A young man paced restlessly in front of long arched windows, his tall and lean profile framed with a sheen the colour of old gold cast by the setting sun. His eyes – deep and captivating like lapis lazuli - were directed to the scarlet carpet at his feet. The dim light piercing through the stained glass of the window threw splashes of lime and lilac across pale white hair.
He stopped pacing and straightened abruptly. He turned his head to look across the room where a couple were seated in goldwood armchairs, clothed in the finest silk and suede that the kingdom of Derenvere possessed. The diadems carefully fitted on their washed-out blonde hair, though not overpowering but impressive, signified their status.
The man, his youthful features still untouched claiming him to be a boy, moved closer to them stealthily. His shoulders were tense and his stance rigid.
He knew the situation he found himself in had been delicately planned by everyone but him. The matter had been inevitable and expected since he was a boy, but it wasn’t until he came to marital age recently that it became a reality to him. He’d dismissed the whispers of hopeful delay in his mind as ignorance, and when he awoke this morning with a feast of favourite dishes awaiting him in the comfort of his room, he knew the day had come when the subject would be broached.
He’d spent most of the day rehearsing how events may unfold in his mind, his thoughts successful in their determined routes to find flaw-proof excuses to delay whatever marriage was arranged. The manner in which the servants went quite overboard to please him throughout the day had been amusing. Evidently the queen wanted him to be in a content mood for this rare gathering of their small family. She wanted this business arrangement sealed swiftly, as did he.
He secretly appreciated her attempts – it was no mystery to anyone inside the castle walls that father and son were on ill terms, solely because they could never see eye to eye.
He faced them directly now and appealed to the queen’s emotional intellect to win her over.
“I have no attraction to Lady Helena. If you force it upon me I will become a sour old crouch like my father, and ‘tis our people who will suffer under my reign!” The young man spoke, his voice filled with so much desperation that it made Queen Alessandra shift uncomfortably in her seat.
“Now, son.” King Balru responded, a slight hesitation in his speech before addressing his heir. “What is there not to like about her? She’s one of the most beautiful and talented young women in the land. She’s the only suitable nobility who have also recently become of marital age...”
“She will be a good wife for you, Galen. She will cause you no trouble, she will do her duties...” Queen Alessandra began, waving a hand gracefully in the air and silently praying that her son wouldn’t oppose them.
Of course, Galen anticipated these factors to be listed. He was also aware who Lady Helena was, and pushed aside the disturbed memories of his few times together with the woman. Her absurd behavior toward him now made sense. Still, he could not allow suspicion to arise by reacting by the mention of her name as tradition demanded both parties be unfamiliar concerning these arranged matters.
“Times have changed since your youthful years. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but our generation no longer abide by the old traditions.” Prince Galen said frankly. “As the throne won’t become my personal daily concern for a few more years, I see no reason why an arranged marriage should take place in the immediate future. It would be my suggestion that Lady Helena and I become acquainted initially, form some kind of friendship that may bring us closer and perhaps, if the stars destined it, we may fall in love...”
“Bah! Love? You don’t know the meaning of the word!” King Balru snapped.
“No.” Galen’s gentle and persuasive tone altered to disdain. “I suppose I never will.”
“You shall marry Lady Helena on the day as is arranged! I will hear no more of this gibberish – this love - you speak of!” King Balru stated, casting all Galen’s planned escape tactics to the mud.
For a moment the king’s last words echoed eerily in the room before thick and awkward silence deafened them. Galen was caught off guard by this unintended revelation. He noticed the queen sending a startled and dismayed glance at the king. He desperately tried to grasp for the thinning retorts that fled his mind like startled pigeons. Unable to think of a reasonable and mature way out of the situation, he struggled to hold on to his careful composure.
“ I refuse then.” Galen knew he was playing with fire to test his father’s patience, he was the king and he would throw Galen in the dungeon without hesitation – prince or no prince.
He’d done it before when Galen had the nerve to disappear from the castle in an attempt to escape his fate. The prince had taken shelter in the kingdom between his people and hid from the castle guards in a friends’ house. If it hadn’t been for Demitrius, an old companion and personal sorcerer of the King, Galen would have succeeded in ‘disappearing off the face of the world’. It had been easy to hide from the guards – Galen fitted in perfectly with the Derenvarians because there was nothing that distinguished him from everyone else. He had the same brilliant white hair, the same cold eyes and the same almost glowing golden skin.
The only thing that made him different was his title – and no one had known his true identity.
Demitrius had known where Galen was and went to fetch him when the king abruptly decided to have a ball one evening – to celebrate and welcome the young prince into manhood. A ball in honor of the prince. Galen had put up a good fight but Demitrius had won in the end.
When he arrived late for his own celebration that night, battered and dirty to the queen’s relief and to the king’s embarrassment, the king had ordered that the prince be thrown in the dungeon due to his impudence.
Galen spent the night he was meant to be welcomed into manhood alone in a cold and damp dungeon. It had been an unpleasant experience and one he never wanted repeated.
But the thought of Lady Helena chilled him.
“You cannot escape your destiny, Galen! You are the heir to my throne and you are the only heir! You are the Prince of Derenvere!” King Balru raged on, intruding on Galen’s thoughts.
Anger gave him courage, and a solid determination filled Galen’s gaze. “I will refuse, Father!”
“Alessandra, please! He’s your son! You speak some sense into the boy before I have him whipped for his unruliness!”
The king’s words struck Galen hard, and he stiffened. He didn’t need to address Galen directly but the threat to use physical violence was sufficient enough to force the young man to swallow his words.
Queen Alessandra looked at her husbands’ tired face calmly. She turned her gaze to her son who was visibly fighting to stand his ground.
Galen was too much like his father – stubborn, and too proud to admit his own faults. King Balru wanted this, Galen wanted the opposite.
Queen Alessandra was aware that her role as neutral witness and obligingly loyal spouse has changed as the atmosphere has. She had to take control before Galen decided to leave the room with King Balru chasing guards to apprehend him. Locking Galen in the dungeon once again would serve no purpose and discussing the arranged marriage with him again would be short of impossible. She lifted her chin before she spoke.
“The ceremony will take place in twenty days, it doesn’t matter which lady you walk down the aisle with, Galen.” Queen Alessandra said as her own icy blue eyes met those of her sons’. “I will grant you fifteen days to search for a bride in the other world.”
This was an unexpected turn around of events. Both father and son stared at her in utter bewilderment.
“What?” the King exploded suddenly, breaking the silence.
“You mean Earth?” Galen asked, shocked.
“Most definitely not!” the King thundered. “The boy won’t last a day!”
“Settle down, my love.” Queen Alessandra said, looking at him with reserved patience. She looked at Galen.
“You will return no later than fifteen days. If you have no bride with you, then you will walk down the aisle with Lady Helena.”
“But, Mother... a human? Earth? That’s madness ...” Galen stammered.
He’d been counting on his mother to side with him, to gently persuade her husband that Galen did have a good point, but this was beyond what he expected and it rendered him as helpless as an unarmed warrior in battle.
“Servants of the castle who have knowledge of Earth and humans will make the necessary arrangements for your arrival there. They will guide you and tutor you – and they will protect you.” She sounded more confident than she appeared, and her words sounded hollow even in Galen’s ears.
There was another stunned silence in the room.
King Balru looked bewildered and Galen was convinced he would take back the order. It was unheard of that a king should sit by as a queen handed out orders, and King Balru was a proud man. He believed intensely that he alone had the power and authority to hand out orders in Derenvere. Orders that Galen had a hard time obeying.
But one warm confident smile from Queen Alessandra was enough to win the king over.
Galen’s eyes shone with bright blue light as he looked from his father to his mother. They had to be playing with him to confuse him. The concept of a human being as a bride was ridiculous, as there was no proof that humans were more than myths. He waited for one of them to falter – his mother most likely but she returned his gaze with firm decisiveness.
“I will have to go through the Dark Pearl Woods.” Galen said slowly, as if testing his mother’s nerve.
“Yes.” Queen Alessandra answered simply.
“Cross the Pearl Stream.”
“Dark Pearl Woods is forbidden, though you send me there willingly?”
“Yes.” Queen Alessandra’s face and voice a mask of iron control.
“People disappear or die when trying to cross the Pearl Stream. No one has ever crossed and come back alive.” Galen said slowly, referring to recent news of several youths intent on retrieving proof of humans found dead along the embankment of Pearl Stream. Their bodies had testified that their deaths had been brutal, painful and slow.
“I am aware of that.” Queen Alessandra nodded slowly.
Galen licked his lips and there was a flicker of doubt in his eyes.
“It’s two days’ journey through the woods, mother...”
“And that is why you will go there early tomorrow.” Queen Alessandra interrupted him, a final note in her voice.
“Your mother has spoken!” King Balru rose to his feet, a short, stout old man, but with an unmistakable air of authority. “Now leave us.”
Galen’s eyes darted from his mother to his father and back. He lingered for a moment longer, hoping, waiting for the command to be dismissed.
Galen saw the determination in his mother’s gaze and disappointment filled him. He knew what she was thinking. He’d thought it himself time and time again. He would be forced to marry Lady Helena, become king, and he would rebel – against his father and the laws, even against his own mother. The kingdom will come to a fall, it was inevitable.
“Don’t provoke me, young man. Get out.” King Balru said, his voice low and threatening crashing through Galen’s reverie.
Galen stayed rooted to the spot still looking at his mother. He would have left if not for the sudden unexplainable desire he had to defend his pride. Or maybe it was just an insane bravery to deliberately disobey his father.
A threat was one thing – a challenge another.
His eyes took on a sharp stone-cold expression and the corner of his lip twitched into a mischievous grin. He slipped his hands into his pockets and turned to look at the king, challenging.
The tension had left him and he stood with a languid grace that only a prince could possess. His expression was arrogant and daring.
“What are you going to do, old man? Throw me out?” Galen mocked.
King Balru’s eyes flashed. “How dare you, you little insufferable, despicable child! You will show me the proper respect or I will condemn you to the dungeon until the day you wed to Lady Helena!”
Galen recoiled and stood frozen for a moment before swallowing his pride and kneeling in front of the king.
"Forgive me, father, I don't know what possessed me." Galen said, his gaze lowered and his voice muted.
"You don't..." King Balru started but stopped, confused by his sons' sudden change of behaviour. "You may rise."
Galen rose to his feet gracefully.
"You may go." King Balru sighed heavily.
When King Balru met Galens' gaze, he saw there was still a challenge in them which both infuriated and bewildered him.
Galen made a slight bow before strolling across the room. He flung the doors open and hurried down the hallway.
Galen knew Queen Alessandra had spoken to Demitrius, the wisest sorcerer and his past tutor, about her fears of what would become of her son. Or not as much as what would become of him, rather than what he would become. Galen knew because he had been eavesdropping. Not on purpose – his mother and Demitrius merely did not notice him sitting in the ballroom.
They had spoken of him as though he was the devil himself, and Galen’s temper had boiled when Demitrius reassured his mother that those of royal blood were pure and immune to darkness.
But of course, Galen was different from all the princes there had once been. He opposed tradition and fought against everything that was good and right. He questioned their methods, adamant not to follow as all those before him but rather to lead. He was still uncertain, though, where he wanted to lead to.
Galen was also acutely aware that he had the greatest power in magic that the kingdom of Derenvere had ever seen. It did not encourage his pride however, as it was more a burden than a blessing. He was forbidden to use it, because he simply could not control it. Magic was influenced strongly by emotions and Galen admitted that with his temper nothing good could come of it. His last attempt to train himself in secret, the night had lit up with a blinding silver light but Galen hadn’t noticed – he’d been too preoccupied trying to regain control. He’d bruised himself badly in the process but recovered quickly. The following week, Galen was subjected to listening about the night turning into day. He never used his power since.
His mind returned to the whirling confusion, fear and excitement soaring through his veins as he walked toward his quarters.
He was raised with the little knowledge that it was no place for a Derenvarian – even less so for a prince of Derenvere. He was taught that Earth was like hell and heaven – that the forces of good and evil were engaged in a never-ending war. Earth was the devils' playground.
The hair on the back of Galen’s neck stood on end as he stepped into his quarters and closed the doors behind him. It fascinated and intrigued him, but terrified him at the same time.
Now his mother was sending him to the forbidden place to bring back a bride. A bride! Would he even find one? He didn’t know how to – he didn’t know the first thing about humans as the subject had always seemed foolish.
But what if he did find a bride? Suppose they were real, would it be safe to have a human as queen? Humans were said to be destructive, but that was only speculation.
Stepping into his personal quarters which he had left amess that morning but now was flawlessly tidy, he crossed to his study and sank down behind his hazelwood desk, numb at the thought of being thrown right into the thick of human civilization. Maybe his father was right – he wouldn’t last for a day.
But then most Derenvarians have never even heard the word ‘human’ and how could anyone really know what humans are like without having seen them with their own eyes?
There was no solid proof, no evidence that humans were in truth, real. For that matter, how did they know that Earth and humans weren’t just a myth – a made-up story by children perhaps, who dreamt up other worlds to pass the time?
A light tap came at the door, intruding on his drowning thoughts.