I swear by the light of the sun on the fields and the wind over the seas
For this day and every day to come, that I will
First, serve the realm and all its peoples,
Protect them and show them only wisdom and strength.
Second, love the lands in which we live,
Safeguard the creatures and flora that sustain us all.
Third of all, never waiver in my quest to honour these pledges.
I am the King of this Realm and all this I swear on my mortal life.
- The Monarch's Oath
A sea of trees swayed gently in the cool wind and the tireless birds of the mountain sang from all around. The sky was a brilliant blue, clear save for the faintest white feathers over to the South, where Mount Kinley loomed. Prince Jonathan of the House Archer, First of His Name and Heir Apparent to all Terra, halted his horse and turned to look at the view down the hill. From there he could see the winding trail down to the rolling fields and cosy villages of his father’s kingdom and beyond those, a distant spec on the horizon, the capital city. The summer sun gilded the tiny buildings dotted around the countryside and lit up the tiny spec that was the castle. It was a view he had seen many times, and one he felt truly did his birth-right justice. Despite this majesty he frowned. The Prince felt uneasy even though was unable to express why.
His cousin, Andrew George, Duke of Robin’s Valley, drew level with him. He didn’t say anything, taking in the view, though for a different reason than Jonathan. Andrew’s sister, Erika, was with the rest of the party who had also stopped on the trail, waiting for the Prince to return from the viewpoint. She was no doubt trying to encourage someone to spar with her in the pause. She and Jonathan had been fast friends since the day they’d met, boisterous children both; quick-footed and even quicker-witted, running circles around their nannies as they goaded each other into challenges and daring feats. As the pair of them were stubborn as mules, they’d clashed often and in spectacular fashion. Outside observers at Court had interpreted their spirited words to be heated arguments or lovers’ quarrels – in their later years. Andrew often encouraged such rumours, smile sharp but eyes sparkling whenever he teased the both of them. But in truth, though some tentative teenage overtures where made, there was never much romantic feeling between them. King Henry had been disappointed that no natural bond had formed, as he had initially planned to wed them. But then Fate had offered an infinitely more advantageous match. Jonathan turned back and re-joined the group, saying worriedly.
“We need to hurry if we want to meet them by the tenth hour, we have little time to waste as it is.” The others nodded and they began again down the trail at a quick walk. Andrew took his place beside Jonathan and said casually.
“We can always stop at Belles Town for the night if we can’t make it back to the city.” Jonathan frowned again.
“My father warned against that. The Vulcans would not be satisfied with anything less than Royal accommodations.” He glanced to his left, where one of his oldest friends was just behind him. They exchanged a humour-filled glance and the Prince laughed. “Just because you enjoy the…hospitality of Madam Ruby, does not mean the Vulcans will.” Andrew huffed a laugh, not at all offended by the implication of Jonathan’s statement.
“Maybe it would do those stuck-ups some good! Don’t you agree Charles?” Prince Jonathan’s First Knight, Sir Charles of the House Tucker pressed his lips together to suppress a laugh, aware of his Prince’s eyes on him. Though the Jonathan of old may have laughed along, circumstances had changed. Charles knew that they had to make an effort to get along with their Vulcan neighbours. He hummed, thinking of an appropriate answer when he was saved by an impatient, rapped voice calling from the back of the group.
“If we speed up then we won’t have to find out!” Both the Prince and Sir Charles wordlessly thanked the armsman. The Prince said loudly.
“Yes, good point Sir Malcolm, all due haste!” He kicked his horse and the group raced down the trail. Erika and Andrew fought their way to the head of the group, laughing and teasing each other as the others cheered. Jonathan considered ordering them to cease this revelry, but they weren’t yet close to encountering the Vulcans and it had been a long time since he had heard his party that joyful. The care-free days of their youth were fading; gravity and responsibility lay ahead now.
In a short time, they reached a large clearing. It was already occupied.
“Pinkskin!” The shout echoed in the space and Prince Jonathan and his party slowed, walking over to the group resting their horses by the small stream which wound around the edge of the clearing. The Prince was smiling as he came to a stop and dismounted.
“Shran! It is good to see you again.” They shook hands. Lord Shran was a head shorter than his counterpart and his skin was a white-blue, an evolutionary quirk developed to cope with the sub-zero temperatures of his homeland, Andoria. He and the rest of his race also had small antenna on their heads which would dance to match their emotions. After years of friendship, Jonathan could mostly tell his friend’s mood just by those tips alone. Now, he was excited but wary.
Shran announced to his group.
“Prince Jonathan of the House Archer, beloved by his people, young, fit and strong; throwing it all away to chain himself to a Vulcan.” Without deigning to address any of the claims made by his friend, the Prince smiled.
“It is good to see you’ve arrived here with your usual open mind and tolerance.” Grumbling, half in earnest and half in jest, Shran turned and introduced his party. Some Jonathan had met before, Shran’s personal guard, but there were a few new faces. One was Keval, Shran’s young nephew who had just come of age. He was the eldest son of Shran’s sister, who ruled their clan, making him second in line to a powerful family in Andoria. Despite this, he seemed shy and uninterested in forming allies, completely unlike his brash but clever uncle. Still, Jonathan greeted them all cordially and then turned to see his party had all dismounted, Sir Malcolm organising securing their horses to a knot of trees by the stream. He said to Shran.
“Andrew and Erika you’ve already met,” the humans nodded and Shran advanced, taking Duchess Erika’s hand and kissing it.
“My lady, your beauty still arrests me no matter how many times we meet.” Looking bemused, Erika mock-curtsied.
“Arrested all but your tongue I suppose.” He did not acknowledge her jest, merely bowing as she stepped back to make way for her brother’s brief bow.
“Shran.” Andrew shot a quick smirk to Jonathan as he moved on, but the Prince mostly looked confused before turning.
“Lady Hoshi has recently been appointed as Court Ambassador.” The Lady in question curtsied and said something in Andorian. The party seemed impressed, Shran’s antenna waggling as he replied in kind. But he then switched back to the common tongue understood by all.
“Ah, your keen ears and delightful manners will serve you well in this field, my Lady.” She smiled and inclined her head as the Prince went on.
“And you remember Sir Charles of course.” Charles walked up and shook hands with the Andorian Lord.
“Sir Charles, Lady Talas sends her regrets that she could not visit,” he grinned suggestively, “she was most looking forward to making your acquaintance.” The knight smiled, looking surprised but pleased.
“Why? Have you been telling her false tales about me?” Shran just kept on grinning, and though wary of that well-known expression, Charles just smiled back in his usual friendly manner. “Perhaps next time.” He indicated to the woman shadowing him. “I don’t believe you’ve met my squire, Hess. Finest apprentice-smith in the Capital and a keen swordwoman too.” Shran nodded, expression shifting to jesting.
“Perhaps you will share your methods, unlike your reticent master.” Charles laughed good-naturedly and waved the others over. Malcolm nodded stiffly to Shran; the pair did not shake hands, but the armsman did his introductions.
“My squire, Mayweather, born on the seaship Horizon. He could navigate by the stars alone.” Shran nodded at him and then turned back to the Prince.
“So, you threw over all the fine ladies of Andoria and Terra for a Vulcan.” Mayweather and Hess tensed but the others, who knew of Shran of old, kept still and relaxed. Andrew even smirked. Prince Jonathan did not rise to this, instead agreeing genially.
“It seems my Human Insolence has struck again.” It was an old joke, from their very first meeting in which harsh words had been exchanged. Once the two had gotten to know each other though, it had become a humorous remark they oft repeated. Sometimes, it was to remind themselves of how they were still friends despite their differences. The Andorian smirked and offered his hand.
“Jonathan.” The Prince took it and they shook.
“Shran.” The two shared another smile before Jonathan indicated behind him.
“Charles and Malcolm will escort you back to the Castle.” The Andorian raised an eyebrow.
“You are not yet wed and she already has you kneeling in supplication.” Displaying the level of consideration with which he took the comment by his expression alone, Jonathan gave another short nod and returned to his horse, calling out an Andorian farewell as he went.
“Strong winds until then.” Shran nodded and bowed deeply at Erika before leading his people to their horses. Jonathan noticed some mostly-hidden grins from his own people as they prepared to leave. But as he glanced at Sir Charles, he caught a glimpse of grief.
As he rode away, Jonathan fretted, turning the problem over in his mind again and again. He often worried about the inter-race relations; it was a huge concern at Court as the Human Realm was only recently unified (in comparison to their stronger neighbours) and could not afford another quarrel to escalate into a fresh Civil war. Though not in open war for many years, Andoria and Vulcan were always on the brink of some conflict, be it petty or deadly. The Terran lands were officially neutral but Jonathan’s family had been making in-roads in Andoria, befriending Shran only one of the avenues which they were pursuing, encouraging trade between their lands being another. Though militaristic in nature, the Andorian Court was fortunately not expansionist and once you had gained their trust, Andorians were loyal to the hilt.
At the same time, the Lords of the Silver Forest had been close allies with Vulcan for many years, trading had been established a few generations previously and despite cultural differences, relations were strong. In this new time of peace among all humans, no Terran land could openly stand against the Vulcans. In his wisdom, King Henry had taken advantage of the Vulcan Princess coming of age and pitched his son as a match. He’d risked angering the Andorians, but as the power in the region still remained firmly in human hands, they were willing to begrudgingly accept it. There were those forward thinkers in Andoria who saw cooperation with the Vulcans as inevitable. It was hoped by many that humans could act as a bridge between the other races. What worried Jonathan was the reason the Vulcan King had agreed to the match. He suspected the closeness of the Terran Capital to Andoria itself. Although all three lands shared borders, Andoria and Terra were separated by perilous mountains only locals, both human and Andorian, knew how to traverse. If Vulcans were to learn of the ways and to amass a sizeable force in the area, they would have a potential strong hold within striking distance. Was this a move part of a plan designed to position Vulcan powers in strategic places?
Shran seemed to have a similar suspicion and had taken the engagement as a personal slight. It had taken many grovelling letters and fine gifts before the Andorian Lord had deigned respond. So much so that Jonathan was surprised that his friend had consented to attend the wedding. But perhaps he should have known, Shran was a dramatic but ultimately a practical and sharp-minded tactician. He was also no fool, his mind sharp and quick to see opportunities for advancement, whether for himself or his people. Shran would take full advantage of his friendship with Jonathan to spy on any Vulcan plots against his people. And his sudden interest in Duchess Erika and mention of Lady Talas’ supposed interest in Sir Charles made more sense the more he considered it. Alliances through marriage between Andoria and a human Realm would even the playing field considerably. And grievances were always more satisfying to air in person. Jonathan held in a sigh, straightening in the saddle. For the moment, he put those thoughts out of his mind. He felt confident in Shran and Charles’ mutual respect to keep them from any diplomat incidents on the ride home. Though how he was going to cope when his betrothed entered the city and his life, he did not know.
“Why are you not accompanying your Prince to meet his betrothed?” Charles turned to regard Shran, thinking that he should have been expecting the question. Their Andorian friend was very observant and inquisitive by nature. He left no stone unturned, wanting to know and understand as much as possible about the world and his allies – and enemies – in particular. Some found his blood-hound tendencies highly irritating, but as he was also easily persuaded to share his knowledge, Jonathan and his party had grown to tolerate and even welcome it at times. Charles stated shortly.
“I’m not of sufficient rank. The Vulcans would hardly be impressed by the Prince’s low-born blacksmith greeting them.” Shran, offended on his friend’s behalf, exclaimed loudly.
“But you are an anointed knight of the realm! Raised to your position by the King himself! A close friend and Companion of the heir apparent.” Charles huffed and explained further.
“Firstly, knights do not exist in Vulcan’s peaceful realm…” Shran harrumphed at this joke about the Vulcan hypocrisy concerning violence. They preached peaceful methods to resolve conflicts even as they developed more sophisticated weaponry and trained ever more deadly warriors. These measures were supposedly only meant as deterrents, but Vulcan and Andoria’s bloody history proved the falsehood of that claim. Charles allowed himself a small smile at this before continuing as nonchalantly as he could, “secondly, Companions have no place in Vulcan’s sober, chaste culture.” Shran exclaimed.
“Aha! That’s why they’re so stiff and unyielding! They are suffering from frustrations of the flesh!” Laughing at the coarse suggestion, Charles found himself feeling slightly better. Shran’s outlandish gestures and exaggerated remarks made everything seem a little less serious and all-consuming.
“Indeed. They find any reminder of such carnal matters distasteful. My mere presence may offend them. The fact is, Lady Hoshi, Duchess Erika and Duke Andrew are much more appropriate to greet and accompany the Vulcan party. An Ambassador and blood relatives of the Prince respectively.”
“I am somewhat surprised at the Duke’s inclusion. I had heard that he was no friend to the Vulcans. Wasn’t there some sort of incident a few years ago?” Charles narrowed his eyes, seeing the dig for information. He kept his answer vague before redirecting the conversation.
“Ah, that was resolved a long time ago. You’ll remember that the Duke did not have the best introduction to your peoples either.” Acknowledging that his attempt had not been subtle enough, Shran shrugged and accepted the answer. Charles smiled, trusting Shran enough with a little information. “I suspect the Prince is hoping to mediate a functional relationship between the two. You know him; he starts as he means to go on.” Shran barked a laugh, having heard much of the Duke’s nature from Archer’s affectionate if exasperated stories.
“I wish him well.” Charles laughed with him. Shran smiled but then his expression became earnest. “So, Tucker, now that Archer is soon to be wed, have you yet decided on a wife?” The human’s jaw tightened and he did not answer. “If not then I strongly suggest you consider my fellow clanswoman Talas. She is fiery and adventurous; I believe you will make a fine match. How about another marriage for the good of all our peoples?” He went on, enthused enough with his idea not to notice how silent and still the human had become. “Why should Vulcans claim all the best humans? I can think of no one better to enter our clan than you.” Finally, Tucker unfroze enough to reply.
“I am honoured by your offer, Lord Shran.” Considering his words carefully, he continued. “But I would not want to be split between my duty to the realm and duty to a wife.” Shran conceded the point, he knew that all of the human Prince’s people were loyal to a fault. And he’d heard the implication that Charles did not want to be split between his kind and Shran’s. Though the reluctance did not support their peoples’ new cooperation, Shran was wise enough to realise that personal and national obligations were very different things. “Besides,” Charles went on, “I am not yet ready to settle down.” Lips twitching, Shran did not accept the dismissal of his idea easily, seeing an alternative option.
“Well if those are your only concerns, Keval,” he indicated to his nephew, “is looking for another Companion. He has recently come of age and has only one as of yet. Andorians are encouraged to have numerous Companions to aid in their navigation of the adult world. A human mate would be highly educational for him and for you as well. You should consider entering into an arrangement with him.” Charles followed his finger to observe the Andorian in question. He was a little taller than Shran, but still shorter than most humans, including Charles himself. He had strong, masculine features and was well-built. Of the Andorians he’d met, Keval was probably one of the most attractive by human standards. Charles had previously idly wondered what mating with one would be like and he considered the idea for a moment. But he knew that he just could not bring himself to do it.
“Educational does seem like the right term. But I am not sure what value I could offer one so young. He might look to someone closer to his age.”
“Pah! Do not speak to me of advanced age! You are still well within your prime.”
“I am still unsure of my use to your nephew. I only know of this realm and what my hammer can make.”
“Excuses, excuses, I am beginning to think you do not want to join my clan.” Hearing irritation creeping into his companion’s tone, Charles tried placating him quickly.
“Your Grace, believe me that is not the case.” He opened his mouth to say more but soon shut it again. He did not want to explain his true reason, despite their friendliness, and Shran noticed his discomfiture. His antenna’s twitched as he put his mind to the mystery.
“Prince Jonathan would support this plan, I know it.” Charles winced at this and Shran pushed the crack in the man’s composure. “He will soon renounce all others save for the Vulcan, what use…?” He trailed off as his human friend’s behaviour suddenly made sense to him. Ever the solider, he did not offer sympathy. Instead they rode in silence for a long while, listening to the birds and the low tones of their companions talking of idle things. Finally, Shran said.
“I still urge you to speak to Keval. There is traditionally more than one area of knowledge a Companion can offer.” Charles had regained enough composure to smile softly and jest.
“You just want to learn my forge secrets.” Shran spluttered theatrically, affecting offence. Cutting the act short, though he kept his smile, Charles conceded. “Very well, I suppose I can…open a dialogue with your nephew.” Grinning genuinely and clapping the knight on the shoulder, Shran crowed.
“Welcome to the Clan, Sir Charles.” Despite himself, Charles laughed. They continued talking of other matters as they continued down the narrow path, only wide enough to permit two or three to ride beside one another. Sir Malcolm rode up to them, calling.
“Riders approaching!” Suddenly Charles could hear them as well.
“The Prince?” Shran asked. Charles glanced at Malcolm’s face and did not question the suspicion he saw there. Whilst they were still in the King’s lands bandits and outlaws were few, but not unheard of. The armsman knew well how to discern different groups from the sounds of their approach. Charles grit his jaw and drew his sword, seeing Malcolm and Mayweather had already done so. The Andorians followed suit, one of them notching an arrow. The sound of hooves grew louder and Charles tried to discern how many there were. It sounded like a large party. Focusing his mind like Jonathan had taught him, he gripped his sword and narrowed his eyes as the first horse came into view.
“Where are they? It is not in a Vulcan’s nature to be late.” Erika asked impatiently. The party had arrived at the point where the mountain pass met the King’s Road. Lady Hoshi peered into the path ahead and wondered.
“Perhaps they met some trouble along the way, a loose shoe, a wrong turn.” The Prince shook his head.
“You have not met King Soval or his people, they plan for every contingency, every possible problem is anticipated and a countermeasure put in place.” Andrew snorted, affecting a bored look even as he theorised.
“They mean to insult us?” The Prince frowned.
“Possibly. But they agreed to the match, it would not be logical to offer insults.” Lady Erika pushed a loose strand of hair from her eyes and suggested.
“Perhaps one of us should ride ahead?” Just then, the sound of rapid hooves greeted them, but from the direction they had come. They all turned and the air drew more taught, Erika stating warily.
“A single rider.”
“Someone who is lost?” Hoshi piped up, not sounding convinced by her own suggestion. Andrew said grimly as Jonathan thought the same.
“Or a survivor from a squirmish…” The horse burst into view and Prince Jonathan’s heart skipped a beat as he recognised them.
“Hess! What is it?” The speed with which she rode, the serious set of her face, all told of something terrible. He refrained from bombarding her with questions, his thoughts now to his people and their possible fates. Charles…
“Ambassador Soval sir, he took the River Way and arrived at the Low Pass just as we did.” Jonathan’s heart stopped and spasmed in the same moment. No attack, no bloodshed. His people were still alive and well. But then he realised exactly the implications of the squire’s words. The Vulcan Ambassador was being greeted by his blacksmith, armsman and a party of thoroughly undiplomatic Andorians. But worst, his future wife would first meet his lover! Grimly, he gathered his friends and raced to see what he could salvage from the political comedy of errors. What a disaster this was turning out to be!