The prince opened his eyes to beauty. An exquisitely painted ceiling depicting lords and ladies and woodland beings looked down on him. Gold-trimmed drapes cascaded down either side of three arched windows, glistening in the morning sun. Crimson silk sheets had coiled around his waist during the night, soft, divine. Spread out around him lay two naked women; curls as golden as the drapes, their rose skin as soft as the sheets, their sleeping breaths as faint as the morning breeze. The room basked in silence and warm light. A light which poured in through the windows and reflected against a pair of great mirrors. The reflection scattered in every direction, bouncing off half-empty wine glasses, silver platters and piles of shimmering clothes. At last, the bright rays caressed the prince's face.
A brutal knock ruined the entire scene and jerked the prince to life. The ladies groaned in their wine-addled sleep, turning over and over. The prince watched the nude spectacle through the haze and smiled. Another knock broke his delight and forced him to his feet. Wrapped in his sheets, he strode to the door and swung it wide open.
A young herald stood in the doorway.
"What," the prince hissed, "is it?"
The messenger gawked at the prince, eyes darting past him and into the room. His gaze quickly flicked back, embarrassed. "Your highness," he stammered. "You are expected immediately in the throne room. Your father... I mean, the king has requested your presence. He commanded me to express the urgency of the matter."
The prince glanced over his shoulder and sighed. "Now? Are you certain he said now?"
"Absolutely, your highness."
"Fine! Give me a minute," he barked and slammed the door with all his strength. With a smug grin on his face he imagined the poor herald's trembling face on the other side.
The prince leapt back into the bed, rousing his companions awake with light kisses and gentle strokes.
"Come on ladies," he said, unwrapping the sheets that covered his nudity. "We only have a minute!"
Behind the door, the boy waited, nervously tapping his feet against the white tiles. Though he was still young, it hardly seemed as if the sounds coming from the prince's room were sounds of dressing and preparation. He shook his head in dismay and prayed that the prince would be quick.
The herald trembled as he entered the throne room an hour later, head bowed and shoulders slumped. His voice barely carried from the grand stone archway to the throne itself, where five solemn men were deep in discussion around the seated king.
"Your royal highness," he croaked, "my lords. Prince Santhor, son of King Oden the First, of the line of Aysr."
Six silvery heads rose and stared directly at him, anger in all of their looks. Lord Castan waved the boy away with a violent gesture and without needing a second warning, the herald scurried off.
Prince Santhor appeared in his stead, teeth sunk deep into a gleaming green apple. He tore off a chunk of flesh and chewed as he made his tranquil way down the throne room. His high leather boots padded along the slender path made of black and silver cloth. Eyes never leaving his father's, he reached the dais with an apple core in his hand. After a slight bow, he tossed the core to the men surrounding the king.
"Vultures," he chuckled, "time for breakfast, is it not?"
Not a single one moved, but their lips began twitching and their faces blanching. To Santhor they all looked alike; wizened old men with receding white hair and a shared ambition to keep a firm grasp on their power. Only their names and titles could differentiate them.
"Santhor," Oden sighed, resting his wrinkled forehead on two fingers. "Have you not yet outgrown these idiocies? We have better things to do than wait on you all morning."
"My apologies," the prince nodded his head, "I fell in a hole on my way here. Well, two actually—"
"Enough!" Oden shouted, banging the throne's arm with his fist. Despite his advancing age, the king had kept his formidable size and strength. The blow sent a shuddering echo through the room. "Silence, and listen."
The vultures grumbled for a short instant before Lord Oryp, Grand Steward of the Realm stepped forward. "My prince, we have longly discussed your future... in an attempt to make arrangements in the interest of all."
"Yourselves, you mean?" Santhor scoffed. He had been through dozens of these ridiculous conclaves since his coming of age. More training. More education. More politics. More of this and less of that. His father and his teachers had always given up after a few short weeks. What would it be this time? Certainly something along the lines of less drinking and less spending. The usual condemnation.
"Very amusing," Oryp sneered. "Your father has decided that it was time for you to prepare yourself for succession. At this pace, you would drive this kingdom to its ruin and bury it in a tomb filled with whores and wine."
Santhor narrowed his eyes and wiped the grin off his face. "Be watchful of your words, Oryp, or you may lose the last remaining teeth you have."
"My prince," the Grand Steward pursued without flinching. "By decree of your father, the king, you will be sent to Eldynvagar in the province of Gales, until your succession is at hand. The current lord, Lord Angren, has been summoned to court to assume the position of Lord Marshal of the Realm. He is on his way as we speak. You will take the fortress and province, small as they are, in your name and in the quality of Prince of Gales. This decision is final. You depart on the morrow. That is all."
The prince stood in stunned silence, unblinkingly still. His hands curled into fists at his side, but quivered in vain. As much as he wished to smash Oryp's face into a pulp, it would do no good. His only chance lay in his father.
"My king," Santhor knelt. "Do not send me away. I am your blood and heir! A prince should stand at his father's side. I can do better."
Oden rose from his throne and slowly walked down the steps. A surge of relief swept through the prince, who stood to meet his father. Oden placed a hand on his son's shoulder, shook his head once, and marched away without a word. His footsteps rang in the hollow hall, long white cloak trailing behind him. The king left the throne room.
Santhor fought burning tears from his eyes, his heart pounding with disbelief. He turned to face those he knew to be his executioners, all staring at him with their arms crossed.
The prince spat at their feet and stormed off.
The only way he would reach Gales was if his father bound him arms and legs and shipped him off in a crate.
The next morning at dawn, that was exactly how he left. A squadron of royal guards surrounded him, armored in polished steel, spears and blades glinting in the pink sunlight. In the palace courtyard waited a comfortable coach hauled by four splendid draft horses with thick manes. Every other inch of the yard was covered in mounted soldiers who would accompany the prince the near-thousand miles to Gales.
The king never showed and neither did his retinue. By the time the pale sun had crested the palace walls, Santhor was shoved into the coach. Not a word was spoken to him by the drivers or his guards. Both doors were soon securely padlocked, his belongings tossed into the back and, unceremoniously, the prince departed.
An entire mounted company had been dispatched to safely see the prince to his destination, almost thirty experienced cavaliers without counting the dozen royal guards scattered in the mix. Hooves sang against the hard stone and the coach lurched to life. A metal gate grated and screeched as it opened on the world. Santhor peered through the small window as he rolled out of his home of always, not knowing when he would ever return.
That day, he told himself, five old men would die.
The palace rapidly vanished in the distance, becoming a faint outline of walls and turrets and wings. The land unfurled beneath his eyes, green hillocks and vast plains spotted with signs of civilization. It was a shame they had left through the western gate, he knew the road led directly west then north, always out of sight of the sea. His sea. His bay. The bay around which his wonderful city had risen centuries ago, a sprawling crown around a glistening blue jewel. Endless. Surprising. Dominant.
He wondered whether the women from the previous night were asleep in another lordling's bed already. The prince would miss willing women, especially the beautiful ones. The only thing he knew about his destination was the saying: 'Men would rather lay with rutting sea-lions than Galesan women.' And that was all he needed to know. Dismayed, he took a long swig of wine, hung his head and fell asleep.
Every time the prince opened his wine-muddled eyes, he instantly regretted it. Through his two small windows the landscape never changed. Green plains under grey skies. Grassy hills under bleak clouds. Sprawling forests shrouded by sudden downpours. Tirelessly, the coach rattled onwards, its four massive wheels clattering against the great imperial road. Santhor silently blessed the vestige of the old empire, which his great-great grandfather had brutally put an end to. If the long-dead emperors had gotten one thing right, it was architecture and stonework.
The prince had never left his city for more than a few days, when he grudgingly accompanied his father abroad for diplomatic reasons. The provinces disgusted him more than he had imagined. Small towns, primitive peasants, flailing farmsteads, loathsome women. Everything to repulse a prince. His life had been a singularly formidable whirl of lavish parties, golden palaces, eager women, envious men and exquisite... everything.
Three times a day the coach screeched to a halt in the middle of the road and the prince was permitted to relieve himself. Each time, as he stood facing the wild expanses or squatting on the outskirts of a glade, Santhor wondered if he could escape. The guards kept a close watch on him, even as he grunted in the bushes, but clad in heavy armor as they were, he could outrun them. For a while at least, until the mounted companies came after him. He would have to run into deep woodland, hiding and waiting. And then what? Find a nice farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and spend his days avoiding royal soldiers. Make his sorry way back to An Asrai and prove to his father that he should not be shipped off to a barren, windswept land of savages. No, King Oden would never go against the word of his advisors. They would only come up with a new destination and triple his guard. Santhor was doomed to rule Gales.
Every time, the prince slunk back to his coach and guzzled some wine.
The journey was excruciatingly long, jerky and tedious. Santhor spent most of his days drunk and alone, and most of his nights snoring like a bear. The company never halted except to let the prince vomit or piss, never stopping anywhere near the few civilized cities there were. To Santhor, the journey became a spinning blur of green and grey, a cacophony of hooves and grinding wheels, a lonely moving prison taking him to a larger prison in the form of a province.
He prayed the women would at least be decent, that the saying was just a saying.
After eleven days of travel, the land finally changed. The road steepened slightly, then more and more as they rose into the mountain range that encircled the entire province of Gales. Vegetation thinned and the skies, if possible, became a bleaker grey. The old imperial road came to an abrupt halt near the first mountain pass, suddenly turning to a muddy rutted track. It seemed as if the empire's slaves and architects had simply abandoned the task of building anything of worth in this part of their dominion. The coach struggled up increasingly sheer and narrow paths as sharp stone walls rose on either side. Here and there ruined watchtowers sat eviscerated, their rocky guts spilling out onto the road. The places where he relieved himself were more and more lifeless.
In the coach, Santhor began wrapping himself in two cloaks as the air thinned and froze. Vicious winds swept in from clouded peaks, tearing at the coach and whipping any bare inch of skin. As miserable as the prince was, he could not help but feel sorry for his guards. Not a single one of them had asked for this, and here they were, shivering in the glacial air of Gales for the sake of a prince they hated. Peering through the windows, Santhor saw them rubbing their hands, plumes of steam coming from their horses' nostrils as well as their own. Their cloaks flapped violently with each new gust. This new monotony seemed far worse than the one in the warm grassy plains. Santhor drank.
"My prince," a curt rap on the coach startled the prince back to consciousness. "I think you should see this."
Santhor groaned, his head pounding and his teeth chattering. He pulled on his boots, threw on three different cloaks and buried his head beneath the three hoods. He emerged from the coach stinking of wine and looking like a beggar. Most of his guards glared at him, hardly concealing their distaste for their prince. They were cold and feeling wretched and so Santhor forgave them.
"Look," a soldier with specks of ice in his beard pointed.
Santhor followed his finger and squinted, the wind swirling about him, each gust almost sending him sprawling. Even in the cruel cold and through the curtain of fine rain, the world was wondrous. The company had reached the highest point of the mountains and the final pass opened on a splendid sight. The great stony behemoths reached out for leagues across barren land until their shoulders threw themselves into the ocean. Each mountainous arm formed a massive wrinkle in the earth and between the sharp ridges nestled mossy dells, a lush pine forest and a swathe of grass dotted with houses and fields. Several rushing torrents spewed from the high peaks, tumbling down stone and through the forest before spilling into the ocean.
Ah, what an ocean! Santhor gawked for long minutes, suddenly insensitive to the glacial wind. He had only known the tranquil blue sea and bay of his city, where pleasure barges and slender ships lazed about. White beaches, smooth red bluffs and green glades wreathed his bay. Here, the ocean had hammered and forged monumental black cliffs out of the coastline, leaving it raw and ragged. The ocean pounded the earth with fearsome ferocity and regularity, the dull thud of waves reaching Santhor's ears even from the great distance and height.
In the middle of it all, rising against a scattering of cliffs and lush green fields, was the fortified city that was the heart of the land.
Lashed by the winds and rains, the prince looked down on the entirety of the small province of Gales. His new home.