The youngest son of Queen Tamara of Valdemar was a scheming brat from the day he realised that if he bit his older brother in the arm hard enough during Court meals, said older brother would elbow him in the head and tip over his dinner, Mother would scold, and Nurse would come and take him back to the nursery, where he could eat his pottage in peace without the staring eyes of a hundred well-dressed nobles upon him.
In lessons he would squirm—not enough to be sent to stand in the corner, but enough to tip over his sister Liva's inkwell—and pull faces, usually while his brother Urs was reciting the family history or Liva was trying to spell out a difficult word. In weapons training he would concentrate just enough to not get smacked (usually) but not enough to progress further—and he would do this with a pout and a shrug and a smile, as if Quintin Farrier did not know well that young Prince Gawald was capable of more.
To his mother the Queen he was nothing but polite—cajoling and sly; too overt in his desire to persuade (for a new mount, a beautiful inkwell encrusted with amber, a set of toy Heralds on tiny Companions)—but always unfailingly polite. And he was often called upon to be polite to his mother, escorted down the long corridors of the Palace by the Queen's Own or the Third Minister of Something—or the castle cook—in order to wait patiently until the Queen (or the Queen's Guard) called him in. The Queen was generous with her youngest child both in time and gifts: she had four princes and princesses, and desired the fifth to be as free as reasonably possible, but as he grew older and more determined in what he wanted, her generosity became leniency then overindulgence.
By the time he was 12, the castle whispered that Gawald was ruined, nothing but trouble, a blight on the family name—and by extension the kingdom. He had finally outgrown the need to scream and yell at servants, but still only did the bare minimum in lessons and refused to learn archery or to play the lute; and he had a troubling habit of riding horses to the brink of exhaustion in attempts to keep up with his older, Companion-mounted siblings.
It was thus something of a surprise when, four days after his thirteenth nameday, a young Companion by the name of Shayla walked up to him as he was throwing appleseeds into the formal gardens, stared deeply into his eyes, snorted slightly, and then pushed him into the fishpond.
The Heralds—and the Companions that chose them—were the centre of life in Valdemar, especially in Haven, where the seat of government required Heralds on more of a day-to-day basis than in the borderlands and the small rural villages. Gawald could no more imagine his mother without Lyla ever present than he could imagine life on the moons. Heralds were patient and quiet, always ready to listen—good Judges, for they had to be, when riding circuit—and always fair. His mother had met his father at Collegium, or so Urs had told him.
Gawald dimly remembered his father as a kind, gentle man with a soft smile for his youngest son. He had died when Gawald was five, and Gawald remembered the funeral as hours and hours of standing in short robes and a coronet to the side of his brothers, holding hands with Liva and trying not to squirm—and, later, escaping his nurse one evening long past bedtime, finding his mother quietly sobbing in the courtyard, her Companion Lyla standing guard.
He had never thought he would be a Herald, with four older siblings and all of them good in that inexplicable way all Heralds were. He was louder than the rest put together and much, much less devoted to duty. And then suddenly there was Shayla, the most exuberant of all the young Companions, who he had chased round the Field when she was barely able to walk, him grinning wildly and her throwing back twinkling sorts of glares. And she loved him—him!—he could tell, even though he was the least of the Royal family.
Princess Avasolarwe of Rethwellan was, until the summer she turned fourteen and her mother produced a baby boy, the presumed heir to the throne, and as such her childhood had revolved around all the usual lessons of statehood as well as dancing, etiquette, and riding a horse in a ladylike fashion. She had eschewed the dancing and etiquette wherever possible, preferring to discuss tactics with the head of the Guards and breeding lines with the Stable Master—but her mother had managed to get her to stand still long enough to learn all of the fitting depths of curtsey, and for her father (who was very proud of her) she had learnt to dance.
When she could—which was approximately once a month, give or take—she would take long rides outside the Capital with only two armed guards for company, and she would visit the small villages on the outskirts of the forests, where she would get off her steed, shake out her skirts, and smile. For her troubles, the villagers fondly called her Princess Sola, and they adored her.
She loved her baby brother, loved him when he was a toothless, swaddled infant, and loved him still more now that he was old enough to follow her round on his fat little pony and bring her flowers from her garden. She’d spent years watching the gardeners; had pled with her parents and received a set of rooms with their own small courtyard with dozens of pots in which she could plant. It hurt her to think of all the years in which she had thought she would be Queen someday, and how easily the Court had refocussed around her brother—so she tried not to think of it, and thought instead of the way her baby brother looked when he toddled towards her, grinning around his milk teeth.
There had been trade between Rethwellan and Valdemar for almost as long as both countries had existed. Over the centuries, customs and excise had waxed and waned as Rethwellan found cheaper supplies of iron ore elsewhere and Valdemar had developed a burgeoning industry of fine woollen fabrics. And, of course, the relationship between various traders and merchants had influenced Crown policymaking, just as political pressures from either Crown changed the ways in which farmers spoke to their counterparts just across the border.
This latest round of negotiations was not going as smoothly as many before had: problems with the official translators had drawn out the drafting of the contracts a full season longer than expected, and King Ygress was proving intractable on the subject of a 3% tax on Valdemaran produce (local producers, he felt, deserved a helping hand; there’d been particularly bad weather that autumn).
Eventually, though, a deal was struck, the officials of both sides clearly pleased with the product of their respective monarch’s dinnertime conversation. After the diplomats had seen themselves out, King Ygress sighed heavily, shucked off his crown, turned to the Queen, and said, “Now we shall speak about Avasolarwe, yes?”
Queen Tamara smiled. “Of course, Ygress. We were very pleased to see her last summer; she spent a lovely time riding with Liva.”
“But it's terrible, Tamara! Rissandra and I brought that girl up to be a Queen – and a fine ruler she would have been—and I can't imagine what prospects she has. We never betrothed her as we would have if she'd been a younger daughter, and now if there are any eligible heirs left, we can't find them. She's not getting any younger, and it saddens me to think of so promising a girl becoming just a maiden aunt in her brother's court.”
“Oh dear,” Queen Tamara murmured. “Have I told you about Gawald? He’s just been chosen—We’re very proud—but, oh, he’s taken to pranking the other Trainees, sometimes quite cruelly. His brothers and sisters never—we hardly know what to do with him!”
“My Sola is just the same—goes out riding overnight, won’t let her bodyguards stick to her. I thought she was going to give her mother an apoplexy last spring, though at least she seemed remorseful when I told her that she made her mother weep with rage. What are your plans for young Gawald? I know you’ve made arrangements for the older four.” The King looked genuinely curious, and oddly intent.
“Well,” the Queen hesitated, “it’ll be several years before he’s done with training—and I had thought to hold off making arrangements until his first assignment—but I think perhaps…”
“You have to admit,” King Ygress said, “that it would be convenient for both of us—and a good marriage, perhaps, for all that. And they would be welcomed with open arms in both courts. No—do not give me an answer now; I can see you wish to think it over. But—" and he reached for his crown "—We would be very grateful if you would give it your deepest consideration, Your Majesty.”
“We will indeed consider your proposal, Your Majesty.”
When Gawald was 14 and Sola 20, the contracts were signed and they met for the first time as betrothed. It was in Petras, at the palace: a tall structure in the Rethwellan style, all sharp corners and brass detailing. There was a gryphon's treasure of marble in the grand foyer and a very stern-looking Seneschal standing two steps behind the King. Sola was wearing a long red dress in the local fashion that did not suit her in the slightest and looked profoundly uncomfortable. Gawald found out months later that they had kept her indoors for almost a month in preparation, dousing her skin in lemon juice as an attempt at fading her freckles. It hadn't worked. Gawald himself was in his Trainee greys, dusty from the ride and smelling slightly of Companion.
The contracts were signed barely a month later, Gawald and Sola having admitted privately to their respective parents that they weren’t violently opposed to the match and both aware that the marriage would allow them a degree of freedom few other possible options could match. Sola was quietly a little disappointed; she’d had her eye on one of the local barons, a kind man with stables the envy of almost the entire court and a great swath of land to the north of Petras. Instead, she was being signed away to a Valdemaran princeling with an allegedly talking horse and several years of growth still to come—and she was 20 already; if he should die before they married, which would not happen for several years, she would probably never marry, never have children.
Gawald was unfailingly polite when they met in public, but a little rude—intemperate, perhaps—during the very few moments they had alone but for her chaperone. “It’s not that I don’t esteem you greatly, your Highness,” he said awkwardly, 3 days before the Valdemaran envoy was set to depart, and behind him Shayla snorted.
Sola merely sniffed.
Excerpt, a letter sent from the Palace at Petras to the Palace at Haven, early summer 912AF, from Princess Avasolarwe of Rethwellan to Prince Gawald of Valdemar.
Thank you for the very kind letter you sent enquiring of my health. I have recovered from the slight cold I contracted shortly after your departure, and am now well enough to go riding again.
I have enclosed a salve of my own preparation for your Companion. No doubt she is in good hands already, but perhaps if she should run a trifle too fast the salve will soothe her.
Excerpt, a letter sent from the Palace at Haven to the Palace at Petras, midsummer 912AF, from Prince Gawald of Valdemar to Princess Avasolarwe of Rethwellan.
The Princess Avasolarwe
I hope this letter finds you well. Thank you for the salve, Shayla really likes it. I've sent along a bookmark made of her hair. She said you might like it. The Queen says we might envoy down to see you at Midwinter [...]
Excerpt, a letter sent from the Palace at Petras to the Palace at Haven, late spring 915AF, from Princess Avasolarwe of Rethwellan to Prince Gawald of Valdemar.
... but you will be very sad to hear that Trix has died; that abcess on her forelock never cleared up and in the end Brill and I agreed it was best if she did not suffer needlessly. I miss her.
Do tell me of your sister’s latest child—she must surely have delivered by now? Has the naming ceremony occurred? I enclose a little pin from the King and Queen, along with a shawl from myself, with the hope that you will disclose all in your next letter (or, failing that, ask your sister to write to me once she feels able)…
Excerpt, a letter sent from the Palace at Haven to the Palace at Petras, early spring 917AF, from Prince Gawald of Valdemar to Princess Avasolarwe of Rethwellan.
… and you will, no doubt, be very pleased to learn that I will personally meet you at the Border (well, accompanied by several Guards and two of my fellow Heralds, Jirah and Meas).
They were twelve miles from the border when a rustling in the trees made Shayla pull back her ears and tense beneath him. He reached for his knife immediately, just in time to deflect a blow from a bandit dressed in ancient, dirty Healer’s robes—a country trick, to blend with the scenery—who had just dropped on him from a branch above.
"—Gawald!" Sola yelled from behind. "Duck!" But it was too late for that, and the second bandit's staff caught him twice: first, hard across his ribcage, and second, in his skull.
When Gawald opened his eyes again, his mother was sitting quietly at his bedside reading through some of her intermenable papers. He was not sure, but he thought he was at the Healer's Collegium, back in Haven—and he could feel any pain, so surmised that he must have been there for some time. He blinked slowly, looking around: there was a large window half-covered in drapery and cracked open to let the spring winds in; his mother, of course, and her two guards standing solemnly by the door; and the most astonishing array of plants he had ever seen in his life, collected in old pots and half-cracked teacups and half the Palace's collection of fine urns—all of them green and strong, and all of them budding.
His mother looked up, finally, and saw him looking back at her. Her eyes widened, and then the most brilliant smile bloomed on her face.
“The plants?” he asks.
“Your princess brought them—she has spent most her days here, and much time caring for Shayla. She says it makes her happy to be doing things—oh, Gawald, I—” but then Sola entered, and his mother stood for her.
"Sola?" Gawald asked. She was standing in front of the windows, stroking absently at the feathered leaves of a fern and looking anxious, he thought.
"You've been asleep almost three weeks. The Healers said—but of course you can never know for certain, and—"
"And I," and she stared straight at him, hazel eyes shining and determined. "I find that the prospect was... Well, I had not realised how much I was looking forward to being your bride until I feared it lost."
He reached out to touch her hand, and held on. "I'm very glad," he said fervently.
The tale of Prince Gawald of Valdemar and Princess Avasolarwe of Rethwellan has been told as a bedtime story for many centuries. What started as a marriage of expediency, to further align the interests of their respective nations, soon became a real marriage of comfort and love. For many years the Prince and Princess divided their time, and that of their children, between Haven and Petras—though, in all their many weeks of travel, they were never set upon by bandits again. Sadly, though, Avasolarwe’s brother, young King Faranthellis, died in a riding accident a bare three months after his lady wife had died in childbirth, and so it was that the Prince and Princess became Queen Avasolarwe and her Prince Consort Gawald. Their reign was long and noble—but that is a story for another time.