In the course of only eight years, the country of Valka recorded the rule of a total of six kings. Two of these kings are considered the best to ever grace the Valkan throne. Two of them are considered the worst. Two hold the record for the shortest reigns in Valkan history, and two are actually records of the same man. These are some of the worst years in the history of Valka. But Edwin Valka, the time's most pitied victim and most praiseworthy hero, always remembered them as not only the worst, but the greatest years of his life. These are his most treasured memories.

Edwin shot up in bed with a start, his blankets twined around him like a cocoon. A bleary-eyed glance toward the tall, thin window on his right told him it was still very early in the morning. He turned his gaze toward his door—recently banged inward to crash against the stone walls of his room—and was not surprised to see the familiar figure that was advancing on his bed. "Rowe," he groaned as he struggled to untangle himself from his blankets. "What sort of trouble is it today?"

"Why do you always assume that I'm in some sort of trouble?" Edwin's brother, Rowland, twisted his face into a mock frown. "It's always the same, never a 'Good morning Rowland!' or 'How are you today, Rowe?' Not even from mother and father. Not even from the servants!" He sighed dramatically, "And my little brother, the one closest to my heart, greats me with 'What sort of trouble is it today?'"

"Everyone always assumes that you are in trouble because you always are in trouble." Ed's mouth stretched into a wide yawn. "And why do you have to wake me up so early just to drag me down with you?"

"Stop complaining Ed, you never get in trouble. You could burn down the palace and mother would never believe you did it, instead she'd have me rebuilding the entire thing for the next fifty years," Rowe grinned.

He wasn't jealous of his little brother, not much, anyway. In fact, he above all people valued the slight favoritism their mother seemed to show her youngest son, since Ed had a particular talent for convincing her to make Rowe's punishments more lenient than they would otherwise be. And Rowe had to admit, though somewhat grudgingly, that Ed was not favored just because he was the youngest. Unlike Rowe, Ed did not enjoy making mischief around the palace, unless of course it involved embarrassing their oldest brothers, twins named Frederick and Garrick, who most people would readily agree could stand to be humbled. In those cases, Ed was right at Rowe's side, carefully applying the ink to their older brothers' pompous faces, hoping and praying that the sleeping drought they mixed would be enough to keep them safely asleep.

Other than those blissful moments of brotherly humiliation, however, Ed spent more of his time helping their mother, Queen Hortensia, take care of her garden. The Queen's garden was her pride and joy. She spent every spare minute tending her precious plants, and absolutely forbade any of the servants to tend to it without her permission. Ed, on the other hand, was allowed to do whatever he liked in his own little corner.

"Well, as much as I enjoy having this same conversation every morning with you Ed, one does grow weary of repetition," Rowe continued their typical morning banter. "Therefore, the purpose of this morning's visit was simply to inform you of our summons to father's chamber, which, by the way, we are due to be present at in about two minutes. Best hurry and get dressed." With a mock bow and self-satisfied smirk, Rowland swiftly ducked out of his brother's room, just in time to hear to the dull thump of Ed's pillow hitting the door.

Ed smiled at his brother's antics, and hastily changed into the most presentable clothes he could find before running his fingers through his dark, unruly hair. Ed was not often summoned by the ailing king, and although he wanted to look his best, being late didn't bode well. He practically sprinted to his father's bedchamber, leaping up staircases, and shouting apologies over his shoulder to the annoyed faces of the maids he bumped into along the way.

Finally, with his clothes rumpled, hair still sticking out at odd angles, and gasping for breath, he stopped in front of his father's door. An odd feeling of dread suddenly clutched at his chest, his hand trembled as he raised it to knock. Swallowing hard, and willing his breathing and heartbeat to go back to normal, he let his fist fall in three sharp tones. The sound seemed to echo eerily throughout the entire palace. A moment later the door opened, and Ed was glad to see the kind face of his mother, but her harried expression made his stomach drop in the all too familiar sensation fear.

"How is he?" the youngest prince stepped close to his mother, his voice hushed in the dimly lit, cavernous room. All else was silent, except for the occasional cough coming from the king's bed. The entire space reminded him of a tomb, a thought that made him shudder.

"He's gotten worse, the doctor does not think it likely that he will last past the change of the moon," The queen's usually proud and vivacious countenance seemed wilted with exhaustion and sorrow. "But would you mind making some more of that tea? Those herbs we came across in our gardening seem to help his breathing some, it gives him some relief, if only for a little while."

"Of course mother, but..."

"Hortensia! Stop muttering about morbid things, and send the boy over to speak with me. Goodness knows he's late enough already," King Mikulas's voice had become weaker and gruffer than Ed remembered.

"Go on, Ed," Queen Hortensia smiled for the first time since Ed entered the chamber, "he tells me he has an important job for you."

Ed softly walked across the room and sat in one of the chairs arranged at his father's bedside, next to Rowland, who was actually wearing a serious expression for a change. King Mikulas smiled up at his two youngest sons. "I think that it is about time I gave you two a job to do for your country, a princely job, you might say."

He halted for a hacking cough that seemed to shake his entire body, "I have some very important guests coming, all the way from the western coast—governors—and they have some things to discuss of great importance."

He paused again, coughed, and closed his eyes. He stayed that way for so long that Ed began to fear he had fallen asleep before giving them their assignment. Finally, he opened his eyes, and gave them a fixed look. "I put the twins in charge of preparing a feast in honor of their arrival, and Jerome is checking on something out east, I forget what..." his voice faded off again, as he stared confusedly at the ceiling. "Oh well, whatever it is, I'm sure it was important."

"But that is not the point. Edwin," now the king's piercing gray eyes met Ed's, seeming to see straight through him, into his soul, "you are thirteen now, and according to your mother, quite the capable young man. I'd say that you are old enough to take care of some business for me. And Rowland," the eyes switched targets, "you are fifteen, though heaven knows you don't act it. You two are young men now, and I trust that you will behave as such on this assignment, understood?"

"Yes, sir, but you still haven't told us . . ."

"Patience, Edwin! That is one of the most important things you could ever have, boy, patience. My assignment for you is to go down the road leading into Grand Haven, and meet these travelers on their way in. Don't worry about recognizing them, I'm sure they'll be traveling with quite a bit of pomp and style, and most likely lacking in common sense," the king made a strange, guttural sound, like a mix between a laugh and a snort and a sigh, "It saddens me, seeing good men such as those turning into good for nothing braggarts."

Ed and Rowe exchanged knowing glances, thinking of two certain good for nothing braggarts in their own family.

"Before leaving, go see Gunther. I have him keeping some gold safe that we'll use as a small welcome gift to our guests. He can help you arrange a suitable guard to accompany you as well. Report back to me once they are settled in their rooms." The king gave a final nod and a small, weak wave to signal their dismissal.