Railon went back to the small hostel in which he had spent his first night back in Gaimaron each day throughout the following week. He felt that he needed to adjust to the life he had newly resolved to live inside the city, but was not yet prepared to take up the role he had been born into of the spare prince, waiting until the time came to guide the ways of his nephew while being officially left behind himself. However, he knew that this day had to be different: This was the day he expected to actually get a sight of the nephew he had never seen.
Taking up the bundle of things he had brought from his travels, which was filled with gifts from friends made and left behind, and some other things he had picked up himself to recall the adventures to recall the adventures they had been associated with, Railon left the room and descended the steps to the ground level of the establishment. There he met the owner of the building, to whom he gave two gold pieces for the day, just as he done each day, and continuing outside as the man thanked him profusely for his generosity.
Once he had returned to the open air, which in truth he had always preferred to the complacent organization of the great city, Railon felt again as if he had been revived from a long sleep, ready to see the world with new eyes. To this end he resolved to make his way to the main square and observe the life of the market which had been a fixture there when he had first departed. He walked openly in the street and left hanging his traveler’s hood, confident that he would not be recognized and enjoying this knowledge.
He had never harbored any desire to be a leader of men, or be recognized everywhere he walked. This was, in fact, one of the things which had prompted him to leave the castle one day without warning, pilfering the kitchen and leaving nothing but a note which had said only “I will return someday. Do not set a watch for me, though, lest they die before I return.” Smiling at this memory, he walked straight into the center of the square, paying no heed to who or what was moving around him.
He quickly saw the error in this, however, as he found himself nearly leaping aside to escape being trampled by a caravan which had just come in. Railon gave little thought to the caravan as a whole, for he had seen many trader’s trains in his travels and they all looked similar enough to one another as to make no difference except in whose pockets the money was going into. But rarely had a trader’s caravan ever brought a passenger along for the ride. As he watched from the edge of the road, the man who seemed to be the leader of the caravan got down from his mount and walked to the side of the passenger. This passenger was wearing a dun-colored robe, and had his hood pulled over his face, so that Railon was unable to get a good look at him.
The passenger dismounted without aid but stumbled when he hit the ground, which was of no consequence because the driver caught him and set him right as soon as it happened and gave into his hands a stout staff. Along with this exchange, Railon heard a few words pass between the two men.
“Are you right, sir? I am sorry for the walk you must make, but the king does not allow our trains to draw closer to the palace than this.”
“This is acceptable. I will manage if I must.”
“Are you certain you would not prefer that the men carry you there?”
“You have done enough, good man. I have had enough of letting other men use my legs for me.”
“Very well, sir. I will make sure that your things are sent after you.”
During this exchange, the other drivers had unloaded the camels. Some had begun to display the goods while others had taken the task of removing the animals themselves to an area better suited to them. Railon saw that through all this, two men stood by idle. Railon guessed that they were waiting to escort the train’s passenger on the final part of his journey.
A moment later his intuition was proved correct as the caravan driver turned away and the two men who had been waiting in the background came up on either side of the passenger and he went off with them. Railon decided that he could determine what part this figure played in his future at a later time. For the time being he had a greater desire to more fully explore the city.
Acting on this desire, he turned away from the central square and began to cross one of the nearby bridges over the river. On the other side of it, he found himself exploring a city, which, though of passable quality, could not be compared with the side he had crossed from.
Stopping a man who crossed his path after he walked in several streets and seen nary a man about, Railon asked of him “What has happened? This part of the city is dead.”
The man stood a few feet off from him and answered “That is exactly it, sir, and I must beg you to return to the other side of the city as quickly as you can. On peril of your life, enter no houses. Did you not notice that no one was coming from this side when you crossed? I am a healer and must do what I can, but the whole city on this side has been closed by order of the princess for two months now.”
“The princess gave this order? What of the king?”
“The king, we were told, is ill himself. The lady is acting for him.”
“But what has happened that this must be done?”
“This part of the city is suffering from plague. There is no telling how many have fallen to it, so none but healers may cross the bridges until he streets are cleansed.”
“May the One save us all! I have returned at the darkest hour. Do what you can, brave man. I will comply with your order.”
Wasting no breath on further speech with the man, Railon almost ran through the empty streets of the city until he had returned to the edge of the river, where he stripped off his tunic and swam across instead of using the brdge. When he came up, he could not avoid bemused looks from several people who passed by. For the most part these people had the courtesy to remain silent, but one man leaning on a wall in a corner saw no reason to let the sight pass unnoticed.
“What cave have you been living in, man? No one is supposed to cross the river! There’s plague, and you’ve brought it over here! Go back, before you kill us all!”
Seeing no gain in confronting a common drunkard, Railon left the area, feeling accusing looks from all who had heard the man’s shouts but paying them no heed. As he drew closer to the castle he heard voices take up a cry of “Guards! Guards!” Hearing this only made him walk the faster.
The skills he had honed with long practice travel and fighting in open lands served him well over the last stretches of ground he had to cross, despite his lack of a tunic making him highly conspicuous in the streets. No one was trailing him when he finally made it back to the gates of the palace courtyard. Here he stopped and called urgently for the castle guards.
“Men! Let me in, quickly now! If you do not I will climb the walls! I must get in!”
The guards, who fortunately happened to be the same two who had been on duty when he had first arrived in the city, made haste to let him pass, recognizing his face. But one of them could not resist a question.
“Why, my lord, what has happened to you?”
“I cannot speak now!”
Wary of guards from the city arriving and making a scene, he did not slow his pace until he had made it inside the gates of the palace itself. The moment he had stepped inside, however, he stopped and hailed a servant.
“You there, bring me something from the king’s wardrobe. That will have to do.”
“Can you not see? I am his brother. I travel light. Now hold your tongue and go.”
As the servant left to do as he said, Railon stepped aside and leaned against one of the stone pillars jutting out from the wall, which made an ideal place to watch people pass while going unnoticed. However, there was nobody in the hall to see. He was alone in a hall empty save for the loom the princess had been using when he first arrived at the castle a week ago.
When he had finally reached the capital, the city he should by rights have spent his life in to that point, Miran felt not joy, not anger, but only relief. What he felt in the moment of dismounting from the animal that had carried him across the desert was the relief of one who has been carrying a great load and was now finally allowed to set it down and relax his weary limbs. He had thought that he would be excited by the prospect of his homecoming, but this evidently was not to be.
His conversation with the caravan driver had gone the way that it had, with no specific mention of his true identity, because he had requested that no one, if possible, should discover his true identity until his father chose to reveal that he had survived. He had taken no notice of anyone he had passed while he walked to the palace flanked by the two strong men Railon had noticed. He had not revealed his name to the gate guards either: his guards had spoken for him, saying only “The king sent for this man.” With these words, they had left him to pass through the gate unaided and alone.
The merchant of Goman who had given him passage on this caravan had also ensured that he was provided with a proper walking staff before his departure across the desert, and this he was now putting to good use. One servant approached him and asked if he wanted to remove the cloak, but he brushed the man off, saying “No, no. I can still bear it.”
At this rejection the servant instead turned and opened the doors for him. Nodding his appreciation of the action, Miran stepped properly inside his home.
He was met there immediately by Miranda, who had brought her weaving out into the hall several days ago out of a desire to be present at precisely this moment, the first time her brother set foot inside the palace he never should have been taken from. Hardly had he realized she was present before he was wrapped in an enthusiastic embrace.
“I’m so glad you’re here. Mother have been dying to see you. I only hope that it is not too late now. You at least look no worse for having come across the desert.”
When she had released him, Miran answered “And you look none the worse for spending your days in these dark halls.”
“Oh I am sure they shall be bright again now that you have finally come home. Come, we cannot keep mother and father waiting any longer.”
Having no memory of the place, Miran accepted his sister’s guidance and support as they made their way through the halls and up the steps, with the added assistance of a servant who had met them on the stairs. When they had drawn close to the chamber Torlan had shut himself into months ago, and which he had continued to use since then, Miranda took her leave.
“I must go to take the news to mother. Perhaps she will send for you if she believes me. I think you must speak with father alone.”
“I too think that would be wise. I would like to speak more when next we meet.”
“That we will, brother, do not doubt it.”
With these words they parted. Miranda continued farther down the hall while Miran and the attendant drew alongside the king’s door and knocked. Miran stood in silence as the servant announced him.
“My lord, a man has come to see you.”
“He may enter. I cannot believe that he could have news that would bring me lower than this.”
The attendant did not reply in words to this. His only response was to push the door open and stand aside, still holding it ajar, to allow Miran to pass through. Miran heard the door close slowly behind him as he stepped into the room and the attendant respectfully remained outside. Taking three steps farther in, Miran stopped and finally swept his traveling hood down onto his neck. He stood as straight as he could and waited quietly for a moment, studying the broad back of the old man who stood facing out the window set in the opposite wall. It was only then that he drew attention to his own presence, saying “I’ve come home, father.”
The old man turned and looked back at him. There was another heavy silence. This time the older man spoke first, remaining rooted to the spot by the wall where he stood. “If I am your father, you are my son, Miran. Can you forgive me what I have done to you?”
“I have, father. Else I would not be here before you, I think. My sister persuaded me I should come home. She said you were near death.”
“If you have forgiven my folly, than I say that you are the better man. I have wished that you could walk in these halls for many years past, yet could not bring myself to face your righteous anger at my failure. I have been no true father to you.”
“The man who admits his fault is truly no worse than he who forgives him that fault, I think. I have come not to hear you ask for my forgiveness, but to live the life I should have had if you had never done as you did.”
Torlan crossed the room and wrapped his hobbled son in an embrace given with fully as much joy as the one Miran had received from Miranda in the hall. Breaking out of it, he spoke again, his voice breaking with relief.
“You shall have that, my son, and as much more as I can give you. I think now we shall be allowed to see your mother.” Passing by Miran, Torlan opened the door to the chamber.
Miran turned and followed his father out of the room, only for both to be met by the servant Railon had sent ahead.
“My lord, your brother requires one of your tunics.”
“What could he have done to the one he had? He could not have grown that much in these past days. It is no matter, he may have it, of course, and send him word also that we dine in the great hall today.”
“It will be done, my lord.” With this, the servant left them to follow the orders he had been successively given, while the king and his son turned in the direction of the chamber the queen had taken for herself, which was still the same room where the king and queen had taken their rest when their children were young.
Before they reached the door they were met by Miranda coming from the other side. She seemed overjoyed to see them. “Miran! Father! You have come too? How long have I dreamed of this day. My mother has risen. I think she shall call for you in a moment. I shall go now to let word of this news be spread.”
“This is all your doing, my daughter? You braved the desert and the lake to bring Miran back to us?”
“I am sorry I did not tell you, father, but I have done it many times. I promised to mother that I would. Miran would never have known he was needed had I not gone for him.”
“I think you speak truly, daughter. Now go do as you wished to, for truly this is a day for a festival here in the city.”
“Thank you, father.” With these words, Miranda swept away down the passage, while the men continued to draw closer to the queen’s chamber, awaiting the word that she would see them.
This was not long in coming. They had advanced but six feet down the passage when a maid stepped out of the chamber and began to approach them, only to stop short when she became aware of close they already were. Giving a quick curtsey, she said “My lord, my lady wishes to see you now.”
“Thank you, miss. You may go if you like. Go attend the princess in the lower halls.”
“As you say, my lord.” The maid quickly left the men’s presence, while they continued until they reached the door from which she had emerged. Torlan knocked, and they waited.
The door was soon opened by another maid, who stepped aside to let them pass. The queen was waiting to receive them in the center of the room. She was seated facing the door, two maids standing behind the chair awaiting the first word of command. The queen had put on a dress of pale gold, one she had not worn in years, which was complimented perfectly by her silver hair, which had turned fully to that shade not long after Miranda had come of age. She seemed to be looking at them both, but it was clear who she had really wanted to see.
“Come here, my son. Come closer and let me give you all the love I have been saving for this day that you should have had before.”
Heeding her words, Miran moved forward, leaning on his staff but still moving nearly as fast as most men could. The queen rose from her chair when he drew close and gave him the third smothering embrace he had endured that day. She leaned over him as she did this, and he took the opportunity to whisper to her “Hold nothing against father for my sake. I have forgiven him.”
Just as quietly, she answered “Thank you, my son.” Releasing Miran and allowing him to step aside, she walked up to Torlan where he had stood silent through the last few moments. “You have finally brought him home? I think I can now live again. Thank you, Torlan.”
“Do not thank me. It was not my doing. Our daughter has saved us all this day.”
“I wonder why she did not tell me this? I shall thank her when we meet again. But now, both of you, walk with me. It has been too long since I last walked by the river, but now I will do so happily, for we have come together again.”
When Miranda had descended to the lower halls, she was soon met by Railon, who, now wearing the tunic the servant had brought him (which being made for Torlan, made Railon look much smaller than he was) had been waiting since he arrived in the hall steps but steps from Miranda’s loom.
He made his presence known while she was giving her weaving over to the maid Torlan had sent after her to be moved back to its usual place in her own chamber. She was startled when he spoke.
“Oh, my uncle. I did not know you had come.”
“I was content that you should not know. I saw your brother arrive in the city this morning.”
“Why did you not make yourself known to him? I know he would be happy to meet you.”
“He was but crawling, and you were not yet in the world, when I departed from here. He does not know me yet, and he would perhaps not believe my words if I had approached him in the street in the garb of a traveler. It is better this way, I am sure. However, now I have a more pressing matter to discuss with you.”
Another maid approached them both and spoke to Miranda, departing again at the princess’s response. After this interruption had passed, Miranda turned back to Railon and asked of him “What could you have to speak of to me, rather than my father or mother?”
Putting a palm on the wall and leaning his weight against it, Railon answered “I met a man in the city who said that you have closed half of it in your father’s name. He said there was plague and it has been this way for two months. Is nothing being done for the people? Are they all being left to die?”
Miranda appeared shocked at the implications of what Railon was saying. His words drew a gasp, after which she covered her mouth as if to stop the escape of another. “Oh! May the One forgive me for this! I had forgotten the people in my joy at my brother’s return. Yes, no- oh uncle, it is true, and I have been trying to look after them. Some time ago, six families were found to have died of plague. The day the healers came to me, I gave the order that no one was to cross the river for fear of bringing the sickness with them. Every week, cartloads of food are driven across the bridges and the people are called out to get it. The drivers are allowed to return, as they touch nothing on that side. But many of the healers have crossed and are now doing what they can for the people, while waiting to give up their lives to the sickness themselves. I could not let my father be told lest he die of grief before Miran returned.”
Railon moved closer and embraced Miranda in sympathy as he spoke. “I am sorry you had to do this, my niece. You have borne so much pain for our family for so long. The waiting is finally over, and we shall never be parted again except by death, but what of all those people who were not ill when first you gave the order? Nothing can be done for them now. They cannot do as we have done.”
He could feel Miranda sobbing as he continued to hold her, saying nothing as she released her disappointment in herself. “The one forgive me, I have failed my people. I have failed my people. What am I to do?”
Breaking the embrace, Railon used the excess materiel of his brother’s sleeve to wipe the tears from Miranda’s face. “Come now, you cannot let your mother and father see you like this. You have been their rock for too long. I will bear this weight for you, and we will not speak of it to them until I have done what I can. Go back to the others now, and I will try to resolve this. If there are people left who eat the food you have been sending, perhaps some can be saved.”
“Thank you, uncle.” Giving Railon another short-lived embrace, Miranda turned back toward the stairs, while Railon turned back to the main doors to venture into the city once more.
In the courtyard, he found the castle guards who watched the gate arguing with a group of citizens and city guards through the lowered portcullis gate. One man shouted angrily at the sight of him, which caused everyone to stop and look.
“There he is! That’s the man! He swam the river from the plague side. He’s sure to be the death of us all unless something is done.”
The guards on the inside of the castle looked confused when the saw who was meant. “Not him, surely. That man is the king’s brother, and has not been in the city since some of you were but boys. He would do nothing so foolish as you say he has.”
Seeing that he would have to start with his own person in setting things right, Railon came alongside the guards by the gate and spoke. “You all speak the truth. I have not been in the city for twenty years past, so I did not know of the plague, since I saw no notices. Were they all torn down? I did cross the bridge, but I touched nothing and passed no threshold, which I have heard from the princess herself, who gave the order, is enough to return. Else I would have given myself up to banishment. I swam the river in hopes of cleansing myself of any hint of the sickness. But indeed something must be done, and I will begin to do it this day.”
“What is to be done?” asked everyone there, now hanging on his words like studious pupils.
“The people must be evacuated and the city burned and rebuilt. Save for this, no one will dare to cross the bridges anymore.”
“Do you speak in the name of the king?”
“I speak in my own name, and that of the princess Miranda who closed the bridge. Brave men must be sent across the bridge to call out those who still live. Open the gates on that side and let them out. Then that part of the city must be burned.”
“If this is the word of the palace.”
“I say to you again: that it is. Let no time be wasted. Now let me pass so that I may see it done.”
The guards then raised the gate and Railon passed through, taking the lead of the party who had come to arrest him. They walked all over the clean part of the city, relaying the orders Railon had pronounced at the gate. After some hours had passed, they found six men willing to risk an agonizing death to the plague in order to do as the prince regent had ordered. Railon saw them off at the end of the bridge.
“May the One save you for what you do today.”
With the beginnings of a curious crowd who came to find out what was happening, Railon stood at the end of the bridge through the remainder of the afternoon, listening for the cries of the riders. Those who listened with him could hear calls of “By order of the palace, any who can still walk must leave the city by the west gate. Go! Go!”
In the distance, the sound of the small gates of the west wall opening could be heard by the crowd. However, they were unable to see just how many were able to follow the order to leave, as there were many paths that could be taken that were not visible to those on the bridges.
While the riders had been conveying his previous orders, a large patrol of guards approached Railon and he gave them different orders. “Make torches and fires. As many as you can carry among you and more. This night the dead city must burn.” Others he ordered to stand watch against the chance of the fire carrying across the river, and still others he told off to block the bridges after the guards had passed with anything close to hand. He ordered also that the soldiers, when they returned, were to be told to swim across. In this manner he eventually made use of everyone who had come to find out for themselves what was being done. It was only as the day began to darken that he turned back to the palace, having seen the first flames catch on the roofs of the dead city.
The royal family had gone down to a branch of the river that passed outside the walls, where flowers grew and the air was clear. They walked together for some time, simply enjoying each other’s company. However, they had grown tired and turned back long before Railon had completed the mission he had taken upon himself. Being safely secluded from the noise and activity in the city, they were surprised when Railon walked into the hall, looking haggard and weary. Miranda, seeing the look he sent her way, quickly took control of the situation to draw attention away from what he had been doing, which he clearly had no desire to speak of.
“Rise, brother, and greet your uncle.”
When she spoke, musicians who had been playing stopped suddenly, and everyone turned to look at Railon. With a slight push which she hoped would go unnoticed by their parents, Miranda again prompted her brother to rise, while Railon stood back, watching the scene unfold. After a moment, Miran slowly rose, and walked as best he could till he was much closer to the older man.
“Who are you, sir? My sister wishes me to know.”
“I am your uncle. I have been traveling in far-off lands since you were too young to remember my name. I am Railon, younger brother to your father, and I saw you arrive in the square this day.”
“Welcome home, sir. I hope that you will remain with us now.”
“I say the same to you. You and I have spent far too long away from these halls, but now we have returned, I think nothing more shall call us away. Welcome home, young prince.”