From Part 13.

“Nonsense. You’re family; it is your right to impose on us, not that I would deem it to be an imposition. Not at all. Where are you both staying?” Trey asked Kal.

“At Trudor’s Inn, my Lord.”

“I’ll have someone bring over your belongings. You will stay with me.” His tone of voice brooked no arguments. “Come, I’ll show you where you’ll be staying. Later, I’ll bring you round the estate. This mansion belongs to the House of Zen. The family uses it anytime any of us are at court. There should be a painting of your grandfather in the gallery.”

Unwillingly, but unable to refuse, Kal and Lois followed their host. Leaning, Kal asked her quietly, “Is the journal with you, right now?”

“Of course, I carry it with me wherever I go,” she whispered back.

“Good,” Kal replied. He would’ve said more but Lord Trey was urging them to keep up with him.

They soon settled into the suite of rooms given to them and Ching took his leave after making arrangements to bring them around town the next day after their audience with the king.

___________

Part 14.

In the privacy of their own suite, Lois turned to Kal for reassurance. “Are we in trouble?” she asked, her head tucked against Kal’s chest.

“What makes you say that?”

“If King Gar was behind my parents’ death, he would know who I am, and by implication, who you are. We’d be walking into a trap.”

“Aye, we might. That’s why I’m going to slip out tonight to meet Ching and find out the actual situation. We may need to plan our escape sooner than we think. But, Lois, I’m glad to have found out about your grandfather. He sounded like someone I’d love to meet.”

“Lars of Zen,” she said, savoring the name. “To think that he was the one who discovered the arachid plant. I wonder what he kept secret and what he revealed.”

“Good idea,” said Kal.

“Pardon?”

“You could ask Lord Trey about your grandfather and the arachid plant. Find out what he knows and then we can compare it to what is in the journal. Besides it’ll also distract him while I slip away tonight.”

She grinned. “Aye, good idea. You will be careful though, won’t you?”

He kissed her lips lightly. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back before you know it.”

_________

After supper, Kal begged exhaustion and made as if to retire, while Lois distracted Trey with questions about her grandfather. Making sure that he wasn’t spotted by any of the servants, Kal made his way to the rendezvous point. As soon as he arrived, he was greeted with, “About time you got here.”

“Ching, I would’ve been here earlier if you had drawn better maps,” Kal replied.

“Yeah? Perhaps you just don’t know how to read?” teased Ching. He then turned serious. “How is Lois taking it?”

“She’s worried that our cover might be blown and we will be captured.”

“She has a legitimate concern and I checked it out. Gar doesn’t seem to know about her or about her parents. The deal Trey spoke about is binding to all monarchs of Nor after King Dor. To cause harm to either Lois or her parents would be to break the sacred words of the king of Nor. King Dor vowed that the monarch of Nor would ensure the safety and well-being of those of the House of Zen, which includes Lars and his descendents.”

“But what would make Gar honor his father’s vows?”

“The honor of the throne of Nor?” Ching suggested sarcastically. “Look, Kal, I’ve got an emergency escape plan in case Gar is behind this and you need to get out fast.”

“Like what exactly?”

Ching brought out a map of some kind. “This is the layout of the throne room. This is the dais and you’ll be making your bows here,” he pointed out the various spots. “Now, to the right of the dais, there is a hidden trap door which leads to the catacombs underneath the palace. No one knows about the door or the catacombs besides me. I only discovered them when I stumbled on the catacombs from the outside entrance, and made my way to the throne room. The catacombs are decaying in places and there are places which are completely blocked. You might say that it’s one giant maze.” There was an amused smile on his face.

“So what’s the plan?”

“If there is any indication that your lives are in danger, I’ll create a disturbance and you hurry towards the trap door. I’ll have someone waiting for you on the outside entrance to lead you to safety. Here, this is the map of the catacombs and the directions you need to take to get out. Hopefully, you’ll fare better reading this map than you seemed to have earlier tonight,” Ching teased.

Kal only snorted in response as he looked at the maps and pondered on the plan. It wasn’t the best but it would have to do. “Thanks, Ching.”

“You’re welcome. Now for the other news. Trey was telling the truth when he mentioned that Gar is backing someone to sit on the throne of El. I believe he started this plan since after the war when your father beat him soundly. He contacted someone close to your father, someone whom your father trusted, and probably continues to trust.”

“So this is not something new?”

Ching shook his head.

“How did you find out?”

“I intercepted a missive from his contact right before they tried to kill you. Couldn’t warn you in time though. Anyway, it detailed the plan to ambush you and also queried our army’s readiness to invade El once you’re dead. Your refusal to die put a wrench in their plans.” Ching grinned mischievously. “Once I read the missive, I was curious about this contact. So I went digging. That was when I discovered who the contact was and how long this has been going on.”

“Who is it?” Kal asked softly, still absorbing what Ching had revealed.

“Archbishop William. At the time he was only a bishop, the Bishop of Luthor. He administered to your maternal grandfather and the dukedom. He was also a distant cousin of you grandfather, and there were talks of his younger brother, Sir Samuel, marrying your mother, and thus, inheriting the powerful dukedom of Luthor. I’m guessing here, but I’d say that he wanted to be the puppet master.”

“So what happened to the plans? Was it just talks or did something happen?”

“I’m not sure. But given his ambitions, he was the natural person for Gar to contact.”

“Anything else?”

“They’re planning on an invasion soon. I’ve been in various council meetings to discuss these matters.”

“Can you provide us with the plans?”

“I’ll try, but I can’t promise much, Kal.”

“Whatever you can will have to do. While Randolph suspected, he hasn’t been able to convince my father of it. So El isn’t as prepared as we’d like her to be.”

Ching sighed. “I’ll do what I can and send it through the usual channels.”

The two men then parted, Kal slipping back into the mansion. He wasn’t surprised that Lois was waiting impatiently for him. “So, what did he have to say?” were the first words out of her mouth.

Grinning, he teased, “What? No goodnight kiss?”

“Kal! Be serious. What did he tell you? Is the king on to us? Did Ching manage to come up with a plan for us to escape? Perhaps we shouldn’t rely too much on him. I’ve been thinking about escape plans and I believe we can do it on our own. We can…”

“Whoa! Stop, Lois.” Kal was amused at his wife’s babble. “Come, let us sit down and I will tell you what Ching revealed to me.” He pulled her down into his lap as he settled on the settee. Snuggling, Lois’s arms snaked around his waist as she rested her head on his shoulders. Kal encircled her with one arm, using his free hand to stroke her back. He was once again struck by how fortunate he was to have her in his life.

Kal wondered if that was how Lars felt about Reba. He could see the similarities between her grandparents’ story and their own. For all his words to Lois, he hoped that, when push comes to shove, he would be able to do as Lars did, and give up everything for his love. Unlike Lars, he had a responsibility not only to his family but also to the people of El. At one time, he would willingly set aside his claim to the throne to make way for Lex. Now, he wasn’t so sure. If asked to choose between the good of the people and his soul, as Lois had become, which would he choose? Sighing inwardly, Kal set aside the question for another time and refocused on the current situation.

He recounted his discussion with Ching; of the emergency plans, of Archbishop William’s treacherous relationship with King Gar, and of the imminent invasion.

Lois kept quiet as she listened. When he ended, she looked up into his eyes, and asked, “What are your plans?”

“We need to make our way to the Marches and alert Randolph. If Ching can pass us the plans for the invasion, it’ll be a boon. As for Father Bill, I can’t do anything until I’ve solid evidence. Ching couldn’t hold on to the missive he intercepted. If not, that’ll be one clear evidence of his duplicity.”

Continuing to rest her head on his shoulder, Lois’s mind raced to find a solution. For the moment nothing came to mind but she knew she’d keep working on it till she found a way to help Kal prove the Archbishop to be a traitor to El.

Not knowing what was running through her head, Kal asked her, “So did you get anything out of Trey?”

“Hmm?” she said distractedly. “Oh, the ruse for distracting him. Yes, in fact I’ve learnt a lot about my grandfather in the past few hours.”

“Would you care to share?” Kal looked at the top of her head, amused by her tone of voice.

“A lot of it was just Lord Trey’s reminiscence and I enjoyed it. But there were some pertinent points. First, my grandfather was almost a genius who, besides developing the arachid poison, managed to find cure for a lot of illnesses previously thought incurable. The arachid plant was his breakthrough. He managed to isolate the juices which could cure almost all the major illnesses like the yellow fever and even leprosy. Unfortunately, the juices also contain the poison. That was part of his major work with his wife; to come up with a working antidote that would cure the poison fully. They did manage to improve upon the crude antidote that she administered to him, from what Lord Trey told me.

“Second, he was secretive about his work, allowing Lord Trey to learn only things that he wished him to. For example, the cure for the arachid poison that he taught to Trey is missing one important ingredient. Without it, the cure doesn’t work fully. The person would still be dying from the poison, only slowly. He may have a year or a little more to live, but in the end, the poison in his system would kill him.”

“I guess you have the answer to the missing ingredient,” Kal fished.

“Aye, it’s in the journal. But I wonder why my grandfather didn’t teach it to Trey. Why would he want people to die when he was a healer. Shouldn’t he be healing people instead?”

Kal could see that Lois was quite upset by the knowledge. “I don’t know Lois. Maybe there was something going on at the time that we don’t really know. Maybe he wanted to ensure that his House would always be useful. Look at the economic value of the arachid poison. Nor would be rich and powerful if the cure is known. It would no longer be a poison, instead it would be a medicine. Perhaps Lars knew that it was dangerous for Nor’s neighbors if Nor were to be powerful. As it is, Nor is planning to invade El.”

She sighed. “Aye, perhaps you’re right. We have to look at the journal some time or other.”

After a little more discussion and a resolve to look at the journal more closely, they retired to bed, dreading what the next day would bring. Just before Lois fell asleep, she whispered to Kal, “Kal, do you suppose if nothing happens tomorrow, we ought to be honest with Lord Trey, at least about me? He’s a dear old man and I hate using him like this.”

Kal tightened his hold on her, once again thinking how precious she was to think of Trey’s welfare.

_____________

The next morning, Lois and Kal found themselves sitting beside Lord Trey and Major Ching in the carriage as they left for the palace. Lord Trey was happily describing the various family members who would be there at court. He wasn’t aware of the tension in the air as Lois and Kal psyched themselves up to any possible scenarios that could happen. They had brought with them all that they needed. Anything left at Lord Trey’s weren’t necessary for their survival.

The carriage stopped and a footman opened the door. Ching alighted first and then Trey. “Come, my dear,” Trey said, holding out his hand to assist Lois.

Placing her hand in his, she delicately stepped out of the carriage. She quickly stepped away to allow Kal to alight, casting her glance up the great marble steps and into the huge open doorway leading into the palace. On either side of the steps were the palace guards with their red-gold uniforms, smartly standing at attention.

Lord Trey led them up the steps and through the doorway. He returned the salute of the guards at the doorway before urging his party on. “I’d rather not keep the king waiting,” he told them.

“Did you tell him the reason why you requested an audience?” Kal asked, praying for the right answer.

“No, I thought it would be better if it’s a surprise,” Trey answered, making all three of his companions more relaxed.

Lois hoped that their escape might work since they had the element of surprise with them. Similar thoughts crossed Kal’s and Ching’s minds.

They soon arrived at the entrance to the throne room and were announced to King Gar. Ching slipped away to position himself and prepare in case there was a need for the emergency plan. As they moved forward, Kal took a good look at the man who was behind the last invasion of El and the current plans for a new invasion. As a king, he wasn’t very impressive; nothing physically outstanding about the man. But Kal knew from the various reports on Gar that he was a brilliant strategist. His mind certainly outclassed his physical appearance. That was why Kal felt they should tread carefully with this man.

“Your Majesty,” Trey greeted Gar, bowing deeply.

“Lord Trey.” Gar gave Trey a piercing look. “Why have you requested an audience? Who are these people?”

“Your Majesty, these are Sir Caleb of Ra and his wife, Lady Lucy. They’re my guests.”

Kal and Lois bowed to King Gar as he nodded at them. He then turned back to Trey. “You don’t normally request an audience for your guests.” There was a note of censor in his voice.

“Normally, no, your Majesty. But in this case, the circumstances called for it.”

“And what would the circumstances be?”

“Lady Lucy is the granddaughter of Lord Lars, your Majesty,” Trey answered to the astonishment of those at court. Lord Lars was a legend in Nor; his tale being one of the most heroic and romantic tales ever known. Some of the court who had met the lovely young couple didn’t expect them to be related to a legend. But they agreed behind their fans and handkerchiefs that Lady Lucy conducted herself quite like the noble lady she was.

But for Kal and Lois, it was the king’s response that they were anxious to find out. They didn’t have to wait long. Gar’s eyes rounded in surprise before they narrowed. “I see.” His tone of voice and his reactions alarmed both Kal and Lois. “Lady Lucy and Sir Caleb, is it?” he asked them. Before they could answer, he rose. “Or is it Prince Kal and Mistress Lois of Trent? Guards, arrest them!”

The guards came rushing forward only to be distracted. “Fire! Fire!” The banners and tapestry on the left side of the throne room were on fire and people were rushing away from there, impeding the guards’ movements. Exchanging looks, Kal and Lois knew that Ching came through for them. The guards on either side of the king had changed their course from arresting them to ushering the king to safety. The whole room was in chaos, which was exactly what Ching expected.

Kal took the opportunity to pull Lois to the hidden door. She struggled against him. “What about Lord Trey?”

“We can’t do anything right now, Lois. We’ve got to get out of here. Maybe later,” he said when he saw his wife frowning.

Lois looked around. The fire was being controlled and the chaos was lessening. They had to leave soon. She nodded and they slipped through the door, closing themselves in the dark, damp passageway. Kal groped for the torch which Ching mentioned was on the left wall, and lighted it.

Lois looked around at the place, now that it was lighted, and shuddered. The passage was very narrow; there was only enough space for one person at a time. Beyond the lighted area, the dark seemed almost impenetrable, a solid forbidding presence. The musty, damp air didn’t help to make the place more welcoming either. Without conscious thought, she stepped closer to Kal.

“Are you all right?” Kal asked, noticing her unease.

She smiled bravely. “I hate dark and cramped places,” she confessed. “But I’ll be all right. Can we move from here though?”

“Right. I’m trying to read the map, but it’s difficult to decipher,” Kal admitted sheepishly.

At that, Lois grinned. “Here, let me take a look.” After studying the map for a while, she nodded absently. “We have to turn right at the next junction. Why don’t I lead and you hold the torch,” she suggested.

“All right,” Kal said, relieved. He hated to read maps because he could never make heads or tails of them.

Reading the maps helped Lois to take her mind off the dark, confining passageways. Soon they were in the catacombs proper, and with Lois’s expertise, managed to negotiate the catacombs with some ease. There were a couple of false turns, but they were able to back track and proceeded on. Finally they found themselves in front of the door leading to the outside. Ching had said that it led directly to outside the city proper. Hopefully, the guide he promised them would be waiting outside.

Kal put his hands on the mechanism to open the door and twisted the way Ching instructed him, but to no avail. He tried again and again, but the door didn’t respond. Lois gave a try and still, no response.

“Kal?”

“Lois, we’re stuck.” At that instant, the torch sputtered and died, plunging both of them into darkness.

____________

The TOC can be found here.
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There are men who hate me;
Let me love them.
There are men I have wronged;
Let them forgive me.

- Saying of the Dinka Tribe