The Prince

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Chapter 13

For a long moment the prince seemed to float, suspended in space. He could not breathe, the air rushing far too quickly past his mouth and nose, but he barely felt the need. All he could see during his fleeting fall was the frothing water rushing up to meet him. The raindrops, which had been heavy and fierce, were now suspended in mid-air, the prince falling faster than them. Dark storm clouds reflected fuzzily on the sea's surface and it seemed to him that he was plunging into utter night. Perhaps he was, the thought came to him, perhaps he had died already and he was being pulled down into eternal darkness. Then the freezing ocean engulfed him.

His feet broke the surface first, jarring him to his core, sending bone-shattering tremors through every fiber of his being. There was no rain or storms beneath the water, just cold infinite blackness and a throbbing numb pain. He regretted not having breathed during his jump, now that his lungs were bursting with fiery craving. How foolish he felt, having leapt so quickly without judging his surroundings, the height, the depth, anything that could help him survive. Instead of floating peacefully, he sunk like a statue of pale marble with horror-struck eyes. He watched bubbles soar high above him, making for the silver-lined surface. The surface! He swam upwards, feeling the remainder of his strength drain from his body. Fresh air was but mere feet away when his energy surrendered to the suffocating darkness.

His eyes fluttered slowly as a warmth crept towards him and he sunk once more to the distant floor of the sea. He hardly noticed the large shape that glided over him with a rush, there was nothing he could do. It circled him once or twice or more he could not tell, then something struck him. The shadow of a beast closing on him, and he gladly gave himself to it. Something touched him, was it tentacles? Jaws? It pulled at him, dragging his limp corpse up or down, he no longer cared.

The air that filled his lungs as he burst out of the water was pure and cool. It made him cough and sputter with a pain that seared his insides like glass. Yet he appreciated every gasp of it. A slender ship bobbed near him, its dark hull sleek and shiny. The cold that had gripped him over the past week added to the water's icy temperature was enough motivation to start swimming frantically. He splashed around like a dog, pulling himself closer and closer to the ship, helped by the waves. Shivering uncontrollably, he coughed and sputtered and clawed at the hull. A figure appeared over the prow and tossed down a rope. He caught it between numb fingers, struggling to keep a firm grip over it. His shoulders seemed to pop out of their sockets as the rope hauled him upwards, his feet scrabbled against the slippery hull and finally, he crashed onto the deck like a dying fish.

The prince's vision was a watery blur, his lungs and chest were pierced by a thousand needles and he retched salty foam on someone's boots. After surviving assassination attempts, a war, a hundred-foot fall and drowning, Santhor would not let himself die from cold on this ship. He writhed and rubbed himself and then another pair of hands joined his. His clothes were ripped from his skin, his boots tugged off his feet until he was stark naked, his body blue and purple and white and covered in prickles. Blankets were thrown over him, warm and scratchy, but were soon soaked by the rain. Still, nothing was as cold as the icy water of the ocean. The prince crouched and wheezed plumes of vapor in the night. He raised his trembling head.

Lysandra was standing over him. The captain stared at him, then her eyes rose to settle on the high walls of Eldynvagar. Santhor followed her gaze and in the darkness made out the distant balcony and the tiny figures leering over the wall. Had he jumped from that high? Fallen that far? He thought of Nicolar, but his thoughts were quickly driven away by the glacial air. The cold controlled everything, even his mind.

Beneath him, the ship lurched into motion. Where it had been swaying from side to side, rocked by the waves, it started forward, the sails raised and rapidly filling with wind. Lysandra scurried about her ship, moving as gracefully as if she were on land. She knotted ropes and spun the wheel, jumping from place to place, her eyes always watching the water.

There was nothing Santhor could do, naked and frozen as he was. He observed the nimble woman going about her duties, her hands moving of their own accord like white spiders. The ship gained speed and, against the oncoming waves, made its way out of the bay of the yrin vagar. Ahead, in the mist of dusk and spindrift, war ships waited patiently. They were hunters waiting for their prey to emerge from its lair and directly into their nets. Lysandra hardly seemed to notice. She was more intent on the narrow inlet and the sheer sharp cliffs that rose on either side of her ship. The ocean was angry and the waves growing higher and higher as they headed out for deeper waters.

"We are... heading directly... towards them," Santhor's teeth clacked at every word, his voice lost in the wind.

Lysandra whipped around and narrowed her eyes. "I have been sailing these waters my entire life. I know this ocean better than they do. Look at the sky, Santhor, and tell me what you see now that you have been the prince of Gales."

Santhor craned his neck backwards and stared at the heavens. The storm clouds that had appeared over the battle were roiling now and the rain fell with increasing ferocity. Menacing streaks of black and grey and crimson painted the sky. Lightning flashed brightly, but the clapping thunder was drowned by the roar of the ocean. The prince now knew that it was not the cold that would kill him. He would die smashed to pieces on the black rocks of Gales.

The ship soared over a surging black mountain, sending forth a spray of seawater. It swept down into a flowing valley before leaping back up, masterfully manned. Santhor bellowed with terror when the ocean slammed into the hull and was silenced when the waves flooded the deck, sending him to his knees. Lysandra stood and held fast, her feet somehow anchored on the slick wood. She swung on ropes and raced from prow to stern, navigating her way out of the bay. She steered the ship into a great wave, cutting through it like a spear and suddenly they were out. The waves only slightly calmed once out of the bay, but the storm was only just reaching its apex.

Winds screamed and tore at the sails, ripping ropes from their fastenings and howling in Santhor's ears. The ship creaked dangerously and whined with every new wailing gust. Rain blew sideways, whipping at their faces and blinding them. Waves broke onto the deck, washing everything away but the two sailors. Santhor felt useless, but there was nothing he could do to help Lysandra. His life was in her hands and his fate rested with the growing fury of the storm.

"You... have to cut the sails!" He shouted at her, the black canvas squirming to be freed of its shackles. It threatened to take the mast with it and sink the ship. Santhor knew enough about ships to know that they would die if the mast splintered.

"If we cut the sail..." Lysandra's answer came in wails on the wind. "We will never make it past the war ships! This is our only chance!"

"We are going to die!" The prince pulled the blankets close around his shoulders and bellowed.

"I would rather die from the storm than from the flame!"

And the debate was ended.

The world was a seething vortex of waves and spray and darkness. Santhor cowered by the cabin, his arms gripping a rope as tightly as he could. Even Lysandra no longer moved. Water crashed over their heads every few seconds, and the ship was menacingly close to being submerged. The wind tugged and pulled and tore at the sail but the soaking canvas held. Everything was black and cold. The warships appeared like shadows in the storm, fleeting shapes visible only when lightning burned the sky. At one point Santhor heard the screams of men as they fought the same wind and waves. The resounding crack and splintering of wood echoed over the ocean. Ships sunk to the depths of the ocean.

The prince closed his eyes and waited.

When he opened them next, a splendid orb of silver hung in a star-flecked sky. The wind still howled, but its strength was dwindling. The sail had held and was now full with salty air. Lysandra clung to the wheel, exhausted by the effort. Behind them, the storm was still sweeping over Gales. The province was shrouded in impenetrable clouds, bolts of lightning searing the sky and the echoes of thunder and dying men soaring over the ocean.

"We made it..." Santhor croaked, his voice broken by the tempest.

Lysandra did not hear him, but she guessed what he had said. "This is only the eye of the storm. We have a long way to go."

The prince no longer cared. He sat naked beneath his drenched blankets, shivering at every blast of wind. The world was serene around him, peaceful. He had left a ruined Gales behind, a Gales torn by war, a land that would kneel to its enemy. He had failed his father, Nicolar, Valmyr and all the others. He had deserted them.

He did not deserve to live.

"Why did you save me?" He asked. The last days had flown past in a blur, the last few hours were mere flashes of memory in his mind. Had Nicolar known that she would be waiting for him after his fall? Had he planned it the whole time? Santhor realized that the orator had been aware of everything the entire time; Algard's treason, the impossibility for Gales to win the war, the strength of the pyrocrats.

"He told me to," Lysandra answered absentmindedly as she returned to sailing her ship. Dozens of ropes hung loose, the deck was flooded and the sail had been torn in several places. "He knew everything."

"Then why did he let me fight the war, knowing that Algard would betray us all along? Thousands could have been saved..."

Lysandra stopped what she was doing and met the prince's eyes. She was silently weeping, tears running down her already wet face.

"No one will be saved," she said. "They came to kill every last one of us. None will be spared. A war was the only thing that could have prevented the massacre."

Santhor did not understand. Anger made his blood tingle in his veins. "We could have stopped Algard!"

"It was too late, we were too late," the captain hung her head. "Too many men and women were already loyal to him. They will regret it, but it is too late. You came too late."

"Me?"

"A prince cannot win over a land in months, Santhor! A foreigner cannot prance into one's home and rule it... It takes time, trust, devotion. Perhaps if your father had sent you years ago. Nicolar tried as hard as he could, but there was too little time."

"So did I."

Lysandra wiped her nose with her sleeve and gave no answer.

Santhor let the silence hang for a short moment and then broke it. "Where are we going now?"

"West."

"What waits for us there?"

"I am not sure..." Lysandra, for the first time, showed a flicker of fear. "I have sailed every sea there is to sail, but I have never crossed the ocean. No one has. It was the last thing Nicolar asked me to do."

The prince lowered his head, then looked back over his shoulder at the province he had ruined. Vivid images came to his mind, of the fortress burnt to the ground, the people enslaved or slaughtered, Nicolar tortured and killed. It was impossible for him to tell himself that it was not his doing. He could have protected the province, been a better prince, a stronger prince. Gales would become a scorch mark on the face of the world because of him.

"We could have saved more people..." Santhor said. "Why me? Why not the women and children and innocents? Nicolar made a mistake..."

"You do not understand," Lysandra rose. In the darkness, she made a sharp figure, with her roughly cut hair and a foot placed on the bannister. "It was all about you. This war. Your father sending you here, Nicolar teaching you, the enemy trying to kill you."

"I never wanted this," Santhor's head was spinning.

"Neither did I," Lysandra barked back. "Even I do not understand completely who you are or why you are so important. All I know is that Nicolar asked me to take you west and that is what I will do. We may find answers across the ocean."

"Or we may die on the way."

"Or die if we stay. There is no other answer. When your father asked you to go to Gales, you went. It is no different with me."

"With you?" Santhor, despite the cold numbing his mind, jerked up. "Nicolar... was your father?"

"Yes," she whispered, then threw a dark look at the prince, "but all I ever heard since I was a child were stories about you. Santhor, the boy who would save the world. Santhor the Prince."

"He spoke of me that long ago?"

"Of course," she spat. "And twenty years later, here I am stuck with you on a ship, with no home, no father, no answers."

Santhor did not know what to say. More and more guilt was piling in his heart, but he was beginning to feel as if none of it was his fault. How many men had toyed with him? His father and Nicolar and the pyrocrats... All trying to teach him or kill him or protect him. Why had nobody ever told him?

"Why?" The prince exploded, shouting. "Why me? I never asked to be a prince or to come to Gales or to fight a hopeless war! They forced me! They came to kill me in my sleep! They sent armies to raze an entire country to the ground!"

"Did your father tell you nothing?" Lysandra smirked, ignoring Santhor's outburst.

"No," the prince seethed.

"You," the captain said, keeping her eyes on the dark horizon, "are an Aysr."

"What does that mean?"

"I never learned that much," she grinned, pointing at the ocean. "West, my father said. Go west. And that is where I will go."

Santhor's mouth moved but no words came out. Hundreds of questions swirled in his aching head. Like Lysandra, there was only one thing he knew.

Look towards the ocean. Towards the West.

With war-torn Gales behind them, Santhor and Lysandra struck out over the storm-riddled ocean and heeded Nicolar's last words.

The prince of the realm had been usurped. The prince of Gales had been defeated.

Santhor Aysr looked west over the endless expanse and wondered what lay beyond.


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