The Prince of Learton
Prince Levin of Learton watched anxiously as the throne room started to fill with people. Since he started ruling the principality on his own, he had been apprehensive about meeting petitioners and courtiers alike. Though Learton was relatively small, everyone always seemed to have problems. Levin had only just turned eighteen, had never once gone beyond the borders of his country, and had long been dependent on people older and wiser than him. He was uncertain of his capability to rule.
And lately there had been reports of people disappearing.
Everyday there was at least one person who asked him about the disappearances. He found himself quickly running out of excuses. He highly doubted that the response of “We’re looking into it” would remain satisfactory for long. But there was nothing better he could say about them. He was as baffled as everyone else.
He was distracted from his thoughts when the crowd fell silent. They were all staring at the entrance.
“Aunt,” he said faintly, recognizing the figure standing at the doorway.
His father’s cousin, Lady Peisinoë started walking toward him, the crowd parting before her. Her silent husband Tristan trailed after her. She was dressed in loose printed cotton trousers and a white shirt with flecks of red. If he looked closely, he could see that it was blood staining his aunt’s clothes.
“Your Grace,” she greeted him.
She did not bow before him. Her husband inclined his head slightly.
Prince Levin found that he could not speak. His aunt, though only a few years older than he was, intimidated him, made him feel like the boy that he was and not the man he ought to be.
“Forgive my unbecoming appearance, Your Grace. Your uncle and I were ambushed on our way back to the castle. We fought off our assailants and they’re all dead now. Perhaps their bodies are still lying where we left them, if you want them disposed of properly.”
“That’s terrible,” Prince Levin said. “I’m glad that you and Uncle Tristan are safe, Aunt Peisinoë.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Your Grace,” Lady Peisinoë replied. “I brought you something from our excursion this morning.”
For the first time, Prince Levin noticed that his uncle had brought with him a dark cloth sack. He watched as he handed it to his wife, who promptly unfurled it. It was not a sack after all.
It was a torn tunic. On its front, still discernible through the blood stains, was a crowned seal, the crest of the princes of Learton.
“Tell me, nephew, why were our would-be killers wearing your colors?”
The people inside the room had grown even quieter, focusing all of their attention on the intriguing exchange between the prince and his aunt.
Lady Peisinoë and her husband had arrived at Learton only two months ago. She had come to serve as regent for her then seventeen-year old nephew. She was the only living relative he had left and his father had written to her several times to return to the principality. She decided to do so after she had received news of his untimely and unfortunate death.
Only a few remembered the lady. She had left Learton at a very young age, when Levin had not been born yet. Her husband was even more mysterious. Tristan spoke very little and moved quietly. He was often at his wife’s side and the on rare times that he was not, he could be seen gazing out of the windows of the castle facing the great lake below. They both lived in a fief far from Learton and that was all they would say about their life together.
The disappearances had begun after Prince Levin’s father died. No one could say anything concrete or credible to explain them. Some people would go to sleep in their own beds at night or go about their livelihood during the day and no longer be found the next time anyone thought to look for them.
The inhabitants of Learton hoped that the prince’s aunt would be able to help them understand what was going on. She often answered anyone who asked that the matter was being looked into seriously.
Prince Levin became increasingly uneasy about his aunt and uncle as he grew closer to legal age. They were unfailingly polite to everyone and even occasionally extended some form of parental kindness to him, but he could not dispel the feeling of distance between them. For one thing, neither of them would tell him anything about their lives before coming to Learton. His uncle kept staring out into the lake but would not answer him properly when asked about it. His aunt would not even discuss her husband with him although she was gracious enough to tell him stories of her childhood. He never saw them do anything concrete to investigate the disappearances but he saw them frequently talk between themselves. They both knew something he did not, he was sure of it.
After the most recent disappearance, that of his old childhood nurse, he had decided to take action by secretly hiring mercenaries to threaten his relatives, or at least grievously harm them enough to spur them into actually doing something about the problem.
“Aunt,” he started to say. “Truly, I am glad that you are alright. They had no intention to kill you at all.”
“Your Grace, it is not their intentions I care about,” his aunt replied calmly. She tossed the bloodstained tunic at him. “It breaks our hearts that you would even think of harming us. We have only done our part as regents and prepared you as best as we could to rule this land on your own. It saddens us that we have not taught you gratitude adequately.”
“There are people disappearing without a trace,” Prince Levin pointed out to her, exasperation creeping in his voice. “I have been trying to be a good prince and finding solutions to this problem. When you were regent, you did nothing to help in that matter. It is a pressing concern, and I have to do something about it.”
Peisinoë did not respond to him immediately. She glanced at Tristan, who bowed his head and left the throne room immediately.
“Perhaps it is best that we speak alone, Your Grace,” Peisinoë said loudly enough for everyone to hear.
Everyone else quickly dispersed from the room, muttering to themselves and wondering what was going on exactly.
“Have you ever wondered why the crest of our family has a crowned seal on it? It is not a common figure in royal sigils,” she asked her nephew after everyone had gone.
“The legends,” the prince answered dismissively. “The seal people who used to live in the lake surrounding Learton.”
He was surprised to see his aunt regard him with a look that almost equated to pity.
“You poor child. Has your father never spoken to you about our lineage, where we come from, who we come from?”
“He told me to be a good prince like my ancestors,” Prince Levin answered her.
“Surely you’ve wondered why you were never allowed to swim in the lake below, the only body of water closest to you,” Peisinoë went on, referring to a lifelong ban Levin had been imposed by his father when he was alive.
“The lake’s too deep. Father said it’d be dangerous.”
Peisinoë laughed. “Your father was incredibly protective of you. He was right about the lake being dangerous, but not for the reason you believe in. The legends, as you call them, are real. I hope you’re comfortable on your throne, Your Grace. I might have a story to tell you.”
“What is going on, Aunt Peisinoë?” Prince Levin’s anxiety peaked again. He had no idea what his aunt meant by the legends being real. His suspicions about her were troubling his mind again.
“Your Grace, where do you think the people of Learton have been disappearing off to?” Peisinoë asked him. “The seal people are not as imaginary as you believe them to be. I hope your tutors, if not your father, have taught you their stories. There are some who live beneath the lake. Our ancestor, the first prince of Learton was one.”
Prince Levin could only stare at his aunt in numb disbelief as she narrated to him their family history.
The first prince of Learton had been the son of the seal people’s queen. He had an unusual fondness for the surface world and frequently swam up to the shore. He would shed his seal skin and walk around the village that had been built along the banks of the lake. He befriended the various inhabitants of the village and took part in their daily activities, growing even fonder of the land above his home. The seal people had power over storms and the prince, Corentin, frequently used his to help his fishermen friends. The village grew more prosperous and eventually expanded into the city that became the capital of the principality itself.
The longer Corentin stayed on the surface, the more he grew attached to humans and the lives they led.
His people and his mother were alarmed to see him establish a place of his own among land dwellers. It broke his mother’s heart that he married a human girl and worse, burned his seal skin at the wedding. The seal people beneath the lake had never been many in number. The loss of their prince and the children he would have had further dwindled their population.
The queen exacted a promise from her son. There were rules after all when one of the lake folk entered into relations with humans. Corentin was to give one of his children to his mother and that child would dwell beneath the lake in his place. He could not refuse for the price of his refusal would have been the lives of all the people who lived in Learton. Even the souls of those who drown could find themselves wrapped in seal skin and becoming seal people themselves. A pure-blooded prince was worth than a hundred souls.
Corentin did not refuse his mother but he delayed the fulfilment of his promise for as long as he could. He sent his children away from Learton when they were grown and made sure to tell his successor to do the same with his own. He could not bring himself to condemn any of his descendants to the cold and dark life he had had as one of the seal people.
The years stretched on and no child was yet given in exchange.
“Your father probably hoped that the seal people had forgotten. He killed himself to silence the truth forever,” Peisinoë told him.
If his aunt’s story was true, then the disappearances now made sense to Prince Levin.
“They haven’t forgotten, have they? The people who have disappeared — they’ve been taken and drowned in the lake, haven’t they?”
“The queen, our ancestress, has long died and so few of the seal people remain. But the ones who live, they remember. The sea and its people do not forget, Your Grace,” she said.
“Is that why you came home after father died, Aunt?” Prince Levin demanded to know. “Did you come here to fulfill that promise?”
“No, I came here to see you, as your father asked me to do,” Peisinoë answered him. “I’m afraid that staying longer than I intend is out of the question. When I left the castle this morning, I went to see a physician in the city. The child I am carrying shall not live as one of the seal folk unless he chooses to. Learton is yours, as is your right. You say your father taught you to be a good prince? For the sake of your people, I hope that you will do what is best for them.”
“What am I going to do?” Prince Levin had no idea what to think. “And where you will you go, Aunt? How far can you escape this curse?”
“It is no curse, Your Grace. A life for a life. That is the way of things, a balance that nature itself prescribes. I have my own dues to pay, I assure you. But I must leave you now.”
The prince watched as his aunt walked away.
“We left you a parting gift.” She stopped at the doorway, and gave her nephew one last look. “Go to the tower facing the lake where your uncle and I have stayed these past few months. It was where Prince Corentin slept while he lived — the farthest he could stay away from the lake and the nearest to it he could bear to be. Goodbye, nephew.”
The prince remained unmoving for a while after the door closed. He finally learned why people had been disappearing but he could not yet grasp the implications of it. He had seen images of his family’s seal all his life but he still could not believe that his ancestor had not been wholly human. What did that make him then? What did that make his family? Did the people of Learton know his ancestry?
While he brooded alone, sounds of hoofbeats riding away came to his hearing. His last living relatives were truly leaving him.
He got up and proceeded to find the tower his aunt spoke of.
The normally vibrant atmosphere of the castle was now absent. The prince saw very few people as he made his way to his relatives’ living quarters. He passed under many banners hanging from the ceiling, all of which bore the crowned seal of Learton’s ruling family. Prince Levin wondered if his ancestor had thought of returning to life as one of the seal folk when he had reached old age. Surely, life beneath the lake was more interesting than life above it. Living in the stone castle could be so stifling sometimes. He had spent all his life inside it, wanting to see more of the land around him and beyond.
The tower his relatives had stayed in was the tallest tower in the castle. After climbing a long flight of stairs, Prince Levin stepped into the antechamber of his relatives’ quarters. The furniture he had sent up for their use looked untouched. There was nothing at all to indicate that his aunt and uncle had used the premises.
He went inside the bedroom and found a neatly made bed in the middle of the room, a low couch by the wall close to the door, and a simple writing desk near the window. A few candles above the desk were still lit. A wooden trunk stood at the foot of the bed. The prince would have opened the trunk to look for his relatives’ parting gift for him but the bed caught his attention. He thought it was a pillow at first, the gray fuzzy-looking object lying in the middle of the bed. He reached out to touch it, feeling smooth and silky fur under his fingers, and picked it up.
It was the pelt of some animal.
The prince went closer to the window to get a better look at it.
It was seal skin, he realized.
But whose was it? His aunt said that Prince Corentin had burned his. Was there another one of the seal people living inside the castle?
Two weeks after leaving Learton, Prince Levin’s aunt and uncle returned to look at what remained of the principality.
The castle remained as solid and whole as it had been. The pennants flying from the tower spires were still flapping about. From where they stood, on the bank opposite the castle, nothing seemed different from what they had seen in their prior visit. They did not wish to venture farther.
Peisinoë’s gaze lingered on the tallest tower, searching for any signs of life. The walls outside showed only aged stone.
“Are we not leaving yet?” Tristan asked his wife. “Have you changed your mind and now wish to see more of Learton?”
“We left your pelt behind,” Peisinoë said. “Are we not going to take it back? Perhaps Levin did nothing with it.”
“No,” came her husband’s quick answer. “No, my love. I stopped needing it a long time ago.”
“We bring our children the same fate as my family,” she pointed out to him.
“I am no prince, only a common seal who wished to live his life differently,” Tristan replied. “And if the seal folk should exact their price from us, we’ll face it together, won’t we?”
His wife smiled.
As they rode away, a round head covered in silky gray fur rose up from the depths of the lake to watch them go.