips as he and Ashe hid behind one of the pillars. A pair of guards headed out of the dormitory hallway and walked towards to Professor Dalig’s study.
Once he was certain the guards were out of earshot, Panseg turned to look at Ashe.
“This is going to be problematic.” Panseg’s voice remained hushed.
Ashe raised an eyebrow. The expression on her face answered his question perfectly.
Panseg struggled to think of a solution. “Do you still have Illodren’s journal?” he asked Ashe. She nodded and took the journal out of her bag, handing it to him. He opened the journal and flipped it to the page of chart cures.
“Now is not the time for reading Pan!”
“Shh, I’m looking for something.” Panseg turned the page and looked over the list of formulas listed. It didn’t take him long to find the one he was looking for. “Three parts lilac with oil squeezed from olive, boil in water until evenly mixed, wait for the color change, then administer to patient.” Once he had memorized the equation, Panseg closed the book and handed it back to Ashe. She started to put it bag in the bag, but he grabbed her wrist, stopping her.
“Give me your bag!”
“I don’t understand.”
“Just do it, quickly.” The sound of the guard’s footsteps were increasing. Soon they would be in the atrium. Ashe removed the bag from her shoulder and handed it to Panseg. He opened it, making sure that the blue lilac from the grove was still there. He then took the journal from Ashe and tore out the pages with the formulas and the drawing of the archway.
“Pan, what are you doing?” Ashe asked. Panseg placed the book in the bag and handed the pages to her.
“Ashe, listen to me. This information is important. If anything happens, or if I fail and Black Rose succeeds in replacing King Maug, then we need to ensure that this information stays hidden. I think that there is more to Illodren’s story than history teaches us, and the Black Rose would only use these formulas for nefarious purposes.” Panseg’s voice adopted a newfound seriousness. Ashe slowly nodded, indicating that she understood, then folded the pages and tucked them into her sleeve.
“Now all I have to do is get to the courtyard, steal some olives, and get to the king’s bedchamber without anyone noticing,” he whispered grimly.
“I can help.”
“Don’t worry, just go when it’s safe. Save the king.” Ashe smiled, then stepped out into the center of the atrium as the guards approached.
“Young lady, you are aware that you are way out past curfew?” one of the guards asked.
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.” There was a slight drawl to her voice. Was she pretending to be drunk? Panseg wondered.
“Students and their penchant for late night partying.” The guard motioned to his companion. “You! Take her to her room, we will inform the Headmaster later of her truancy.”
“Yes, sir, the other guard said.
Panseg watched as the shorter of the two guards grabbed Ashe by her arm and led her down the hallway to the dorms. Ashe’s room was at the far end of the hallway. It would be a while before he returned. Good job, Ashe, that only leaves one left, Panseg thought.
He waited until the remaining guard turned his back, then made a mad dash for the hallway leading to the Professor’s study. Not the way he wanted to go, but it was the shortest way to the courtyard with the olive tree, and more importantly, the palace.
“Get back here!” the remaining guard shouted. Panseg could hear the guard running after him, but as he rounded the corner and got closer to the courtyard, the footsteps quieted. He had outrun the taller man.
Entering the courtyard, Panseg didn’t have time to appreciate the majestic beauty of the olive tree. More important matters were at hand. He climbed onto a bench sitting at the tree’s base and stood up, reaching high with his arms. After a few minutes of effort, he was able to pluck a handful of olives from one of the lower hanging branches, then placed the fruit in the bag.
Panseg entered the palace, noticed there were no guards and ran for the king’s bedroom. He didn’t care who saw him.
Professor Dalig was waiting in the King Maug’s bedchamber when Panseg arrived.
“You certainly caused a ruckus,” the professor’s voice was calm, almost monotone.
“You’re a traitor!” Panseg spat. He gripped the bag tightly, taking a step back towards the door.
“Am I? Why would you say that?”
The look on Dalig’s face perplexed Panseg. It appeared unnaturally calm for someone associated with a group of fanatics. He stood, frozen in place. Looking at the king’s bed, Panseg noticed that it was empty.
“What did you do, Professor?!”
“Me? I did nothing. Now, why don’t you tell me why you think I’m a traitor.”
“I overheard you, with the other instructors, you are all part of the Black Rose.”
Dalig let out a laugh. “You believe that is what this is about? I can certainly assure you that I do not have a penchant for treason.”
Panseg shook his head. The professor had to be lying. He knew what he saw and heard. Panseg bolted for the door, but Dalig managed to get there before he could escape, and slammed the door closed.
“Panseg, I think you and I need to have a conversation.”
“I have nothing to say to you!”
Dalig sighed, then reached for the bag. Panseg struggled with the professor, but somehow the older man deftly pinned him to the ground and took the bag.
Panseg coughed as Dalig stood up. The professor looked inside at the bag’s contents. The smile on his face unnerved Panseg.
He wheezed as he propped himself upright, sitting back on his knees. “Whatever you’re planning to do with those, it won’t work. You already have your puppet, you don’t need that,” Panseg didn’t have the energy to stand.
Dalig took out Illodren’s journal then tossed the bag with the rest of the contents aside. He opened it and stopped at the part where the pages had been torn out. Panseg’s confusion increased when the professor closed the book. Did his smile just get bigger?
“I must say that I’m impressed. What takes most people days in finishing this test, you managed to accomplish in a matter of hours. Although the page tearing was a bit unnecessary. I’ll have to get a forger to repair this book.” Dalig paused before continuing, “It almost reminds me of when I was younger.”
Test? What the hell is he talking about?
A knock on the door broke Panseg from his confused stupor.
“Enter,” Professor Dalig said.
The stupor returned when Panseg saw who walked in the door, it was King Maug, healthy as a person in their prime, followed by…Ashe? She was no longer wearing the white dress from earlier. Instead she had changed into a set of darker robes that were often favored by instructors Academy instructors and royal apothecaries.
Ashe walked over to Panseg and once again helped him to stand.
“What’s going on?” Panseg asked.
Dalig opened his mouth to speak, but the king raised his hand. “I’ll answer to this, Professor. Panseg, you should know by now that I choose the apothecaries of this court very meticulously. I couldn’t very well allow you to graduate into the profession without first testing your loyalty.”
Panseg regarded the king cautiously. “None of this makes any sense.”
“It didn’t make any sense to me at first, Pan, when I was tested,” Ashe said. “The path was different, but the outcome was still the same.”
“What are you talking about?” Panseg eyed her cautiously.
Ashe walked over and picked up the bag. She reached inside and took out the blue lilac blossom, which was partially crushed and handed it to King Maug.
“This is the blue lilac from Illodren’s Tree,” the king said. “Part of what makes it so dangerous is that it contains both healing and destructive properties in its petals. The tree, as I am sure you are aware, is sentient.”
So I wasn’t crazy. I really was talking to a tree, Panseg thought.
The king continued, “Illodren’s Tree has the ability to see into the soul of a person. It’s quite simple really. If the tree finds a person to have true, non-malicious intentions, they are rewarded with one of the tree’s blossoms.”
“Are you all trying to tell me that this was a test of my loyalty?” Panseg asked.
Professor Dalig, Ashe, and the king nodded.
“It’s a requirement for any apothecary to demonstrate their loyalty to the king before they are admitted graduation from the Academy,” Dalig said.
Panseg shifted his gaze from the professor back to the king. “Your Highness, pardon me, but earlier, I saw you. You were incredibly sick. And the conversation—all that about Black Rose and the puppet?”
Maug laughed, “It was a ruse. One cleverly designed by your friend here to lead you to the grove.” The king’s hand motioned towards Ashe.
“You knew it was a ruse this whole time?”
“Of course, I did, Pan. We had to make sure that the test provided enough conflict to judge the choices you made. I wasn’t completely positive myself until you handed me the pages from the journal. Once the guards told me you had run for the courtyard. I changed attire and notified the king of what I had observed.”
Panseg was having a hard time believing what he was hearing. It all made sense, of course, but it was a bit much for him to swallow.
Ashe continued, “I understand what you are going through Pan, you should have seen the scenario they planned for me when I went to get my lilac blossom.”
“Your Highness, I think it’s about time we wrap this up then,” Dalig said.
“I couldn’t agree more. Panseg, I would like to invite you into my services as an apothecary of Aphoden. You have proven your loyalty to me, something that is not entirely easy for one to do. I need to ensure that those in service to my court will not use their gifts for ill intent. Do you accept this offer?” the king asked.
Panseg remained silent for a moment, then begrudgingly nodded his acceptance.
The king snapped his fingers and a maid walked in, the same one Panseg had run into earlier that evening, carrying a set of dark apothecary robes. Ashe helped the maid dress Panseg in them.
Professor Dalig walked over to Panseg and straightened the collar on the robe. “Congratulations, Panseg,” The professor spoke with pride. “Consider yourself on this day graduated from the Academy, and now officially employed into the services of the king.”
Ashe smiled. Panseg was still trying to process the whirlwind of an evening, but as he looked in the mirror, he saw himself for what he had become as a result of the night’s events.
Panseg grinned; he was officially now an apothecary.
© 2020 Rey Nichols