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The palace library was a quiet place, just the way I liked it. In the early morning, it was quietest of all, with the pale morning light filtering in through the windows, the birdsong floating in from the palace gardens, and the rustle of parchment as I, Prince Endomer of Korin, lost myself in the pages of a dusty old book about ancient civilizations. No one else was around at this early hour.
I stood, stretched my arms and turned my gaze out the window. The capital city of Phylamoria stretched for miles, the red shingled rooftops glowing golden in the light of the rising sun. It was a layered city, with arches reaching over buildings to walkways that led to another tier of dwellings. Little puffs of smoke drifted out of chimney stacks.
My gaze fell on the paper calendar that I had hung up on the wall near the window. One week left until my fifteenth birthday. I blew out a long sigh. This was going to be the longest week of my life, but it would never be long enough. My fifteenth birthday had been hanging over my head my entire life like a dark thundercloud ready to spit out lightning.
I walked to the wall where Nono lay curled up in her basket, her little pink nose quivering in her sleep. Nono was a kip, a round, furry, big-eared creature that fit in the palm of my hand. She’d wandered out of the forest and into the palace courtyard five years ago as a pup, limping horribly. I found her, patched her up, and released her. But apparently she liked me, and she returned the palace no matter how many times I sent her away. So I kept her. Sometimes I read reports and books aloud to her. She always listened, watching me with unblinking eyes.
I lifted the jar of fish that sat on the shelf and poured a few fish into Nono’s bowl. Her nose twitched rapidly and she opened her enormous violet eyes. She scuttled to the bowl and hopped onto the edge of it, peering intently at her breakfast. I smiled. Watching that little ball of fur behave like a hunter always tickled my funny bone.
I turned around.
Hap stood near the door. He was the son of the palace steward and he’d grown up here in the palace. When he was seven years old, he’d been assigned as my personal servant. He was two years younger than I and thin in a wiry way. He had a perpetually polite expression on his face, which was topped by floppy flaxen hair.
“The ambassador from Shastahan will be arriving shortly, my lord,” he said. “Your presence is requested in the main hall.”
I could hear the bustling noise of palace activity growing in the halls. I tapped on the edge of Nono’s basket. “See you later, my fuzzy friend,” I whispered, and turned to leave.
When I joined my family in the main hall, Father stood near his throne, talking to several advisors. Most days he wore a light crown of intertwined silver and gold leaves, but today – in honor of the guest – he wore the heavier gold crown studded with rubies. He was dressed in rich, dark colors and he cut an impressive figure, tall and athletically built, with a proud bearing. He was dark-haired like I was, though he was graying at the temples and in his short beard.
Mother stood with them, but she stepped towards me when I entered the room. She was nearly as tall as Father and just as proud-looking, but she was fair and blue-eyed where he was dark. “Ah, good, you’re here,” she said as I approached. “How are you this morning, darling?”
“I woke early. Got a good bit of reading in.”
“I can see that.” She took one of my hands and rubbed a smudge of ink off. “Stand straight, please.”
As I lifted my head and set my shoulders, I glanced around to see who was in the room. All the important members of the court were gathered. They stood silently near the edges of the room as we waited for the ambassador to arrive.
I caught sight of my twin brother Krollis sitting on the shoulder of the marble statue of our great-grandfather that stood against the back wall, his arm slung around the statue’s head. There wasn’t much in the palace that Krollis hadn’t yet climbed. Lately, he was only indoors to sleep and eat, like there was some restless spirit in him, constantly driving him to keep moving. His shoulder-length hair was slightly damp now, probably recently washed after a morning ride.
Though Krollis and I were twins, we scarcely looked like brothers. He looked the way everyone expected a prince to look – close to six feet tall and still growing, broad in the shoulders, easy smile on his face. He had Mother’s coloring but his skin was brown from many hours spent outdoors. I was dark like Father and five foot five if I stood straight. My shoulders were the opposite of broad. A string of childhood illnesses had stunted my growth and left me the small one in a tall family. Mother said I made up for it in other ways.
Krollis pointed out one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that faced the front of the palace. “He’s coming,” he announced. “I see the coach.”
Father glanced at Krollis, his gaze sharpening when he saw where Krollis was sitting. “You will behave yourself while our guest is here.”
Krollis scooted off, his smile a little sheepish. “Yes, sire.”
Father strode toward the towering throne set near the back wall. He settled onto it, looking not unlike the imposing statues that stood nearby. He even had the same inscrutable expression. Baclen, the king’s bodyguard, loomed in the shadow of the throne.
Mother sat in the throne next to Father and Krollis and I took our places, flanking the king and queen. The lords and ladies formed two lines to either side of us, curiosity on their faces. This was a new ambassador and everyone was eager to see if he’d be someone who would connect well with our court. Shastahan had always been a good ally for Korin throughout the ages, particularly when it came to trade, but their choices of emissaries left something to be desired.
The front doors groaned open. A servant stepped inside. “Lord Zalando, in representation of His Royal Excellency Emperor Palti, Ruler of Shastahan.” He moved aside.
Lord Zalando swept into the hall. He was a young man with slicked back dark hair and a neat beard. He crossed the large room with quick strides, footsteps echoing, then flourished a bow. He straightened and clicked his heels. “Your Royal Majesty. What a great honor to be here. A great honor.” He beamed at everyone around him. It was a somewhat oily smile. “A great honor, indeed.”
If he said “a great honor” one more time…
Lord Zalando bowed his head towards Father’s advisors. “A very great honor.”
I glanced at Krollis. He bit his lip and ducked his head to hide his smile. He was getting better at keeping a straight face. When we were ten years old, he would giggle whenever he heard a name or word he found amusing.
Father didn’t miss a beat. He nodded at the lord. “The pleasure is ours. Welcome to Korin.”
“I have long awaited to visit your glorious country.” Lord Zalando turned and swept an even more elaborate bow to the queen. His head almost touched his toes. I wondered if that hurt. “Your Royal Highness,” he went on. “The grace and wisdom of Queen Neralyn are spoken of until the distant shores, but the tales of your beauty do not do you justice.”
The queen gave him a cool nod. “Thank you, Lord Zalando.”
I smirked to myself. The queen, like many members of the court, found the ambassadors from Shastahan irritating. She also hated flattery. Between those two things, this man had just put himself on her bad list.
Lord Zalando turned back to the king. “His Royal Excellency Emperor Palti, in his extreme graciousness, has sent you a gift.” He motioned behind him. “In the courtyard of your splendid palace you shall find a wagonload of presents as well as ten of Emperor Palti’s finest horses.”
“Thank you,” Father inclined his head. “The emperor’s gift is greatly appreciated.” He turned to Naswall, the palace steward, a bald, bony man who was the father of my servant Hap. His expression rivaled his son’s for the perfect mixture of bored and polite. “Naswall,” the king said, “please see to it that the gift is stored properly.”
Naswall bowed and dispatched a servant with a simple gesture.
“Now,” Father said, “You’ve had a long journey, Lord Zalando. I’m sure you wish to freshen up before breakfast.”
“Yes, indeed, Your Majesty. Thank you.” He bowed again.
A servant stepped forward and led the dignitary out of the room.
Krollis watched him leave, then looked at Father. “That’s it? We all gathered in here just to watch him prance around?” He bowed exaggeratedly. “What a great honor, Your Majesty. What a great honor.”
Many of the lords glanced at Krollis with amusement, but the king didn’t seem as pleased. He cast a particularly imposing look at Krollis. I knew how quelling it felt to be on the receiving end. Still looking at Krollis, the king said, “Naswall, is breakfast ready?”
“Good. Transfer Lord Zalando’s belongings to his room.” Father stood. “Come. Let us eat.”
I turned and followed my family to the largest dining room. I hoped this wasn’t going to take long. I really wanted to get back to the library.
We entered the dining room and made our way towards the head table. As we passed the row of tall windows, Krollis let his hand trail along the thick, embroidered drapes. We ascended the three steps to the raised platform where the royal family dined. The dining room filled with noise as everyone tok their seats, voices echoing in the domed ceiling.
The tables were spread with nearly every dish available in Korin – stuffed bird and platters of lamb, an endless assortment of vegetables. The ambassador from Shastahan would only be in the capital city of Phylamoria for two days. Every effort would be made to impress him.
As soon as Father pulled his seat in, Lord Korvane leaned over his shoulder and spoke to him in quiet, urgent tones. Korvane said most things in urgent tones, like every thought of his was gravely important. At age seventy-five, he was one of the oldest advisers. His shoulders were hunched and his skin was wrinkled, but he still moved about quite spryly and, as the Minister of Foreign Relations, did a fair bit of traveling.
Then Lord Zalando strolled in with an escort of personal guards and servants and I heard Father say to Lord Korvane, “We will resume this discussion later.”
A servant pulled out a chair for the ambassador at the end of our table. Lord Zalando snapped his cloak back and sat down. “What an elegant feast!”
“Are you greatly honored?” Krollis asked under his breath. Mother shot him a look of warning. He flashed a bright smile in return.
The king began to eat, and the meal began. As I reached for my bread, Krollis announced, “I rode all the way to Briar’s Keep and back this morning. It took me less than an hour each way.”
“I’d rather you didn’t ride through the marshes, Krollis,” Mother said.
Krollis shrugged. “I know my way. Also, if I ride fast enough, my horse’s hooves don’t sink into the marsh. It’s pure science.”
“No, it’s wishful thinking,” I muttered.
Lord Zalando leaned forward. “And this must be one of your princes?” He gestured to Krollis.
“Yes, this is Prince Krollis,” Father said.
Krollis set his fork down and gave his princely smile, the one that put everyone at ease. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Lord Zalando. Welcome to Korin.”
Lord Zalando dipped his head, then asked, “And where is your other son?”
Father regarded him for a moment, then motioned towards me, “Prince Endomer.”
“Ah.” Lord Zalando’s gaze landed on me, noticing me for the first time. “Yes, of course. I did not see you there.” He chuckled.
I nearly commented that he, on the other hand, was hard to miss. Instead, I smiled politely.
“The birthday of the princes is fast approaching, is it not?” Lord Zalando said.
“Yes, at the end of next week. They will be fifteen years old,” Father said. “As of now, they do not know which is the older twin. The queen and I decided when they were born to keep this information from them, as well as from the entire kingdom. We did not want one son to feel superior, knowing he’d be the one to inherit the kingdom. On their fifteenth birthday, we will announce which one is older. Next week, they will be ready and mature enough,” he glanced pointedly at Krollis, “to accept their destinies.”
“How very interesting,” Lord Zalando spread marmalade on his toast. “If they don’t know which is older, they don’t know which of them will be king.”
“That is correct. They will find out on their birthday.”
I glanced at Krollis. He was scraping up the last of his meal, seemingly unconcerned about all of this. I dropped my gaze to my plate, a nervous tremor running through me. One week left and I would find out whether I would grow old with my books in the library, or take on the burden of the kingdom. The idea of me sitting on the throne was ridiculous. I could barely lift a sword off the ground. But the other choice was Krollis, the prince who was never on time, never where he was supposed to be, and had the attention span of my pet Nono.
There was no positive outcome, no matter how I looked at it.
“Father, I’m going to Woodhaven today,” Krollis said. “Lord Vale’s son told me there’s to be a jousting competition.”
“You’re going on the barg hunt with Sir Adaire,” Father said. “Or did you forget?”
Krollis smacked his forehead. “Oh, that’s right! I forgot about that.”
“Endomer,” the king said, “I’d like you to join the barg hunt with Krollis today.”
My head snapped up. “Me?” Outdoor activities generally led to injuries on my part, so I did my best to avoid them. “A hunt?”
“Barg hunting is a princely sport. I think it would be a good experience for you.”
I stared at Father for a few long seconds, even after he moved the discussion back to Lord Zalando. I blew out a long breath. There went my hopes of spending the rest of the day in the library.
When the meal was over, I fell into step beside the queen. “Mother, I think I’d rather not go barg hunting.”
“Nothing terrible will happen if you step outside of your comfort zone, Endomer.”
“I step out of my comfort zone all the time. Last week I wrote a report on mining.”
“That isn’t quite what I meant. Sir Adaire will be leading the hunt. I’m sure he’ll look after you.”
“He hates me.” Sir Adaire had been Krollis’ sword master when we were younger. He had been my sword master, too. For a month. And then he gave up.
Mother stopped in front of the palace’s main entrance and turned to face me. “Sir Adaire does not hate you. And truthfully, the reason you’re going is because your father and I want you to spend more time with your brother.”
I blinked. When and where and how would Krollis and I spend more time together? We had nothing in common. Would Father send him into the library to study ancient languages with me? Did Krollis remember where the library was?
“Naswall is going to bring you several royal economy reports,” Mother said, “Do me a favor and check through them before you leave. I’m off now to meet the Duchess of Kail. There’s been some politics in her area and your father asked me to see to it. I’ll be here when you get back. And cheer up, maybe you’ll even enjoy yourself.”