Ask has travelled to Georgia, as he decided at the end of the last update; he has found much to mystify and little of value; he begins, now, the arc that will make Norway hated in all the world.
April 24th, 1294
“M’lord, the Assassin is here to see you.”
Ask sighed. Georgia was full of cults, each one more crazy than the next, and the crazier they were, the more they were given to ranting. But where else was he to turn for information on the Angel? A year of skirmishing with Tikrit’s bureaucrats and nobles had gained him nothing but polite stonewalling, in spite of all official welcome. The Angel was deadly to the minds of men; they could not possibly subject an honoured guest to such danger. There were bandits in the hill country around the Angel’s monastery retreat; or plague in the marshes; or the autumn rains made it impossible to travel there. Winter storms – spring mud – any day now, no doubt, the excuse would be that the summer sun courted heat stroke for travellers, and it would be best to wait for autumn!
The monasteries were no better. Oh, there was no stonewalling; indeed, the monks were eager to press their knowledge on all and sundry; he had all three gorgeously illustrated volumes of the “Agsartaniad”, paid for out of his own pocket, enough paper to cover the walls of his townhouse with colour. But the documents were useless. Vast accumulations of commentary, guesswork, theology, and speculation around tiny scraps of actual words of the Angel; and even those were written in such a formal, stylised manner that it was clear the actual information had been strained through at least three layers of reporters and a religion with a strong impedance mismatch to what was being said. He was inclined to dismiss the whole thing as just one more nutty cult somehow managing to capture official attention and being stretched and chopped into the mold of orthodox Christianity, but… then there were the actual words of the Angel. If they were the ramblings of a prophet, then how the devil did they manage to include a very clear description of how to do a double-blind study? Oh, the Georgians had no idea what they’d got; the consensus of the religious commentaries was that the Angel was describing how free will arose from God’s choice, in that he was able to know all the choices a man would make in his life, but mercifully concealed the knowledge from himself, so that men’s choices would be free. But if you read it without the preconception that the Angel had to be talking in parables about religion, it was very clear. That was the most he’d gained from a year in Georgia: Merely an indication that there was something strange here, and he’d known that already.
Hence his turn to the fringier cults of religion-mad Georgia, to see if they knew anything; which had led to him enduring hour-long rants about his own sins from – literally – unwashed strils that would usually have led to the ranter being given a long bath in the Black Sea. But nothing of any use; just different views of how the Angel’s theology contradicted the true Christian faith. Which was accurate enough, the Angel clearly did contradict the Bible; but since Ask didn’t believe the Bible either as history or morality, he had absolutely no interest in the religious discussion. He wanted facts, and they were not forthcoming. So he looked at the guest his butler ushered in with very limited enthusiasm; if this one began spitting bits of half-chewed food like the last one, there was going to be one less cultist in Tikrit tonight and to hell with local law. The Georgians weren’t that eager to enforce it for non-state cultists, anyway.
This one looked more promising than most, though – no huge scraggly beard, no starved-out gaunt look, no holy rolling of the eyes or baring of the teeth. Better still, he came straight to the point, in a dialect not too far removed from the court Persian Ask had learned: “It has come to this one’s ear that m’lord seeks information on that abomination known as the ‘Angel’, and also that m’lord is a man of some weight in his home country. Do these reports carry truth, or should this one return to his home, and seek to punish those who have wasted m’lord’s time with falsehoods?”
“Both things are true.”
“That is well. It happens that our brotherhood is in the possession of much that the Angel, and its corrupt servants, do not wish widely known. But, although our respect for m’lord is without bound or measure, we fight a deadly war, and our foes harry us hard. We would make a bargain, if such is possible.”
“What would you have? Gold?”
“Nay, m’lord – although gold is welcome to the poor man, our struggle will not be won by any amount of gold a single man can carry. No, what we need is sanctuary. Open the doors of your country to us, give us a place to teach our children, where the arm of the Worm Kings cannot reach. Then in turn we shall open our books to you, and tell you all that we know.”
Ask considered. The man appeared to believe both that he had what Ask wanted, and that it was valuable enough to be worth a good payment. He might be a very good liar, or simply mistaken on the value of his information; still, he was a far cry from the usual ranters, who had nothing of value at all and wished for nothing more than to fill his head with it. A few drops of the purple might be indicated – but no, the man had mentioned books; if the knowledge wasn’t in his head, the purple would be useless, and make an instant enemy. Play for time, then.
“You offer a hard bargain. You ask for land and safety, and only when you have those things will you give me your books. What assurance do I have that your books are of such value? Or even that they exist?”
“If m’lord will not trust our given word, then our books are of no value to him whether they exist or not. Perhaps this one, therefore, had better go.” The Assassin made no move to leave, though.
“A point”, Ask admitted. “A further difficulty arises: Although I am, as you say, a man of weight in my own country, I am not the only such. I cannot on my own authority grant you safety there.”
“How far might the extent of m’lord’s authority stretch?”
“I can give you a place on my own lands; I have rich farms in England, where you might settle. I can speak your cause in our councils, and give you warning before time if it became necessary that you leave. Further than this I cannot go.”
The Assassin thought for a moment, then nodded. “Very well. This one believes that he can carry m’lord’s proposal in the minds of his brethren. Perhaps, if m’lord is agreeable, further discussion may be valuable, on the details of such a sanctuary.”
“And also on the details of when your books will be made available.”
“Just as m’lord says.”
“Good. I propose this: When I return this year or the next to Norway, let a part of your brotherhood go with me to see the farms I would give them. If they find them satisfactory, let them give me their books, and send word back to Tikrit by a trustworthy messenger that their families may follow.”
“What guarantee can you offer for these men’s lives? If they bring their books, why should you not slaughter them when out of sight of land, and steal their books?”
Ask shrugged, not seeing any need to mention that he had indeed been thinking along these lines, with the added refinement of some doses of the purple. “If the Assassins will not trust my given word, what good is a promise of land to them? Perhaps, therefore, this discussion might end.”
The Assassin was good; his face didn’t even twitch. “For m’lord’s information, this one may mention that the books of the Assassins are multiple, and that the party to go with him may perhaps carry only a few, that m’lord may satisfy himself as to the value of the rest.”
“Very well, that is acceptable.”
The Assassin stood, and bowed. “It is well. This one will, with m’lord’s leave, return now to his brethren with m’lord’s proposal.”
“One moment, before you go. If we are to work together, what name should I call you by?”
“While in the service of the Assassins, this unworthy one rejoices, like all his brothers, in the name Hassan.”
To be continued.