Rhyl was a prince and the child of the prophecy. And it was his nineteenth birthday.
There was no doubt in Rhyl’s mind that his parents had overdone the festivities.
The largest courtyard of the Queen’s Keep had been transformed into something from an old tale. Colorful lanterns scattered beams of light and dancing shadows around the garden, flowers grown just for the occasion flocked in arbors and vases. The amount of food was ridiculous. Pastries from the finest bakeries of Kilev. Rare cheeses from the mountain town of Withe. Even the sunset cooperated, casting red and gold light as if on cue over the glittering crowd of Kitarra’s court.
Perhaps it was a good thing Talo was still traveling because Rhyl was certain his party was bigger, brighter, and more elaborate than Talo’s nineteenth birthday had been. Not that Talo would be jealous… but he would use it to goad their parents endlessly.
Rhyl took another full glass of fruit wine, wondering if nineteen was really worth the celebration. Yes, Rhyl was a prince, just like Talo. But he was not Kitarra’s prince. Not really. He was a prince stolen from his land and brought to another because of a prophecy spoken to a living queen by a dead Guardian. The child who would one day save the Kitarrans from an invisible threat. No one knew why Kitarran babes died so soon, or why the land was rotting away. Rhyl knew little about it. Because no one would tell him. But then, he hadn’t exactly asked.
A niggling suspicion he couldn’t dismiss was that his parents created this grand event to celebrate him entering his twentieth year because they worried he would not see a thirtieth. It was a morose thought, and he knew it, but he had thought it often enough that it was old company. He’d seen the sideways glances from his mother, the worry around her eyes. Rhyl was the child of the prophecy, after all.
He tossed back another sip of wine and let the thought slide away. The wide arches of the courtyard looked west. The dying sunlight glinted like fire on the Ilba River below. Rhyl thought it looked like a painting. Or a battle. The guests oohed and aahed, then danced and drank as the colorful lanterns lit up all around the courtyard, swaying in the gentle evening breeze. It was damn near perfection.
Rhyl’s attention returned to the crowd as another young woman approached with another ornately wrapped package. This girl was very pretty. Rhyl didn’t quite catch her name, and after a moment of polite (and memorized) pleasantries, he placed her gift on the growing pile and the young woman was on her way, blushing hard. It was a performance Rhyl had repeated countless times already that evening. Kitarrans were generous and even though Rhyl had it announced to the realm that he wanted no gifts, the gifts kept coming, usually carried by someone’s eligible daughter.
Rhyl sighed. By Attin’s nipples, he wished Talo were home and not sailing the ocean halfway between Kitarra and Rodan. Talo would stand beside him and mutter amusing observations in his ear. They were both princes; the shared tedium of the position made it tolerable. Talo was his brother, his confidant, his balance, his friend. They had never been apart for so long since Rhyl was brought to Kitarra as a young child.
Well, as the child of the prophecy, Rhyl might lead a doomed life, but there were some advantages. Like magic. Rhyl was sanarii. He could control the elements. Fire. Air. Water and earth were more difficult, but Rhyl wasn’t the best student. Sanarii magic also infused Rhyl’s body, his mind, lending his skill and strength that even he admitted were otherworldly and gave him an advantage. He had tried to deny that he was better and faster with a sword and latha because of practice and athleticism, but no it was magic that made him impossible to beat. Talo, as a Kitarran, his strength and reflexes faster, better than a human, could almost best him. Almost.
But a party was not a battle. Thankfully, with his magic, Rhyl could talk to Talo, mind to mind. His consciousness left the party behind as he reached with his magic, reached for his brother, who was on a boat in the ocean.
Rhyl. Bored already?
Yeah. You’re not here to make things interesting.
Tsk. Surely it can’t be that bad.
It’s not. I just wish you were here. What are you doing?
Oh? Cheating, no doubt.
Of course not!
Rhyl could feel Talo’s laughter touch his mind.
And just like that, Rhyl was snagged away from his magical connection to Talo. The jolt was not comfortable, but it was soon forgotten as Rhyl recognized the young man beside him.
“Corri! I thought you were in Withe,” Rhyl exclaimed, a smile growing on his face to see his friend. Corri looked thinner, paler than when Rhyl had seen him last fall.
“My father invited me back home.” Corri gave him a lopsided smile which restored his handsome features and held out a box wrapped in gold ribbon. Rhyl took the gift, muttering a hasty thanks.
“It’s a vase.”
“There are probably a hundred vases in that tower of gifts,” Corri remarked, gazing at the growing mountain of boxes.
“It’s highly likely. I have no idea what I am supposed to do with all of these.” Rhyl waved vaguely at the pile. Mua would tell him it was not about the things so much as letting the people show their love for him. And she had been queen of Kitarra for what Rhyl suspected was a thousand years, so she knew a thing or two about royal duties. The gifts made him cringe inwardly (though he would never tell Mua). As a child, Rhyl had never questioned his place in Kitarra. But now, turning nineteen, meant expectations. It made him feel…out of place. Every gift felt like payment for a deed unfinished.
Rhyl noticed that the music had stopped, and the crowd parted.
Rhyl’s parents approached, grinning proudly. His father, First Defender of Kitarra, a man known to be of great worth and heart. And his mother, an Allati princess, a sanarii. They looked every bit as royal as their birthright suggested, though neither would ever wear a crown. His mother’s silk dress was the color of the dawn sky, the Defender’s a slightly darker hue. They walked arm in arm and eyed each other in a way that made Rhyl want to cringe and roll his eyes. His parents loved each other deeply, and that love poured over to those around them and to Kitarra itself.
Behind them walked Stone—Prince Arrain, looking every bit like the legend he was. Kitarra’s true prince, its lost and then found prince, Eva’s amourii, known to his close friends simply as Stone.
They were going to make a presentation. Speeches. Rhyl had expected it, but still, the reality was much worse. Rhyl’s face was on fire already. Corri patted his back, winked, and stepped into the crowd.
Aralis and Bren appeared as if from nowhere, as usual, wearing identical expressions of mirth, eager to bask in Rhyl’s embarrassment. The little demons. The rest of Rhyl’s family arranged themselves around him: Queen Arrah, her crown of delicate, ornate chains and beads tinkling, a queen’s guard at her elbow to support her should she need it; Aisha and Tilley, who had traveled with Turk and Bellah from Pinnae to celebrate; and Murryn and Tarran with little Tavi, who was not so little anymore, lurking at their elbow.
Aiyan and Mila were absent as they had accompanied Talo to Rodan. Rhyl thought of those gone, and it was a lash to the heart. Old wise Mehmet and his endless stories. Loyal Anfru who had always looked the other way when Rhyl and Talo raided the cook’s larder. Gods, sometimes he missed those old men so much he couldn’t breathe.
Rhyl turned his attention back to his parents and Stone. Stone’s white fur gleamed, and his black markings looked like jewelry. His tailored vest and trousers were green and gold. Rhyl’s father wore the sigil of the First Defender in gold upon his shoulder. His dark hair and short beard were flecked with gray, but he was still very much a man in his prime.
Rhyl looked at his mother. Eva’s hair was long and silver-gold like his own. Rhyl had the same eyes as his mother–how many times had they been commented on? Now that he was older, Rhyl could see her fragility when he had only ever seen her strength. And yet, he knew she would fight the world for him.
Stone held out his arms to get the crowd’s attention. Rhyl noticed the slightest jitter in Stone’s hands, but no one else would.
“Tonight, we celebrate.” Stone’s deep voice echoed easily through the courtyard. “Tonight, our young prince turns nineteen. We brought him here when he was but a wee boy. We took him from his home and gave him ours—a decision not made easily. And he has become our prince, our child of the prophecy, and we couldn’t be more proud of how he has grown.”
Then Illiah, as First Defender, stepped up, his voice no less regal or commanding. “Rhyl, my son. If I had known that day when we were taken from Jullayah, ripped from our family and friends, that I would see you grow safe, sound, and healthy into the young man before me, I would have urged the Kitarrans faster. Kitarra is our home, our land. And we are proud to see you as one of them.”
“To Prince Rhyl!” His mother’s voice rang above the crowd.
“Prince Rhyl!” the crowd echoed with cheers and laughter.
“Now, Rhyl, dear heart, the three of us each have a gift for you.” Eva spoke loud and clear, not just for him, but for all those gathered.
Stone stepped forward first and bowed low, offering Rhyl a dagger of Kitarran steel, bright and short. The kind of dagger used for many things–cutting, hacking, killing. But it was also beautiful. The blade was layered steel in a pattern that reminded Rhyl of the whorls and curves of a tree. Before Rhyl could thank him, Stone stepped back and Rhyl’s father stepped forward.
The Defender handed him a small box. It fit in Rhyl’s hand easily and looked suspiciously like a jewelry box. Rhyl lifted the lid to see a ring, but not for a finger. It was larger. It took Rhyl a moment, but then he laughed in delight. “Really?”
“He is yours.”
Rhyl bounced. The ring was from a horse’s bridle–Honey’s bridle. A horse that his father had been training for years. A horse that Rhyl had fallen in love with, as much as one could love a horse. Rhyl hugged his father tight and received a thump on his back for his effort.
Rhyl looked at his mother. She grinned at him. “Here.” In her outstretched hand was a sword. Small, lightweight, but well crafted. The handle leather was oiled but aged. The little etched Cendari leaves glinted in the steel like a secret. His mother’s sword. Rhyl could handle a bigger sword, and well. But he had always loved his mother’s sword and often pirated it away for practice, much to his mother’s amusement and dismay. The little sword was his preferred weapon, even over a latha.
“Thank you,” Rhyl said, feeling the words bone deep. He embraced them each. His family. “I wish Talo were here,” he murmured into his mother’s hair. She squeezed him harder.
“I know. Me too.”
Then, in Kitarran tradition, a great cake was brought out. As tradition dictated, it fell to Rhyl to cut it and serve his guests. Well, not to everyone–that would take all night–but he served it to those closest to him, and the servants did the rest.
“So, how long are you obligated to stay at your own party?” Corri asked, sidling up to Rhyl, licking the frosting off the spiced cake.
“A little while longer, I imagine,” Rhyl said reluctantly.
“Want to come by my place after?”
“Sure,” Rhyl answered with a grin, knowing it was a terrible idea. Talo was always warning Rhyl that Corri was a bad influence. (There was the time Corri bribed Rhyl to drink an entire bottle of fire wine, and they had to drag his sick, nearly unconscious body to Aiyan). But Talo was in the middle of the ocean on a grand adventure while Rhyl was stuck in Kilev. Rhyl was itching to get away from the confines of the palace to do something stupid. “I can be there in an hour.”
Corri smiled, his eyes flashing.
“Was that Scytt’s son?” the Defender asked, coming up behind Rhyl.
“Yes. Corri,” Rhyl told him. The Defender said no more. Corri’s father had been First Defender before Illiah. There was no love lost between the two older men. Rhyl didn’t particularly like Scytt either, but Corri stayed out of his father’s way, so Rhyl had hardly any dealings with the previous Defender.
The hour wore on. The night covered Kilev like a silken blanket. Rhyl danced with more young women—they seemed to multiply. He danced with the queen, then his mother. Then little Tavi, Murryn’s eleven-year-old daughter, insisted he dance with her before she was forced to go to bed. He obliged, even though she was half his size, and it was more than a little awkward, and the whole dance she muttered about noblewomen and their fine clothes and perfect hair and how did they keep their dresses so clean and their shoes from fraying?
“But Tavi,” Rhyl leaned down to whisper in her ear, “none of them can turn into a wolf.”
Tavi beamed, because, of course, as a descendant of the heera people, she could turn into a wolf just like her Uncle Aiyan and Aunt Mila.
After Tavi, Rhyl decided it was time to sneak away from his own party. He made his way to the edge of the garden but caught sight of a young man who looked vaguely familiar. One of Irri’s spies, he was sure. He would be followed. He did not want to be followed. Even if Rhyl was the deadliest person in Kitarra, possessing the ability to control the elements with magic and unbeaten with sword and latha, he was still followed like a little child toddling too close to a cliff. He swallowed his annoyance and came up with a plan.
He wove through the dancers and plucked out a young woman who had previously whispered a very generous birthday offer in his ear. She smiled like a vixen to see him approach and leaned against him as he looped her arm in his, leading her away from the party. She was a bit tipsy from too much fine wine, so Rhyl decided he was likely doing her a favor. He kissed her in the hallway and felt her arch against him. She tasted like wine. He pulled her up stairways and halls toward his chambers.
Just outside his door, once he was sure Irri’s spiders had not followed him out of decency, he found a servant.
“Jean, Lady Yola is not feeling well. Can you see her home?” Rhyl asked.
Yola pouted, then glared at him. “Maybe the rumors are true,” she muttered. Jean bristled, but Rhyl signaled for him to stand down.
“Come, my lady,” Jean said, taking Yola’s arm in his. Rhyl patted him on the shoulder in thanks.
Once Yola and Jean were gone, Rhyl tossed a dark cloak about his shoulders, pulled the hood over his bright hair, and slunk through the palace into the city streets.
The night was tame. The lingering snow adorning Kitarra Peak glinted against a sky pricked by a thousand stars. The air was crisp and promised warm summer nights and bright summer days to come. A soft breeze came down the mountain. The smell of the forest filled Rhyl’s nose.
Corri’s family estate was not far from the public bathhouse. It was a lovely house, but a bit too far from the forest for Rhyl’s liking. The garden was just beginning to bloom and old trees lined the gravel lane leading from the main road up to the big house.
Rhyl ducked around the trees, abandoning the crunchy gravel to wend through the kitchen gardens to the servants’ entrance. It was late, and the servants would be sleeping. It would be easy to sneak in unseen. He paused for a moment. Why did he feel the need for secrecy? What difference did it make if people knew he was visiting Corri in the middle of the night? He shrugged.
He put his hand on the latch, but the door opened before he could twist it.
Corri’s grinning face emerged, cast in lantern light. The front of his shirt was unfastened, and Rhyl caught a glimpse of smooth skin and muscle. Corri’s eyes flashed with a fiery light that made Rhyl’s vision teeter. The varing pulsed around Corri like heat from a fire. Rhyl could see the dark magic because he was not just a sanarii, he was also a candarii. A sorcerer. He was one of a kind, destined to fulfill a prophecy and bring balance to magic and life.
The dark magic smelled of burning metal and ash, yet it was sharp and enticing. The varing dancing in Corri’s smile called to him, welcoming him, pulling him.
This was a terrible idea, but he stepped inside, anyway.
Those who were strong are now weak,
With healing hands, the babes will speak
Those who were defenders are lost
With stalwart heart, the coward's last accost,
Watch for the child of two thrones,
Born with magic in his bones,
A child lit by the stars,
Watch for him, for he shall be ours
~ Tayeh's Prophecy
Copyright 2020 Andrea Gibb / All Rights Reserved