The Woes of Irestead
The parlor was painted a soft creamy yellow and lit with a crystal chandelier. In front of a long sofa, a delicate table stood bearing a tea tray and light desserts. In the center of it all stood Martis Lazren, in his shined shoes and pressed suit, waiting with his hands clasped behind his back.
Noddie had only ever seen Martis Lazren surprised once, on the day she showed up on his doorstep, but even then he had not been shocked speechless as he was now.
“Noddie May Grace?
“Yes, it’s me, Uncle Lazren!”
Lazren caught her by the shoulders and looked her up and down. “How? How is this possible?”
“Sir, there is something important I must tell you.”
Martha spoke from the doorway, “I will give you and your niece time to speak, Sir. The steward will meet with you shortly hereafter.” She made her exit, closing the ornate doors behind her.
Left alone, Lazren frowned down at Noddie the same way he did whenever he scolded her for climbing trees. She used to hang her head under this look, but now she found the familiar expression comforting. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to find you, to warn you.”
Lazren guided her to sit next to him upon the sofa, giving her his rapt attention.
She told him of how she boarded the Tempest, and what she overheard there. As she relayed the robber’s intentions, Noddie felt as though she were finally unloading a heavy pack she had been carrying for over a month.
“The Mordekah robbers have been dissolved and most of them are dead or captured, but Mordekah remains free, and still plans to kill you. He might even be in Bolzenar now,” She finished at last.
Lazren straightened his shoulders. “This is intriguing news, but Mordekah does not worry me. All the same, I will be on the lookout for him.”
“Uncle, what did you do to anger them so?”
“They murdered an associate of mine, Mr. Medock, who was helping me ship supplies to Irestead. After his death I discovered plans for an attack on his ships in Triwater and set up an ambush to thwart them. We killed and captured many. Mordekah has had a vendetta against me ever since.”
He sat forward again. “However, I am much more concerned in knowing how you survived the plague at the estate, and how you managed to travel here untouched by plague.”
Noddie fingered the thread design on the sofa. “The estate was a coincidence,” she answered, avoiding his eyes. “I was in that hall closet, kept separate from everyone else in the ballroom. I was far enough away. I was lucky.”
Lazren’s brows formed a puzzled frown as he looked deep into her large brown eyes. His own eyes carried a fierce intensity and contemplation she had never seen before. It was as though he were searching for something deep inside of her.
“It is a curious thing,” he spoke in barely more than a whisper, but Noddie hung on his every word. “A three-story mansion filled with the most prestige in Grendar. Over eighty people and the only one who lived, was you.”
Feeling much like a specimen under a microscope, Noddie squirmed under his intense gaze.
“And afterword? You can’t tell me luck saved you while traveling over half of Irestead?”
“No.” she confessed. “I met a witch, Isca, who gave me a bottle used to ward off the plague.”
Lazren stiffened. “Show me.”
Noddie opened her pouch and presented the bottle to her uncle. Lazren reverently took it between his fingers. His whole body relaxed and his face split into a wide smile. “Oh, Noddie May Grace, you clever girl! I’ve been searching for something like this. Now we can put an end to this whole blasted business.”
There was a triumphant glint in his eye. “Don’t worry, Noddie May. I have not been idle these past months. My plan has already been set in motion. And you, my brilliant niece, have overcome our last obstacle. After tonight, it will all be over. You can go home, and no one will need to worry about the plague again.”
Noddie glowed with pride under her uncle’s praise. He never complimented her before, but now, at long last she had made him proud! His words were a sweet music sending hope dancing within her heart.
“You will see.”
There was a light knock and the tubby man entered with five other uniformed men. “Announcing the presence of his highness, the royal steward of Irestead, Fawnton Niles.”
Fawnton entered the room and Lazren greeted him with a low bow.
Noddie was about to curtsy again when she saw Vince peek around the frame of the open door and motioned for her to follow him.
“I was told you had important news to discuss with me?” Fawnton clarified.
“Yes, your majesty, it is an honor to be given the privilege of speaking to you.”
Seeing her uncle and the steward were not paying any attention to her, she slipped past two of the bodyguards and out into the hallway. Vince led her back to the study where Lorance and Mesha were waiting.
Vince closed the doors behind them and turned to frown at Noddie. “We have a problem.”
“Hemlin has more followers then we assumed. Our comrades were not held on the platform by guard; they were brought here.”
“Jethrow and the McCarthys are here? In the palace?” Noddie asked.
“Yes. They recognized Jethrow as a Mordekah robber and locked him in the dungeon to await execution. We don’t know where the others are imprisoned.”
“We must free them!”
“It gets worse,” Lorance mumbled.
Vince nodded. “ Apparently Hemlin has bottles of the plague in liquid form and has already used them to further the scorenza in Bolzenar.”
Noddie blanched in horror. “He’s been killing his people? Why?”
Lorance’s face twisted with anger and disgust. “We don’t know. Though we suspect, his intentions were to debase the steward and take his place.”
Vince continued, “It is not known how he obtained such a thing. He may be in league with Isca, but he has threatened to unleash it upon the rest of the survivors if Fawnton does not cooperate. As Fawnton’s hands are tied. He can’t help us.”
“Is there any way we can confiscate this liquid plague?” Mesha asked.
Vince shook his head. “We haven’t the faintest idea where he keeps it.”
“What about Hemlin’s private rooms?”
With a bang, the twin doors burst open and slammed against the walls behind as a group of armed guards entered, surrounding the room.”
“Keep calm,” Vince said in a hushed voice. “When I tell you to run don’t hesitate. Run.”
The foremost guard stepped forward. “Under orders of Lewis Hemlin, you are all under arrest for plotting against the imposing leaders of our kingdom, and malicious intent against the country of Irestead.”
Vince sneered. “I only take orders from the rightful steward of Irestead, Fawnton Niles.”
“Fawnton has no power here. It is Hemlin’s word that reigns supreme.”
“Then you are all traitors to the crown.”
“It is Fawnton who has betrayed the land of Irestead, and the cursed Princes who brought about our destruction.”
“Hemlin stands responsible for the plague, not the King’s sons.”
“Silence! You will come peacefully, or you will be taken by force.”
Everything happened at once. The men moved as one to take them. Quick as lightning, Vince drew a sword and deflected the men’s slower swings before pushing them back. Mesha ducked away while the soldiers were occupied with Vince. Lorance wasn’t so lucky and was grabbed and disarmed all at once. Vince rammed his shoulder into the man who had been about to grab Noddie. She tore herself from the calloused fingers and dashed out the door behind Mesha.
Her last glimpse of the room included Vince falling to his knees with his hands raised in surrender as their commander ordered his men after them.
Mesha and Noddie turned left and continued racing through identical hallways, up a short flight of stairs, and down a corridor that curved around a tower. They slid on the long red rug in an effort to avoid colliding into the wall. After a few more turns, Mesha pulled her into a side room and soundlessly shut the door behind them. They waited with held breath, until the sounds of the pursuing guards ran past.
Panting, they leaned against the wall to support themselves. There were no windows in this room. A single chandelier lit the tapestries hanging on the wall and a pair of chairs resting before a fireplace. In the middle of the room was a round table with a white tablecloth, topped with several tall bottles and crystal goblets.
Once Noddie caught her breath she wiped her forehead and asked, “What do we do now?”
Mesha huffed, “I don’t know.” He pushed away from the wall and straightened his shirt. “Perhaps we can find the liquid plague. We’re going to need leverage or Hemlin will use the lives of the others to force us into surrender.”
“Do you think he would kill them?”
“Who knows what Hemlin will do?”
“How are we going to find the plague without getting caught? This palace is huge. We don’t even know where the others are.”
Mesha rubbed his temples.
“We don’t have much time,” Noddie pointed out in defeat. Their situation looked hopeless. “Maybe we should free Jethrow first. Or find my Uncle.”
“We could. We need all the allies we can get.”
They were about to exit when the sound of footsteps approaching made them pause. Mesha cracked the door and peeked through.
“It is Hemlin. He cannot find us here!”
Noddie’s eyes darted around and landed on a large, wardrobe against the wall. “In here!”
They jumped inside and Noddie pulled the door closed as well as she could. They shrunk back against the capes and coats as Hemlin entered. His face was chubby and his belly threatened the buttons on his smart dinner jacket. With a bulbous nose and balding hair he would have looked amusing if he didn’t radiate with controlled power. Muttering complaints under his breath, Hemlin glanced around, poured himself a drink from a bottle on the table, and downed it with one swallow.
He was about to pour another when the door opened again and Lazren marched in.
Hemlin turned and gave a fake smile at the sight of him, “Ah, Lazren, I heard you made it here—”
Without breaking stride, Lazren grabbed the heavy man around the neck and slammed him up against the wall.
“Exactly what do you think you are doing?” Lazren hissed, his face twisted with fury. “Since I’ve arrived here, nothing is as it should be. As you said it would be.” He added pointedly.
Hemlin gasped and spluttered, “Lazren, I’m relieved to see you alive—”
“Don’t take me for a fool! What have you been up to behind my back?”
“Behind your back indeed! I have been putting myself out there to assure everything falls into place.”
“And yet, I find you accomplished nothing you promised, YOU TRAITOROUS LOUT!” Lazren slammed him back against the wall again before releasing him.
Hemlin massaged his throat. “It’s taking a little longer than planned. And what, may I ask, are you doing here?”
“You have run out of time. I’ve come to take care of things myself.”
Hemlin’s eyes narrowed and he attempted to stand taller, despite his short stature. “I’ve been doing my part. And it’s been very difficult, mind you. It’s a fine line I have been walking, allowing you access to Irestead, overseeing your shipments, all while keeping that pathetic Fawnton in check! I’ve had to ensure allies and resort to blackmail.”
“Fawnton has been arrested to his chambers until further notice. I oversaw it myself not ten minutes ago,” Lazren said.
Hemlin waved a hand. “Just as well. I currently have Vince, and those other foreigners under lock as well. They will all be dead before the night’s end.”
Lazren snarled. “Things would have progressed a lot faster had you not been so concerned about my activities against Mordekah.”
Hemlin huffed turning up his nose. “I had a right to be suspicious. How was I to know you were not plotting against me with that filthy robber? Especially after I failed to receive your next shipment containing the liquid plague? And while we’re speaking of white lies and betrayal, you were not completely honest with me. You said the plague would stay in the slums, but it spread up to nobles as well.”
“It is not my concern if you were too heavy handed with the liquid plague. I warned you to use caution.”
“You expect a lot from me, yet you are unwilling to provide me with more. The last bottle ran dry ages ago.”
“As I told you last year, there were seven bottles. I cannot get more. There was a reason I sent them to you in intervals. So you could be scarce with them without drawing attention to their existence. My shipments should have given you more than enough of the controlled plague, and plenty of time to accomplish what I ordered you to do.”
Hemiln’s face blotched red. “Order? What right do you have to order—?”
“The two princes have returned. They are somewhere in the palace.” Lazren interrupted. “I thought I gave you specific instructions to do away with them?”
“The brats slipped from my fingers. I suspect Fawnton had something to do with it. I will kill them myself tonight.”
“Never mind, I’ll do it myself.” Lazren walked to the table and poured wine into a glass, his angry demeanor replaced by a business-like calm. “Leave these things to me.”
Hemlin relaxed, stepping up to the table he accepted the second glass Lazren offered him and took a large swallow. “I appreciate your offer, but this is something I would rather do on my own. Personal matters, you know. I will not allow them to make a mockery of me again.”
“I understand your desire. Unfortunately, you are not going to have the time.”
Hemlin brought the glass to his lips again. “And why this sudden talk of time? I was unaware we had a short deadline. Why must all this happen now?”
Lazren’s lips twitched upward, “Because everyone is here, of course.”
“You drink too much, Mr. Hemlin.” Lazren set his own full glass on the table.
All at once, Hemlin doubled over with a wet gasp. The glass fell from his hand and shattered, staining the fine rug beneath them. His breathing became sporadic as confusion clouded his bulging eyes.
“W-what—?” His knees hit the floor, and he crouched, shuttering and grasping at his throat and abdomen.
“A potent Yew elixir,” Lazren said, with an aloof air. His face twisted into a snarl once more as he watched the man convulsing on the floor. “Did you think I would let you off after that stunt you pulled? I know you are the one responsible for the plague on my estate in Hesterway. You used the last tube of liquid plague against me, hoping to kill me!”
“You swore I would rule Irestead.” Hemlin gasped.
“That is what you’ve been doing all this time, have you not?” Lazren took a handkerchief from the table and casually wiped his hands.
“Fool. After tonight there won’t be an Irestead. Bolzenar will have efficiently fallen into ruin, the royal line dead, and its people devastated. Such was the deal I made with Isca years ago when she gave me the means to obtain my rightful wealth and station. Tonight she will be eliminating the plague for good.”
In the wardrobe, Noddie clapped a hand over her mouth and would have crumpled to the floor had Mesha not supported her.
Hemlin’s voice rasped as he responded. “You’re deceived. Isca will not keep her word! She does not trust you. She’s never trusted anyone.”
“Oh, I know it. And neither do I trust her. Which is why I obtained a protection against her sorceries.” Lazren pulled Noddie’s bottle from his coat pocket and set it on the tabletop, where it appeared menacing, despite the light bouncing off the glass.
Face purple, Hemlin fell onto his side and Lazren bent down to say, “You were a great help, Lewis Hemlin. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
A strangled gurgle emerged from the man’s throat. His eyes rolled back into his head and his body became still.
Lazren stood, straightening his suit coat. Then, without looking back, he stepped from the room in his usual haughty strut.
Noddie felt as though she had been slammed by a train. The words spoken by her uncle before murdering another man, were consuming her. Lazren was in league with Isca! All along, he had been working with her to destroy Irestead and Noddie had brought him what he needed in to finish the task. The people of Bolzenar, her friends, they were all going to die and it was her fault. To think she had been so proud of assisting him! Now the thought made her sick with shame.
She sunk to the bottom of the wardrobe. The light slipping through the crack in the door fell over Mesha’s bloodless face. “I am so sorry, Noddie May,” He said.
Noddie was tempted to give a hysterical laugh. He was sorry? It had been her uncle; her insistence they return to Irestead, and the bottle Isca had given her that had put them in this mess. Mesha had been right about her Uncle Lazren all along. And she had been so preoccupied, running blindly all over the country, she could not see it.
“I’ve ruined everything, Mesha.” She whispered. Her insides twisting into knots. “I have to get that bottle back!”
“Be careful, Noddie May.”
Checking to make sure the coast was clear, Noddie slipped from the wardrobe and tiptoed to the table. Making sure to avoid looking anywhere but her objective. She lifted the bottle from its place.
Suddenly, a hand shot down, pinning her own to the tabletop. Drained with terror Noddie looked up into the livid face of her uncle Lazren. “Eavesdropping, Noddie May?”
She had forgotten how frightening he could be.
With his firm grip on her wrist he swung her out, away from the table. “Always where you shouldn’t be. I’ve a sound mind to lock you away again!”
At her uncle’s reprimand her fear transformed into hot anger.
“You were helping Isca this whole time! How could you? How could you do this after what the scorenza did to Hesterway? To Milay?”
Lazren scoffed, “And how, Noddie May, did you think the plague got from Irestead to Milay in the first place?”
Noddie’s world shattered around her as the jagged pieces fell into place. The plague first appeared in Milay four years ago. Shortly after—
“The funeral. At my grandparents funeral you- you—”
“Deposited a dose of the liquid plague in Copersville, yes.”
Lazren’s upper lip curled, “It was no loss. Dull, filthy land, behind in the times, and not worth the sun that shone there. The Grace couple were the only thing I respected there. When news came of their passing at the same time I needed to test Isca’s controlled version of the liquefied plague, it felt like the perfect opportunity. If it had worked properly it would have dissipated after infecting the small village, but regrettably it wasn’t quite perfected yet.
“Give me that bottle back!” Noddie screeched, thrusting her palm out.
Lazren smiled and Noddie felt sick inside. “Oh no. I will be keeping it. It was so kind of you to bring me another bottle after the first one wore out. I believe Isca planned that intentionally. At least the first draft lasted long enough to save me at the estate. Thank you for your assistance, my brilliant niece.”
One of the uniformed guards appeared at the door, but Noddie didn’t notice him as tears cascaded down her inflamed cheeks, “YOU’RE A MURDERER! MURDERER!”
Lazren threw Noddie into the guard’s clutches. “Lock her down in the dungeon with the robber. I will deal with her afterwords.”
Mesha chose this time to leap from the wardrobe and attack Lazren, but her uncle managed to catch the boy in midair and twist his arm up behind his back. He grabbed a fistful of Mesha’s hair. “Ah, yes. I remember you. You’re the cursed prince, am I right? From the first time I saw you I knew there was something wrong about you. To think the prince of Irestead was hiding in my yard this whole time.”
His sharp eyes met Noddie’s wet ones. “If you don’t want anything to happen to your friend, I suggest you cooperate. Keep your head down and you’ll find things are not as bad as they seem.”
The guard dragged Noddie from the room and Mesha struggled in vain to go after them.
“Oh no, young prince you’re going to be staying with me.”