Plagued

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The Lone Palace

Noddie took another step back from the boy, but he stepped up to bridge the gap and grasp her hands in his.

“You are a friend of Mesha! My sore, I’m glad to meet you!”

The thin man behind him gave a heavy, suggestive cough, and the boy’s smile faltered.

“Ah, I mean.”—His face became serious and he gave Noddie a short bow— “It is a great pleasure to make your acquaintance, miss. I am Lorance Finn Eliot Auventon, son of the late Maurus Saxton Clovis Auventon the Great, honor to his memory.”

“Your Highness!” The man behind him looked outraged.

“Oh, pardon, and this is Vince Ferdinand Boyce, my good friend and—”

“Do you recall at all the three-hour-long discussion we had about NOT disclosing your identity?” Vince asked through gritted teeth as he marched up to them.

Lorance’s expression was sullen, but he held his head high. “Yes, I remember, but I am not ashamed of my name nor my father, and I will not act as such. Besides, I suspect they already know; she’s acquainted with Mesha, after all.”

“Knowing Mesha, I doubt it. You brother has a little more common sense.”

Lorance turned back to Noddie. “May I be so bold as to inquire of your name?”

By this time Jethrow and Sarah had joined them, staring blankly at the strangers. Noddie glanced at them uncertainly, but they offered no guidance. She introduced herself and the others with a shaky voice.

Lorance planted a kiss on Sarah’s hand, causing her freckled face to burn scarlet, and gave another bow to Jethrow in greeting. “It is a pleasure to meet you, young miss. And you, sir. I like your hat.”

One of the archers, a man with a thin face and big ears, who had been circling the area with the others, appeared at Lorance’s side.

“Pardon me, your Highness, but we should be getting back to the Lone Palace. It is not safe to linger here.”

“That would be wise.” Vince stepped forward and addressed Noddie and her friends, “You may accompany us to the Lone Palace. There is much to discuss. Follow closely please.”

They started a procession, Vince in front with Lorance, with the others following, surrounded by archers.

“Who are these people?” Sarah whispered to Jethrow.

Jethrow frowned at Lorance’s back, “Maurus Auventon was the late king of Irestead.”

“So if this Lorance boy is his son does that mean . . .?”

Jethrow nodded gravely. “We seem to be in the presences of royalty. The prince and heir of Irestead.”

Sarah looked flabbergasted as her gaze drifted from Lorance, back to Jethrow.

“But, he looks like Mesha!”

Noddie tugged at her hood as she studied the boy in front of her. His personality was a complete opposite from Mesha, but there could be no doubt the two boys were identical twins. The tale at the tavern was becoming more real by the minute, but both of the young princes were alive, meaning something in the story was wrong.

After a swift, icy ride in a sleigh across the barren wasteland, they arrived at a lone, fortified structure. The building was of a pentagon shape, the fifth corner at the front rising higher than the rest, and a calming midnight black. A lookout tower connected to an impressive wall surrounded the edifice.

They rode through the gates and came to a stop in front of the bolted front doors.

“Welcome to the Lone Palace,” Lorance announced as he gave Noddie his hand to help her down from the sleigh.

“Inside please,” Vince commanded. “It is cold out here.”

The doors opened to a wide hallway covered by a purple carpet. The high ceiling boasted drapes and banners of black, purple and red. Portraits hung on the walls and every hearth was ablaze. The warmth swept over Noddy in a gentle wave and she lowered her hood gratefully.

Lorance’s eyes were shining. “I will see to it that you are comfortable here. Then we can have breakfast together in the dining hall!”

Might we have . . .?” Vince interjected.

“Oh, right. I mean, might we have breakfast together in the dining hall tomorrow morning?”

Jethrow dipped his head. “That would be pleasant. Thank you.”

Vince presented each of them with a room for the remainder of their stay. Each contained a four-poster bed and several padded couches and chairs. Long drapes covered the walls and an enormous, finely-woven rug covered the floor. There were no windows, and a raised, circular fireplace was built into the center of the room.

Noddie’s room was a soft maroon color. Speechless, she turned in a circle to see it all. Not even her room at the Lazren estate had been this big!

“I hope it is to your liking,” Lorance told each of them. “I had extra clothes placed in the wardrobe for you as well. Take time to freshen up and settle. I look forward to seeing you at breakfast. You’ll find the dining hall to the left in the next corridor. A good evening to you all.”

The next morning Noddie spent several minutes staring into the wardrobe full of luxurious dresses. These were not the fancy, frilly dresses she had worn in Hesterway or the plain cotton dresses she had grown up with, The clothes themselves held no padding and little decoration, but were sewn in layers with detailed embroidery. Complete with mufflers, shawls, and fur-lined capes. Noddie settled on a simple, dark blue dress with light blue accents and a white cape.

Sarah wore a much longer dress covered by a short vest displaying an amber broach. She kept smoothing it down and attempting to pull back her wild curls.

Jethrow looked his usual untidy self with his bristled chin and messy hair, but he was pulling at the collar of a clean shirt and vest that went well with the pressed pants and shined boots. He stopped them as they reached the doors to the dining hall.

“Listen closely. We are in the presence of a prince. In Irestead there are severe penalties for not showing respect to royalty, especially in their own domain. You will be on your best behavior. When you first enter bow low and stay down until you are given permission to rise, understood?”

The girls nodded.

The dining room was as elegant as the rest of the palace with a long stone fireplace and several golden chandeliers. In the center there was a long table, spread with platters of eggs, sausages, bacon, fruit bowls, breads of all kinds, and a whole ham at its center. Noddie’s mouth watered from the smell alone.

Lorance was sitting at the head of the table next to Vince. An archer knelt before them giving a report. Noddie noticed it was the same man who had spoken to him out on the ice.

“The lookout post tower for the pass has been demolished. Chief Borden received minor injuries and is now recovering. Concerning the border patrol, there are five dead and ten injured. They are being treated as we speak. Doctor Mezen says they should pull through.”

“And the robbers?”

“There was a large fatality. Our men and women fought well, but to no avail. The robbers have taken the pass.”

Lorance’s shoulders slumped and he ran his palm along his temple. “We were too late. It is unfortunate, but nothing we could have prevented. I thank you for courage and honor your skills and sacrifices. I will meet with the border patrol shortly. You are dismissed, Preston.”

As Preston took his leave, Lorance noticed them standing near the door and gave a joyful, “A Good Morning to you! Welcome!”

They approached Lorance and Jethrow fell to one knee as Noddie and Sarah gave low, awkward curtsies.

“Oh, no need for that,” Lorance said waving a dismissive hand. “You may refrain from such courtesies. You are my esteemed guests. Please have a seat.”

Noddie was unsure of where to sit. There were a great deal of options at this table. She settled herself a few places from Lorance, close enough to not appear distant, but far enough to respect his space. Jethrow and Sarah did the same and they began their meal.

Sarah ate with gusto. “It’s so nice to eat a hot, cooked meal again!” She said around a mouth full of eggs. “And not just that gruel stuff they fed us at the tower.”

Vince folded his napkin and looked over at Jethrow. “I must admit I am interested. What brings people like yourselves to Irestead, particularly during this unfortunate time?”

Jethrow briefly explained their presence in Irestead and their trouble with the robbers. When he had finished, Vince made an angry noise and glared at his plate. “Those Mordekah robbers, they’re like a pack of rabid dogs running loose through the streets of every city.”

“We have been trying to draw them out and capture them for months,” Lorance explained. “We have scouts all over the area, and will send a team to look for both your father and Mr. Lazren. With any luck we may be able to recapture the pass as well.”

“Thank you.” Jethrow nodded in respect.

The door to the dining room opened and a female archer knelt before Lorance.

“Sir, forgive the interruption, but Tanta and Javon have sent word. They have located Mesha. He was found wandering no-man’s land. They have taken him to scouting base Nie and will be escorting him to the Lone Palace as soon as it is safe.”

“Finally!” Lorance threw his hands in the air. After receiving an evil eye from Vince, however, he fell back into a more regal demeanor, clearing his throat. “It is glad news. Thank you.”

The archer bowed again before making her exit.

“You mistook me for Mesha when we first met,” Lorance addressed Noddie. “You must have seen him recently.”

“You just missed him at the tower. We traveled together through the pass.”

“Good,” said Lorance. “Then you can tell that idiot I have been looking for him since last spring. Or, better yet, I think I will tell him. I have a few issues to discuss with my brother.”

“Borden wanted to arrest Mesha,” Sarah said. “He said he had orders from the steward of Irestead to do so.”

“Arrest him? Whatever for?” Lorance asked startled.

“He said ‘the practice of evil sorcery and murder.’”

Lorance and Vince exchanged dark looks. Then Vince said, “Word of the witch’s curse must have leaked out. And I’ll bet my left boot Hemlin is behind it all.”

“Perhaps they believe you have been killed by Mesha.” Noddie reasoned.

“What?”

Shifting in her seat, Noddie recounted as best as she could the story she heard of the twin princes in the tavern. When she finished Lorance shook his head in despair. “That’s not how it happened at all. The first half about the witch is surprisingly accurate, but Mesha and I are close.”

“I know Mesha was cursed by Isca.”

Lorance heaved a heavy sigh. “We were young when we first discovered the curse. Vince overheard us talking about the odd occurrences that had been brought about by the curse. He called for our Uncle Fawnton at once. The two of them shut us up in a room and told us about our father and the witch’s curse. Then Uncle Fawn had us swear to secrecy. No one could ever know about the curse, or which one of us carried it. That night Mesha and I took another oath to always protect each other from the effects of the curse and those who would try to find the truth. It was a hard pledge to keep.

“As time passed the Scorenza took root in our country. The fast-spreading epidemic took the lives of millions and our once great kingdom began to collapse. Our father, the Great King Maurus, honor to his memory, shut himself away in the east vaults where our ancient history and official papers are stored. The servants worried so. It was so cold and dank down there, which did nothing for his health. After the death of my mother, the Great Queen Isabel, his health declined faster than ever, although, whether out of sorrow, his concern for the kingdom, or the absence of the witch’s sorcery we do not know. Perhaps it was a portion of all these things. When he became bedridden, he refused to see anyone except for the medic and Uncle Fawn, to whom he delegated his duties. No one knew what he was researching. We figured it was a cure for his illness, but no one can say for sure. Whether our uncle ever discovered what the King was searching for is unknown.

“Fawnton did everything in his power to protect the kingdom of Irestead, but one of father’s administrators, Lewis Hemlin, somehow discovered the truth about the witch’s curse among other things. Through threats and blackmail he bullied Fawnton into giving him full reign of Irestead. My uncle may have been the king’s ambassador, but Hemlin pulled all the strings.

“Meanwhile, Mesha had become more and more restless. He would pace rooms for hours and wake up gasping at night with the most horrific nightmares. He ate little and when I asked him what was wrong he would mutter, ‘I have to get out. I have to get out.’ I begged him to explain more, but he would only say, ‘The curse.’

“Fearing for Mesha’s safety where Hemlin was concerned, uncle Fawn agreed that Mesha needed to leave Bolzenar. So one night, uncle Fawnton and I helped Mesha sneak out of the castle by a secret route. He did not tell us where he was going or why and we did not press him. We urged him to take guards or servants with him, but he fiercely denied them all. Said he couldn’t draw attention and didn’t want anyone to know he was gone. Promising he would return when he found the answers he sought, he slipped out into the night and that was the last I saw of him.

“The next morning there was an uproar when he was discovered missing. We acted as though his disappearance came as a surprise to us. I think Hemlin was suspicious of me. He took me aside in one of his private rooms and interrogated me, but I stood my ground. Afterward, things grew worse. Members of the court turned against each other and suspicions were raised due to Hemlin’s influence. With the plague destroying Irestead from the inside and the Mordekah robbers a growing threat from without, we became vulnerable and divided. Against our better judgment, Hemlin ordered the doors to the black gate shut. Our people were suffering and little could be done.

“Then about a year ago Fawnton appeared in my bedroom late at night and whispered that I should get out while I had the chance. He looked so frightened I wondered if Hemlin had done something. I asked how I could leave when the gate was shut. He told me of an unknown train station in the mountain behind Gondorren Palace, where Hemlin had a train delivering supplies into Bolzenar. He told us about an old fortress few remember, used solely by the secret scouts who were loyal to my father. Myself, Vince and over a dozen trustworthy men and women hid ourselves on the train and it carried us straight out of Bolzenar. It was a small miracle that we managed to slip out undetected. We’ve been here ever since.”

Lorance finished his story and his words faded into silence.

Jethrow commented, “That is quite the tale. It would appear Irestead has more dark secrets then was first assumed. What do you plan to do about Mesha?”

“Well, he certainly will not be given over to Hemlin. We have been trying to find him and I am hoping he has gleaned enough information over the past years to help us orchestrate a plan.

“And you trust us with this information?”

Lorance looked at each of them in turn. “Mesha does not make friends easily. If you are his friends then that says a great deal to me about your character. You can be trusted.”

Noddie pressed her lips as she stared at the tabletop. She couldn’t tell Lorance that she and Mesha were no longer friends. All that time and Mesha never told her anything. Why? Were all their discussions on the rock wall a game to him? Did he even care what happened to her?

Dreading the answer Noddy asked, “What was the curse? What did it do?”

Lorance shook his head. “It is not my place to tell you. That right belongs to Mesha. I swore silence on the subject.”

Vince stood. “I think that is enough talk for now. You should give our guests time to rest, my prince.”

Lorance rose as well and gave each of them a slight bow. “I thank you for joining me. Our conversation was enlightening. Please enjoy your stay and we will meet again later. In the meantime, I ask that you not repeat what has been spoken in this chamber and I will make arrangements to find the men you are searching for.”

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