I was the prince of Gosli, or, at least, I thought I was. It was a reasonable enough stance to take, considering the evidence: I lived in the palace, everyone who saw me addressed me as Prince Tamen, I wore the prince's crown and, finally, my most royal parents told me I was. Still, that element of doubt was equally reasonable. In a time when mages were appearing in positions of power all across the land, it was generally considered a good idea to send the heir to the throne somewhere safe, safe being somewhere where a mage wouldn't look. Fostering children off was an especially popular trend in royal families. My mother, however, insisted that they had performed the switch and then reversed it, pulling a fast one on the evil mage by making him think I would be displaced as soon as the true prince returned, and thus probably a good ally.
Although that might have been a trick to make me think I was the prince.
Still, at fifteen years old, I wasn't too concerned about whether or not I was really Prince Tamen or simply Tamen, or someone else altogether. Either I was the prince and would have to deal with the evil mage myself, or I would be an ally to the true prince, since working with an evil mage wasn't all that appealing an idea. They had a rather unpleasant leaning towards blood sacrifices and binding demons, and when there wasn't a prisoner around to use, well, anyone within arm's reach was good enough, the only real requirement being that they had blood.
Why anyone would be interested in seizing Gosli was beyond me. Even if we had fairly good harvests most of the time, there were other countries with substantially better crops. The Wilds meant that no country would attack from that border, but having the Wilds next to us was hardly an advantage, seeing as it was a land of exiles and monsters. There were rumors of a mage-run empire being born, but really. Mages working together? Possibly around the same time that the Wilds decided to act as a nation.
I frowned at the knot in front of me, wishing I could leave the room but blocked by the knot that tied the doorknobs together, locking me in. My tutor stood to one side, watching me silently. We'd had this lesson before. The knot was, evidently, meant to teach me to think in different ways, so that I wouldn't always resort to weapons when I was king. Usually I figured out the pattern of the knot within minutes, but it had already been a quarter hour and I still didn't know what to do with it. It was impossibly twisted, and the heat was making me drowsy.
I looked around the room for some sort of a clue. The walls – stone hung with tapestries to keep the cold out during the winter – were still the same, nothing sat in the many wide window ledges. The thick red carpet of the floor was clean, and even the few pieces of furniture in the room – a bookcase, a desk and a pair of chairs – hid nothing. I glanced back at my tutor and then, deciding to risk his displeasure, pulled my knife from my belt and cut the knot open.
He nodded gravely. "That, my prince, was the lesson for today. It is always best to consider all options before choosing a course of action, but sometimes weapons are the only way."
Proud of my deduction, although slightly annoyed that I hadn't thought of it sooner, I left the room just in time to run into a messenger moving at a pace usually reserved for horses. Plate armor being too heavy to permit speed, the messenger was only wearing a few light pieces of chain mail, which prevented me from taking as much of a hit as I might have. All the same, I was knocked back into the room, barely avoiding crashing into my tutor. I was about to have some firm words with the messenger about appropriate speeds when I saw the black scarf wrapped around his arm, and the parchment he carried with a black seal.
"My prince," the messenger said, bowing. "I have bad news for you. Your father the king was killed in an ambush two weeks ago, and the queen captured along with him. Negotiations began immediately for the return of your queen mother, but before we transferred the money, it was discovered that she had killed herself. My prince, we are without a ruler!"
It was as though I truly had been trampled by a horse, and then had his plate armor-wearing rider fall onto me for good measure. Completely stunned, I could think of nothing to reply with, until the last part of his speech hit me.
"I'm the king now," I explained, hoping no one else heard the quaver in my voice. "Did you think of that?"
"But my prince, wasn't the true prince sent elsewhere to be raised?"
"No. You see, my parents only pretended to switch me, but I was really the true prince all along."
"Oh." The messenger fell silent, passing his black-sealed message from hand to hand. I started to leave the room for the safety of my own chambers, where I could cry freely, but before I could escape, he asked, "Then what of the man in the High Hall who says that he is the king?"
"What?" I straightened my shirt, ran my fingers quickly through my reddish brown hair and wished that I had worn my coronet today. "Have four guards accompany me to the High Hall," I said briskly, still wishing for my room. "I'll deal with this interloper as quickly as possible. Perhaps it was only a part of my parents' ruse, to have another believe he was truly the heir when he wasn't."
Unease was overwhelming my sorrow by the time the messenger returned with not four but ten sword-bearing guards, their faces stiff masks. They too were shaken by the death of the king and queen, but they dealt with it in a different way, hiding it behind the formal expressions that they had never worn around my parents. I felt like I was being suffocated, wanted to go and hide somewhere, but I was the king now, and I was responsible for announcing the news to the kingdom.
My father, killed in an ambush as he returned from the Baron Miskavel's home. My mother, dead by her own hand rather than support her husband's killers. What would the kingdom think of them? Of me? And how could a fifteen-year-old ever hope to assume the throne?
The High Hall was, as the name suggested, a long, slightly narrow room, with a half dozen huge, arched windows in the easternmost room that looked out onto the gardens, the other side of the room hung with richly detailed tapestries. The twin thrones – wood, not gold, and comfortably padded – were occupied already, one by a dark haired teen about my age, the other by an older man who I couldn't quite recognize. There were guards lining the High Hall, none of them familiar to me and all of them with almost bored expressions on their faces.
"My apologies," I began, figuring it would be best to be polite, "but there seems to be some sort of a problem. You see, my parents never exchanged me for another child. I am the true prince and king of Gosli, and I am sure that after looking at the records, you too will agree with this."
The boy looked a bit shocked by this, and looked over at the older man. He, on the other hand, simply pulled a piece of paper from his sleeve and tossed it towards me, although it fell short and landed at my feet. I stared back at him, angry and simply wanting my parents back to make all the problems go away, and made no move to pick it up. When this became evident, one of the guards nearest me picked it up and handed it to me, and I read it quickly.
Take care of him. His country needs him.
That was all it said. Then, below, the royal seal: a thin band of silver gilt surrounding a deep blue set of stylized hills. I read it again and frowned. This wasn't the usual sort of letter that accompanied a royal child who was being sent away for his safety, but then again, my parents had never followed with tradition. Maybe he really was the prince. Or maybe I was.
"And who might you be?" I demanded, staring the boy in the eye, faintly amused by the fact that I could make him squirm like a guilty child.
"He is Leil, the true prince and king of Gosli, and I am the baron Miskavel, his guardian these past fifteen years."
Miskavel. The Baron whose lands my parents had been traveling in when they were murdered, if it had taken the messenger two weeks to arrive. His guards, as was tradition, would have made up half of the king's retinue, and yet the messenger had not reported any men lost in the ambush. He had known.
I strode forward, struggling to keep any expression from appearing on my face, holding the scrap out in my right hand as though to give it back to the Baron who was sitting in my father's throne. The guards moved with me, trained to protect any acknowledged member of the royal family, and signaled them to remain a step behind me. When the baron stood to accept the note – ha! A mistake! One never stands to receive something from someone of lesser rank! – my left hand, my dominant hand, slipped under his arm, my small knife flashing.
"You killed my parents!" I shouted as his guards pulled me back from the bleeding baron, my own escort frozen in a moment of uncertainty – or perhaps something more. "You killed the king and queen!" I struggled, furious and grief-filled, before subsiding, allowing the baron's guards to drag me away. Instead of saying anything, I stared at Leil, silently accusing him of being responsible for my parents' deaths. I had accepted the fact that I might someday have to relinquish my claim to the throne because I wasn't the prince, but because my parents had been murdered? He shifted uneasily, but before he could do anything, Miskavel stood, his left arm, which he had blocked my knife with, bleeding.
"I was afraid something like this would happen. Obviously, a mage has already tampered with Tamen's mind. There is no way to reverse this, and now he is a threat to Gosli's safety. He is hereby exiled to the Wilds!"
Something hard and sharp in my stomach made me stand tall, staring at the baron's guards until they let go of me, looking away from me in embarrassment as I tried to make eye contact with each of them. Then, my knife back at my belt, I bowed coldly to the baron and the boy, who may or may not have been the true prince. "You killed my parents," I announced icily. "Since I suppose sheer dumb luck could not have been the sole factor in your success at this, I congratulate your skill in finding skilled bandits to take care of these matters."
Baron Miskavel's face went red with fury, but I turned my back and made a small gesture with my right hand. "Captain Res, please follow. I will need my horse. Please send one of your men for him. Also, if you would send another for my riding gear?"
The captain bowed to me, though I wasn't sure if it was merely habit that kept him obedient to me, who may or may not – quite probably not, if my parents' murderer was right – have been the true prince. Then two soldiers saluted me and set off, the remaining eight forming a tight box around me, swords now unsheathed.
"You killed my parents," I repeated as I looked back over my shoulder at the two on the thrones. "It is you, not I, who works for a dark mage. And one day I will kill you, but not after you have wished you were dead a hundred thousand times over." Then, with another gesture, my guards and I left the High Hall.
The first soldier, the one who had gone to retrieve my riding gear, met up with us soon afterwards, handing me first my dark brown cloak with the russet lining, as well as the pair of high boots. I donned them quickly, and then accepted the woolen gloves and a sack. My horse was waiting for me when I arrived in the stable, the guard who had gone to fetch him still wearing the stiff mask that hid his grief.
I ran a hand along my horse's neck, looking at the dun hair for longer that necessary before mounting and hanging the sack from the saddle horn. Captain Res and his soldiers dispersed quickly, and I patted my horse's neck before clucking for him to start at a walk. "We're going to be living rather differently for a while, Tarden," I told him as I set out for the gate, looking with bitter amusement at Miskavel's guards scrambling to catch up with me. "We're going to the Wilds, but we'll be back someday."
I stopped, looked behind me. My entire escort had found themselves mounts; all of them carried their necessary gear in the sacks always kept ready against the need for speed. Captain Res saluted me as his dark mare walked up to me. "We are ready to leave, if you will have us, prince."
"And what if Miskavel was right? If I am not the prince?"
He shrugged. "Then you are not the prince. But I think you spoke true, at least, when you named the baron your parents' murderer. So, our perhaps prince, perhaps not-prince, will you have us with you?"
I nodded solemnly, trying to summon up the dignity my father had carried with him like a second skin. "Thank you, Captain Res. We will be leaving now."
"Fall out, double column!" the captain shouted. "Swords at the ready!"
I closed my eyes as Tarden set out along the familiar path and bowed my head, allowing myself to cry silently for my murdered parents when none of the guards could see me. Then my tutor's lesson came back to me, and I shook my head sadly. There had almost certainly been a better way to deal with the baron Miskavel. But none of them appealed to my grief-filled mind as much as the idea of bleeding him to death.
If there was a mage in the Wilds, I would promise him anything if it meant that I could kill Miskavel.