Chapter One

A prince must marry a princess. It was the way of things in kingdoms during the time of fairy tales and legends-and Prydyn was no exception. Sometimes the prince must prove himself by awakening a maid from slumber, sometimes he must undergo trials in order to wed a girl who may not be of royal birth but has laid claim to his heart. Transformations into a statue, or a bear, or even an obnoxious orange striped tabby cat do not hamper him in his quest to prove his worth for love. But in Prydyn, the princess was the one who had to prove her worth; for the law ordained that the Prydian heir must not simply marry a princess, but a real princess. Generation after generation the same ritual was performed and there was not a rift in the proceedings.until Prince Tirius could not choose between Princess Amalthea and Princess Bettina. A test was called upon, a test that would so accurately determine whether or not the young woman was a real princess that it was known only to the king, his son, and a select group of courtiers. Princess Amalthea was found to be the real princess and the process resumed without any further complications for a hundred years. Again the test would be called upon, again the young heir would have to choose between two women who had equal claims upon his heart. But the second time, much more was at stake than the fate of three individuals, or the fate of a tiny island kingdom: Faer would either flourish or perish with the choice of this Prydian heir. It did not begin, however, as the event of such momentous proportions that it solicited the attention of every wizard within Lumosa, but with the summoning of the Prydian Prince to his father's throne room one spring day.
Bowing for the sake of propriety, the Prydian prince stood the proper amount of feet-three-from his father's throne and waited. Mouth stretched into a taut line, the King of Prydyn studied his son for several moments then stated,
"The time has come for you to get married." The shoulders of the young man lurched upwards in an irregular motion and his brows arched to the roots of his hair as he stared at his father. Looking back at his son from under bushy gray streaked brows, King Gryphon did not allow his son's eyes to fall from his as he bit back a sigh. Why were the young so stubborn? He could see from the gradual incline of his son's chin that his temper was on the rise and what had started out as a difficult conversation would now become a disastrous one.
"This is why you summoned me? To discuss what you have said to me every day for the past five years?" Retorted the prince at last, the mixture of brown and green that was the color of his eyes darkening to a murky shade of mud.
"My boy, you do not understand how fleeting life is. You see eternity before you, but one day, it will all be gone and you will wonder how you have squandered away forty years of you life and will not have an answer."
"Father, why do I have the suspicion that I am no longer the subject of this conversation?" Amusement replaced the hostility which had formerly resonated within his son's voice and the depths of brown began to dilute into flecks of green. Heaving a sigh of exasperation, Gryphon briefly removed the crown from his gray streaked mahogany hair and rubbed his temples with his long fingers.
"Do not force me into a lecture, Briar, I have not the stamina. Is it wrong for a father to want his son to have a better life than his own?"
"Of course not, but it is highly improbable."
"Did I or did I not warn you about trying my patience? You're twenty- three, my boy, it's time you thought about marrying and ensuring the royal succession."
"Ah. So that's your motive." His son folded his arms and began to grin, his lips seeming to stretch all the way to his ears and the light shining within his eyes winked like an emerald in the sun. Replacing the crown upon his head, Gryphon pointed a finger at his son and fixed his expression into stern lines, irregardless of his son's grin.
"My desire for grandchildren is not important. What is important is that you find happiness."
"And if I can only achieve that on my own?"
"You cannot. Even Morgana believes that." The grin faded from Briar's lips and the mud overpowered the jade again within his eyes as his arms fell to his sides.
"Morgana cares for nothing but the betterment of her daughter. Only when I am married can Violet make a good match-that is her concern and nothing more."
"It grieves me, Briar, that after all this time you still cannot find it in you to accept Morgana. She is the only mother you have ever known." Folding his arms once more, Briar was silent, lines popping out upon the smooth expanse of his forehead in a manner similar to his father's. Absently stroking a lock of his hair, Gryphon pursed his lips together and, taking another look at his reticent son, ventured,
"Aren't you at all interested in love?"
"I haven't given the matter much thought," Briar admitted, his gaze strangely avoiding his father's, a lock of burgundy hair falling across his forehead in the process.
"Haven't given the.Briar, I have let you have your way for twenty- three years, partially on account of the fact that you never knew your mother and partially due to my own soft heart, but this is one matter where you will have to do what I say."
"But, Father." Briar's eyes came up to meet his again and a muscle in the youth's cheek jerked as he beheld the elder man's expression.
"You will begin courting princesses, Briar. This afternoon I am going to issue a proclamation and by tomorrow there will be a courier carrying a copy to every country with an eligible princess within three hundred miles. There is no escaping this, my boy. You will be married by the time you are twenty-five, or I will deny you the throne." Mouth dropping open, Briar stared at his father, aghast. Dark lights flashing within his eyes, he took a step towards the throne, jaw working as if to speak when the staffs of the royal heralds pounded against the polished floor and the double doors leading to the throne room swung open.
"Her Highness Queen Morgana, Duchess of Whitney," boomed out the baritone voice of the court herald, the echoes of his voice reverberating throughout the throne room in mimicry of the rumble of thunder. The features of the man seated upon the throne suddenly drained of their weariness while the young man's resembled granite and his respectful bow to the woman entering the throne room stilted throughout each stage of its execution. Silver gown glistening in the sunlight, the woman gliding down the red and gold carpet broke into a smile upon meeting the gaze of the man seated there. The Queen of Prydyn was a breathtaking sight, even to those who were accustomed to her appearance, and whenever she entered the throne room, a moment of flabbergasted silence would follow. Pausing to curtsy when she stood at level with Briar, Morgana lost her dazzling smile as she noticed the twin scowls upon the faces of the two men and she turned to the one closest to her as she inquired,
"Gryphon, what is the matter?" Distress rang so poignantly in her voice that the king could forgive her breach of etiquette in addressing him informally in the presence of the court, but his son groaned and turned towards the doors, fending off Morgana's placating hands.
"Do what you will, Father, it makes no difference. I'll not have her lecturing me as well." Crescent shaped brows raising upon her forehead, Morgana turned a questioning look upon her husband as Briar threw open the doors to the throne room.
"Prince Bri." The royal herald began, immediately silenced by the contemptuous look the young prince sent in his direction before stomping down the gleaming pale blue corridor of the palace. A moment later the doors were closed by the respectfully silent heralds and Morgana went to the side of her quivering husband.
"I just told him he would have to begin courting or I would deny him the throne," Gryphon said unsteadily, burying his face in his hands as Morgana gently relieved him of his crown.
"I know," she soothed, running her hands through his hair and checking a sigh of dismay at the abundance of white within the mahogany strands.
"How do you know? I never told you I intended to tell him today," Gryphon mumbled into his hands before raising his head and brushing away the soothing ministrations of her hands in the same manner that his son had.
"I was listening outside the door, my husband, and came in only when I did in order to prevent your son from saying something he would have regretted later."
"I wish you had not heard," Gryphon replied, his skin turning white under the healthy brown of his tan at the thought of her hearing Briar's words.
"Nothing your son can ever say will wound me. I do not blame him for his feelings; I am not his real mother and though I have tried at every opportunity to give him affection, he refuses to accept it."
"You are too kind at times, my love," Gryphon murmured, forgetting himself and reaching out to cup her cheek. Accepting his touch for only a moment, Morgana took her seat on the throne beside him and continued,
"I can only love your son as if he were my own and pray that one day he will cease to shun my affection. He does not wish to marry."
"He doesn't know that he doesn't wish it, he only thinks he does. The boy thinks only of himself and not of Prydyn. What kind of a king will he make?" That it was unfair to Briar for him to be voicing his fears in such a manner and to Morgana, Gryphon well knew, but he was unaccustomed to having confrontations with his son and sought any form of release.
"Perhaps it would be better to let him decide when he is ready."
"Perhaps it will be the best thing for him if I force him to do something. He still has many things to learn, Morgana, many things to learn. Signal the herald." Gryphon took his crown from her lap and returned it to his head while the Queen motioned to the herald to open the doors. Gryphon the distraught father had vanished under the guise of Gryphon the king and would not return until he was in the presence of his son again.
His son, having stormed out and made a production out of a simple audience with his father, thoroughly regretted his behavior by the time his father ordered the doors of the throne room to be opened. He had exaggerated; it had not been five years, but only one since his father began to mention the idea of marriage to him and every time the result was the same. His father would plead and present several rational arguments while he would protest and scoff before storming out in a tantrum that was unbecoming to his twenty-three years. Why was it so infernally important that he be married by the time he was twenty-five?! Why should he even be married at all? To secure the royal succession was his answer, whispered within his mind by the voices of his tutors and the gruff tone of his father. He had no inclination to marry other than to produce an heir and should matters come to that, he could easily wed the nearest available and fertile female and associate with her only until a male heir was secured. Briar did not think about love-he experienced a form of it from his father and his step-sisters, but what he had seen of the kind that existed between a man and a woman did not convince him that its absence was something that he should mourn. The look that Morgana caused to appear on his father's face filled him with the same revulsion it had seventeen years ago when she first glided into the throne room in a shimmering blue gown that emphasized the figure she strove to maintain and batted her eyelashes at his father. A surly six year old, he had viewed their first meeting from behind his father's legs, at the time feeling as if he would retch in the corner once everyone's back was turned and disliking the woman smiling at him even though her sapphire eyes were as hard as the jewel they resembled. His father had been completely spellbound by her appearance and the sweetness that abounded from her like a spring in the midst of a winter thaw, and though he was not consciously aware of it, Briar had never fully forgiven him for it. He did not wish to appear as his father did whenever Morgana so much as set one slippered toe into the same room as he-his father claimed to love Morgana and such was a state he could not bring himself to replicate. This was his perception of marriage and love-he had had no opportunity for another and to believe that one such as theirs was the only one possible was to put the blame on Morgana rather than himself. Blaming Morgana had become a habit with him of late, one that he was frantically trying to cure, knowing that it was unfair as she had never ceased to try to be his mother, but he hated that he was quarrelling with his father and wished that she was the cause.
There was the matter of the girl to consider as well. He knew that no matter how easily he brushed aside the means of securing the royal succession, whomever he should marry would fall in love with him. It was not conceit that founded the belief; Briar saw nothing which could be thought as pleasing to the feminine eye when he looked back at his reflection in the glass but he knew something of how the hearts of young girls functioned, courtesy of his sisters, and his unloved wife falling in love with him was inevitable. Nothing, not even the need for an heir could force him to put any young woman through the ordeal of loving a man who would never return her affections. Perhaps Violet's offspring could be named heirs should he not marry and the burden of succession therefore lifted from his shoulders. The image of Violet surrounded by plump, obnoxious children who looked maddeningly like their mother flooded his vision and he instantly dismissed the possibility. He was the heir to the Prydian throne and he had to face his responsibilities, however disagreeable they might be. Funny how his father had not said a word about the girl's being a real princess.perhaps he was desperate enough to see Briar married that he would let the standard slip.no, he was not that despondent.
Pausing for the first time since his melodramatic departure from the throne room, Briar found himself along the open air balcony that joined the east wing of the palace to the west wing, having walked from one end of the palace to the other in his fury. Resting his elbows against the balcony railing, he looked out upon the landscape below, breathing in the scent of the sea wafting through the air. Rhythmically the waves crashed against the rocks, the castle having been built upon the cliffs which covered the western coast of the island of Prydyn. A stone wall outlined the palace, the narrow walkway currently being patrolled by two sentries who appeared as two gray specks to Briar's eye. Prydyn, thanks to the efforts of his father and grandfather, had enjoyed over a half a century of peace, a legacy which his father's advisors and the people themselves prayed that Briar would maintain when he took the throne. Briar had no intention of leading an army into war unless absolutely necessary; Prydyn's status as an island gave him the illusion of safety, ruined only by the trouble of securing supplies during a probable blockade, which was a mute point seeing as stores of food and weaponry were being collected at this very moment in case the country should ever be plunged into a state of war. Prydyn was unlikely to be attacked, however. The island had enough land only to sustain its own population and did not excel in any specific area of trade that would make it a commodity to any conquering nation. The Prydian forest, whose western borders began at the castle drawbridge, did yield a type of cedar which could not be found elsewhere and a specific, rather tasty breed of prout swam only in the shallow waters of the Prydian Sea, but neither was worth waging a war for. A man born and bred on the island would gladly give his life for Prydyn should his king ask it of him, however. Briar only hoped he would never ask anyone to-his father was wrong to assume that he did not think of his responsibilities to Prydyn. In all matters except love, his country was foremost in his thoughts.
A breeze drifted up from the sea, ruffling his burgundy hair and he looked longingly towards the leafy bunches of multicolored green of the Prydian forest. From the moment he had left the throne room he had intended to escape to the forest where he could be away from all the obligations of a prince, away from his father's pained expression, away from Morgana and her distasteful attempts to love him, away from. A laugh, golden and delicious, floated up to him on the breeze and he leaned over the railing, peering down and faintly discerning the hedge wall of the royal garden beneath him. Smiling as he heard the laugh again, he abandoned the call of the woods and headed towards the nearest staircase. What he wished to do could wait. Perhaps he would do better to seek solace from his anger in the company of others rather than his own. Where there was laughter, he would follow.
The same sea breeze that had ruffled at Briar's burgundy hair sought to rumple the curtain of wavy golden hair cascading down the back of the slender maiden as she reclined in one of the white wicker chairs that abounded in the royal hedge garden, reading aloud from a battered volume. Two feet in front of her was another young woman, alternately surveying the bouquet in her hand and the flower bed she was kneeling in front of with a cross expression upon her heart shaped face. A strand of blue black hair brushed up against her face, the wind succeeding in its onslaught and she tucked it behind her ear in irritation. Pursing her lips together, she looked up at her companion and sighed.
"'Cedric knew, however, that her words were not echoed by the light within her eyes and bowed in acquiescence, his gaze also singing a different song than his expression.'" read the golden haired maiden, her aquamarine gaze flickering to her dark haired companion before closing the book and inhaling the faint smell of the sea with a contented sigh.
"If I have to hear one more syllable of The Ballad of Two Princes, I shall not hesitate to strangle you, Althia," the young woman picking flowers said between her teeth. Awakened from her reverie, Althia lovingly flipped through the torn pages of the book in her lap and replied,
"You said I could choose the reading material since you were not going to listen to a word of it."
"Must it always be The Ballad of Two Princes? Aren't you tired of Cedric and Aurora? I grew weary of their romance after the first syllable you uttered."
"Mother wishes me to read to you every morning at this hour. I cannot do anything other than fulfill her wishes."
"'I cannot do anything other than fulfill her wishes,'" the girl mimicked in a sing-song voice from her place before the flower bed, violet eyes burning with contempt as she looked at Althia. "Do you ever do anything that you shouldn't, Althia, or do you intend to do good for all eternity?" Smiling, Althia shook her head and resumed reading aloud. Savagely attacking the flower bed once more, Violet made certain that all the specimens of her namesake had been removed before moving on to the next area. The royal gardeners were under strict orders to destroy any violets which might appear in the gardens, yet every spring, somehow the ground became overrun with the dreadful flower. There was nothing Violet detested more than the sight of the purple petals with their yellow lined black center poking out of the ground-except, perhaps, hearing Althia read aloud from The Ballad of Two Princes. Another strand of hair fell free from the braid she had hastily concocted this morning without the aid of her maid and she cursed that it should always be windy during the hour her mother mandated that she should spend in the gardens each day. Eighteen years old and she was still living the same schedule that she had when she was nine and if Briar never married, she would still be living it when she was thirty-six. What was the purpose of being First Princess of Prydyn if she never so much as glimpsed what lay beyond the palace walls? There was no purpose; she would stay here, trapped within the safety of the palace and waste away, unmarried, and unable to have lived. Attacking yet another patch of violets, Violet seized one of the unfortunate flowers and began tearing its petals into shreds.
"Violet, Violet, you shouldn't desecrate yourself." Jumping, Violet shrieked and wildly scanned the gardens for her assailant. Lounging carelessly upon the hedge wall, Briar noiselessly dropped to the ground and crept up behind her. Grasping her shoulders, he laughed uproariously when she shrieked a second time and whirled to face him, one hand rising as if to slap his face. Catching her wrist between two fingers, Briar easily halted the movement of her free hand and said mockingly,
"Temper, temper. And you aren't even the redhead of the family." Face hidden behind her book, Althia could not stifle her laughter as an enraged Violet struggled anew within Briar's grasp.
"You are insufferable!" She cried, stomping on his foot and stalking away to another flowerbed when he released her. Meeting Althia's gaze over the top of her book, Briar grinned and turned back to Violet as she resumed decapitating the innocent violets.
"Thank you, dearest sister, for your high opinion of me. I don't think I shall tell you what I came to say."
"What makes you think I have any interest in what you say?" Violet retorted, a small smile blossoming upon her lips as she beheld a white rose barely budded.
"In this you do."
"Briar, no one in all of Prydyn has any interest in how many times you hit the center of the target this morning. I hate to destroy all your delusions of grandeur, but being the heir to the Prydian throne does not make you the center of interest." The look she flashed him was accompanied by a smile, the spreading of her lips transforming her heart shaped features from sullen to radiant in a matter of seconds. Blinking once, Briar reciprocated with a grin of his own and chuckled as she resumed her murderous intent among the flower beds. Striding over to where Althia sat, he wordlessly took the book from her hands, read the title and rolled his eyes as he handed it back.
"No wonder she's cross." A cry of triumph escaped from the dark haired girl as she murdered her namesake while Briar simply raised his eyebrows in response to Althia's indignant look.
"One day you will be amazed that you scoffed at this book. You haven't even read it," she pointed the book at Briar accusingly, laughing softly as he tried to take it from her and soliciting a dark look over Violet's shoulder. Sitting down upon the marble bench adjacent to Althia, Briar clasped his hands together and glanced in Violet's direction before saying in a low tone,
"My father summoned me for an audience this morning." Althia's eyes widened and then softened and she set the book aside, waiting for Briar to continue. Smiling briefly for he knew that she understood everything that had transpired, Briar looked slyly towards Violet once more and raised his voice as he said, "He ordered me to begin courting Princesses and is issuing a proclamation stating my intent to do so this very day." Violet paused in mid rip of a petal, slowly turning to look at her siblings.
"Gryphon is forcing you to marry?" She asked, her eyes lighting up as the torn petals fell from her fingers.
"If I am not married by the time I am twenty-five, he intends to deny me the throne." Violet's lips formed a silent "o" for several moments and then her face transformed a second time as she smiled, the corners of her mouth inching steadily towards her ears. Groaning aloud, Briar started as Althia gently put her hand on his arm, the smile upon her face in no danger of overpowering her ears.
"Gryphon's only thinking of you," Althia murmured. The same muscle jerked in Briar's cheek and he opened his mouth to speak when Violet suddenly draped her arms around his neck and said coyly,
"Congratulations, dear brother. I pity the unfortunate real princess who will wed you, of course, but I was growing rather anxious that I should never have the chance to marry. Althy and I won't be young forever and my beauty may not last. I can see you now, standing at the altar in your royal finery, waiting to marry a hag faced girl with warts all over her body, simply due to the fact that she is the only one who was a real princess. I don't believe beautiful is one of the requirements, is it?" Pinching her brother's nose, she laughed when he pulled her hair and retrieved her bouquet before skipping out of the garden. Sticking his tongue out at her retreating pink satin back, Briar folded his arms and looked at Althia. Biting her lip in order to prevent her laughter from escaping, Althia avoided his gaze, her shoulders beginning to shake in spite of her efforts. Gradually the scowl faded from Briar's face as he watched her struggle with her amusement and by the time it burst free, he was able to join her whole- heartedly.
"'Althy and I won't be young forever,'" Althia mocked, clasping her hands together under her chin and batting her eyelashes at Briar. Breaking into laughter anew, Briar ran a hand through his hair once he had sufficiently recovered and said,
"She has confirmed my suspicion of Morgana's role in this undertaking. I have no desire to be married, Althia."
"Are you so certain you will always feel that way?" She asked quietly, looking at him steadily even as his gaze wandered towards the hedge wall.
"No-but I dislike being forced into things.and I dislike quarreling with my father even more. Certainly he wasn't eager to be married."
"Perhaps he was. They say he was very much in love with your mother."
"Yes." He stared down at his hands, strangely fascinated by the callous on his fingers as a result of frequent target practice. Watching him carefully, Althia absently ran her fingers along the arm of the chair as she inquired,
"Tell me, Briar. What does your marriage mean for Violet and me?" Startled, he cast her a penetrating stare and shrugged before answering,
"As you know, law prevents either you or Violet from accepting suitors until I am wed. Once I am married, the two of you may entertain as many eligible young men as you like, provided he's not some servant from the kitchen. Father may be persuaded to ignore the law, however, and allow you to court at the same time that I do.it is rather unfair, seeing that it was written five hundred years ago and there has never been a female born to the royal family. Morgana would bring as many difficulties as possible along with her." Engrossed in chiding himself for making another unfavorable comment concerning Morgana, Briar did not see the line which briefly etched itself across Althia's forehead, nor the frown which tugged at her lips.
"So our future does include marriage," she murmured, her gaze falling to her lap before she closed her eyes to block the sudden moisture springing up within them.
"Naturally, isn't it the same for all princesses?"
"But I am only a princess by name! Why should anyone want to marry Violet or me?!" Althia burst out, flinging her book aside and rising to her feet to walk away from him. Frowning, Briar ran his hand through his hair once more and cautiously approached where she stood in front of a decrepit statue of a nymph.
"You are Morgana's daughter. Though I understand why that may upset you, isn't it enough?"
"But she isn't really a queen and I am not a princess. She doesn't love me the same way that she loves Violet. Sometimes I think she loathes even the sight of me," she whispered, rubbing at a sudden pain in her forehead and still not looking at him. Stepping closer to her, Briar leaned down to say in return,
"There's no need to worry, Althia. Morgana is simply one of those despicable mothers who has favorites, though why she chose Violet is something I cannot fathom. Father adores you and has always loved you as if you were his own daughter, and he, at least, had sense when choosing his favorite. And you have me for a brother. Now, why would you want to worry about whether Morgana loathes the sight of you or not? You are right to try and forget being her daughter, however-the concept is most distressing to me." He shuddered and looked rather upset and Althia could not help but smile as she said,
"Unfortunately I have you for my brother."
"Is this the thanks I get for saving you from Violet the Vicious all these years?"
"Saving me? You aided her in tormenting me more often than you came to my defense!" Althia protested with a laugh, pushing at his shoulders in mock disgust. Cupping his chin in his hand, Briar puzzled over his words for a moment and then said,
"I suppose you're right. But you liked it."
"I most certainly did not!"
"You'd be heartbroken if I failed to tease you every day."
"I would think you had fallen on your head and not remembered who you were."
"That, unfortunately, I can never forget," he replied, the light vanishing from his eyes. Shaking her head at him, Althia retrieved her book and smiled as he approached her once more.
"Tell me that I am overreacting about my being forced to marry."
"You? Overreacting? Nonsense. You're only in a foul temper," she replied, amusedly straightening the collar of his shirt though the blood threatened to completely drain from her arms in the process. Affectionately batting her hands away, Briar grinned and said,
"I have matters to attend to. Will Morgana be furious that Violet did not have her full hour of being read to?"
"Her tempers are quick and no longer sting as much as they once did. It is only my foolish want for her affection that makes it painful," Althia replied with a shake of her head.
"She loves me and I do not want it, you have always wanted her love and she will not give it. Perhaps it's because I'm a boy."
"Perhaps," Althia agreed, meeting his gaze and breaking into a mischievous smile. Returning it, Briar gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze before turning to answer the call to the forest he had previously denied.
"Briar!" Althia called. He turned expectantly at the garden gate.
"You will be a good husband to the princess you marry."
"That is what I'm afraid of," he replied, smiling at her once more before jogging off into the woods. Clasping her book to her chest, Althia sighed at the thought of having to return to the confining walls of the palace. Predictably, Violet abhorred leaving them while she could not bear to be within them. For what seemed the hundredth time she wondered how they could have possibly sprung from the same womb and dismissed the perplexing notion. It was unfortunate that Briar was not truly her brother. No one had needed to tell her that he was not, but the fact had always disappointed her. He seemed her brother in every way imaginable other than the tie of common blood. And now he was to be married. Althia did not doubt her own words to him but she was unable to imagine Briar married, or even romantically appealing in any sense. As his sister, she found herself immune to the face which was still boyish despite his twenty-three years and the tall, lean frame which had once caused Violet's eyes to bulge. Briar, a husband, a father, a king. No, she could not imagine it and yet even the idea changed everything. Althia sighed a second time and slowly entered the castle.