The Cenoal Chapters: Duties Reclaimed - Part Two
A Gelert paced down the lantern-lit hall of the palace. The light reflected easily off his pale red fur and his green eyes, usually bright, were downcast and dull. His fingers ran through his white beard and he muttered under his breath. Emperor Irazen of Shenkuu was unsure what to make of anything now.
He had heard reports. They were more rumor than reports, but could he really take the risk? Irazen stopped fiddling with his beard and pulled out a locket that hung around his neck and underneath his robes. The Emperor stared for a moment and laid it upon his heart. "I will find you," he whispered as he opened the locket. There, with his sister by his side and his mother sitting proudly above them, sat the young prince. Painted emerald eyes stared happily at him and Irazen gave a weak smile as he wiped away his tears.
The hatred in Cenoal's gaze seemed to cut through Alceon. The Gelert faltered. "Do you not remember me, my old friend?" Cenoal asked.
Alceon regained his composure. "I have heard much of you," he replied, "but I believe you have mistaken me for someone else."
"Oh, come now," Cenoal continued, his voice was friendly, yet his eyes still stared with hatred. "Don't you remember the raid in the desert? We crossed blades there, your royal Highness."
Those around the room stared at Cenoal in shock. "Alright, which one of you told the thief?" the Tonu questioned.
Aelgar threw his hands up. "Hey, don't look at me, I didn't tell him!"
"Still don't remember me, Prince?" Cenoal asked.
Alceon smiled. "Why, of course, the thief whose skill surprised me," he responded. "I knew you seemed familiar."
Cenoal shook his head. "So, what's a runaway prince doing back in his home country? Have you come to save it?"
"I regret having left in the first place," he responded. "And, yes, as a matter of fact, the Council needs me to meet my father, the Emperor, to warn him of the approaching danger."
"Then why haven't you gone to him?" Cenoal questioned.
"We have a plan to get the Emperor to speak with us outside Shenkuu," Seradar responded in Alceon's stead. "We fear the presence of a traitor within the midst of the Shenkuuvian court. Many of the council members have tried to see the Emperor, most of them high-up in their respected kingdoms, but to no avail. In fact, most of them have not even returned, and it's been almost three weeks!"
"Why did none of you think of sending Alceon in sooner?"
"Alceon was to be our last resort," the Tonu of the Sakhmet Guard responded. "There are rumors that an assassin is within easy reach of those in the court."
"So he fears for his life," Cenoal concluded. Before anyone could rise to counter his claim, he asked, "Why did you leave?"
"I wanted to be free of the castle walls and the duties that would befall me," Alceon replied as though he had said such a thousand times.
Cenoal shook his head. "This all brings to mind another runaway noble." He stared hard at the Gelert. "Princess Crystal Turstone. There are so many differences, even though one would think that all stories of this sort are alike. She left her kingdom to protect it. You left to escape it."
"I left because my freedom was kept from me," Alceon said once more. "Do you know what it's like being trapped in a castle all your life – a secret to the world because your father is afraid of his own shadow?"
"You've done your research," Cenoal stated, "I'll give you that." He left without another word, leaving a very confused council...
Cenoal stared up at the bright blue sky and the wispy clouds. Footsteps made their way toward him. Aelgar and Shade were soon beside him. "What was that about?" Aelgar questioned. "You pretty much just set the entire council against you."
"Did I?" Cenoal questioned. "Well, I suppose that isn't too bad. Most of them were already against me anyway."
"Cenoal, what came over you back there?" Shade asked. "You looked like you wanted to start a duel in the middle of the council meeting."
"I daresay I almost believed you would," Aelgar cut in.
Cenoal gave a grim smirk. "He isn't who he says he is."
"I thought you were implying as much," Shade admitted. "What makes you so sure?"
"Because Alceon is... long gone," Cenoal replied. "I made sure of that myself."
The two stared stupefied at their companion. "He has the prince's signet ring," Aelgar protested.
"He lied about seeing me in the desert," Cenoal continued. "Or rather, he confirmed my lie was truth."
"Ok, you're getting me confused," Shade said, rubbing his head with a hoof. "You're saying you did, in fact, meet Alceon, prince of Shenkuu, in battle, but not in the Lost Desert?"
Cenoal nodded. "We crossed blades while I was still in the Terror Mountain guild with Cios."
"But the ring!" Aelgar protested.
"Either a forgery, or a stolen relic from the palace," Cenoal said.
"We must tell the others," Aelgar stated.
"You think they'll believe us?" Cenoal questioned. "You think they'd believe a pair of thieves as opposed to their one hope of getting the Emperor's attention?"
"We need to do something!" Aelgar exclaimed.
Cenoal smiled grimly. "Tell me, Aelgar," he said, "what do you know of the royal palace of Shenkuu?"
Aelgar grunted as he gazed up at the looming palace, a few hundred feet overhead. He and Cenoal were standing upon a shelf on the mountain it was built upon. Shade and Sable were flying a few feet away. "Tell me again why I decided to trust you?"
Cenoal smiled as he swung the grappling hook he was carrying. The hook flew through the air as he released it, snagging another shelf. "Because right now you have no choice."
"I don't understand why we couldn't just have the Shade and Sable fly us all the way up," Aelgar complained as Cenoal tugged the rope, making sure it was secure.
Cenoal began to climb. "Because the guards are trained to search for Unis, not mountain climbers." When he reached the top, the Aisha hung by one hand and threw another grappling hook to a nearby shelf, unhooking the first once he was sure the second had a secure hold. He repeated this numerous times until he was out of Aelgar's sight.
The Aisha panted with the effort. This had been a lot easier ten years earlier. He threw and climbed, threw and climbed, again and again. This was the path of the warriors of royal blood. They would have to make their way to the top using only a grappling hook and their wits. He was cheating of course, seeing how Shade had brought him half way and he was using two grappling hooks instead of one, but the experience was still time-honoring.
The shadows that were cast hid his approach as the sun dipped behind the far horizon. Getting this far, from sneaking over the Shenkuu walls to dodging from Shenkuuvian guards, had taken most of the day. Hopefully their efforts would not be in vain. He reached the top at last and shuddered as some of the night's coming chill descended upon him.
Cenoal took a moment to stare across the mountains and toward the plains and woodlands. The fading light submerged the scene in blue grey as the sun's last rays disappeared. He tore his gaze away from the beauty of the valleys and stared at the palace walls. The Aisha sighed. Wonderful. More climbing.
Aelgar had taken the shorter way. Dressed in silk robs and a fancy hat, he had bought a number of educational scrolls from the nearby stall. He rode regally upon Sable as Shade trotted beside him, carrying his packages. "Cenoal is insane," Aelgar stated, realizing now that there was no one upon the path that he could speak freely. "How can he think this will work?"
"Cenoal's clever, Aelgar," Shade stated. "If there's one thief I'd trust to get us into the Shenkuuvian Palace, it's..." He stopped short and stared a moment at the ground.
"Scarlet," Sable finished. "If there's one thief anyone would trust with getting into a palace, it's Scarlet."
Aelgar cocked his head. "Who?"
"I'm assuming you know of Scarlet Shadow?" Shade asked.
"Yes, he's the Captain of Veneration," Aelgar replied. "I heard about him in the Citadel dungeons."
Sable snorted. "Not enough, apparently."
"Scarlet Shadow is a she, Aelgar," Shade stated. "And that's something she hid from the Meridell guards for a long time." Shade paused. "She's also Princess Crystal Turstone."
"That girl Cenoal was talking about? The one who left to save her people?" Aelgar questioned. "Wait, wait, wait. Crystal. Crystal Turstone. Of course! King Skarl's only daughter!" He smiled at having figured it out. But then his eyes grew wide. "She infiltrated the Veneration Guild?"
Shade chuckled. "Well, it's a long story, Aelgar, and I doubt we have time for it at the moment." The Uni looked around. "It seems we are nearing the palace and none of us want to be overheard now..."
Within minutes, the sounds from the palace became clear and the three grew silent. They continued down the path and strode through the palace gates, which were always open before sundown. They approached the guards at the door.
"The palace is about to be closed off, Scholar," one of them, an Acara, said.
Aelgar shook his head in feign dismay. "Lord Elverel demanded I make my way here right away," he explained. "I am in charge of some of his most precious scrolls, you see. He said it was of the utmost importance that I come to examine a scroll that could be the undoing of Shenkuu! He wouldn't be pleased if I was not to arrive."
"Lord Elverel!" the other guard, a Tonu, exclaimed. "Well then, Scholar, in you go! Forgive us for holding you."
The three made as if to go in. "Wait!" the Acara ordered. "Can we see some identification first? We can't be too sure these days."
The Cybunny had no reply for such a request. "Um," he said. "Uh..."
"Guards, what is the meaning of this?" A tall, proud figure strode up to them, clad in fancy silk robes with numerous rings upon his fingers. A regal cloak hid his face and he gave off an air of affluence. "Lord Elverel and I have been waiting for this scholar for hours! Allow him entry immediately." He turned to the Unis. "You two stay outside. We won't be long."
The guards stepped aside and Aelgar entered, wondering what he had gotten himself into.
Once they were in the halls of the palace, the mysterious noble turned to face Aelgar. He gave him a mischievous grin and his icy blue eyes flashed.
"Cenoal?!" Aelgar sputtered.
"Shush, Cybunny, or you'll blow our cover," Cenoal warned as he continued on through the lantern-lit halls.
Aelgar just stared. "How did you..."
"Oh, come on, there are dozens of nobles living in the palace. All I had to do was sneak into one of their rooms and steal a few trinkets."
"I doubt that they won't be missed," Aelgar said skeptically. Cenoal stopped leading him once they came to the intersecting point of another hall. "You do know where we're going, right?"
Cenoal gave a nervous chuckle. "Um, not really."
Aelgar sighed in resignation. "Yep, we're doomed."
"Give me a minute. I'm sure it can't be that hard finding the Emperor's Chambers..."
"No, Cenoal, you were right. It wasn't that hard... It was harder," Aelgar admitted when at last they arrived a corner away from a set of ornate chamber doors. It had taken them almost an hour to navigate the palace. "Now what do we do?"
"We get in," Cenoal replied. He strode up to the chamber doors and addressed the guards with a commanding tone. "We need to see the Emperor. It is of the utmost urgency concerning the state of the empire." Aelgar just stared.
The guards looked at each other, wondering if they should allow the strange noble through. "Did I not make myself clear?" Cenoal asked. "I said I wish to speak to His Majesty, Lord Irazen. Allow me entrance or I will be forced to bring up your incompetence at the next council meeting."
That did it. They stepped aside quickly under the Aisha's persecuting gaze and he stepped through. His head was held high and he looked to all the world a high-born noble of Shenkuu. Aelgar stared open-mouthed and almost didn't follow. "Scholar, come along!" Cenoal ordered. He snapped out of his shock and glared at the Aisha. Cenoal was getting a bit too comfy in his disguise.
They entered the dark chamber and immediately knew something was off. The Emperor was not present, but another figure was. The doors closed behind them and only the light from a flickering candle lit the room. They could not see much of him as he could not see much of them. The figure stepped forward. "What news have you," he asked, his voice raspy and croaking, "of the armies that come?"
To be continued...