Aiden sighed as the crown slipped down over his eyes yet again. The dratted thing had a mind of its own and refused to stay properly in place on the top of his head where it would look regal and dignified. Of course, there was a distinct possibility that, given how ridiculous he looked and felt, the crown was merely keeping up appearances.
Any half-decent magician could have fixed the problem in a few moments with the appropriate word or two, except that no one but Aiden seemed to see a problem with how he looked. Instead, he got plenty of bowing, toothy smiles, much kissing of his hand (which he had taken to sitting on to avoid any further drool) and everyone telling him how absolutely magnificent he looked and what a mighty king he would be.
Privately, Aiden thought he looked like an idiot. The crown had been his father's; heavily-padded and richly bejeweled, it really was a magnificent thing. Unfortunately, Aiden's head was a bit smaller than his father's had been, thus the difficulty in keeping the ornery thing in place. Then his advisors had seen fit to clothe him in layers upon layers of silks and satins, overlaid by a rich violet velvet with elaborate patterns burned into the material. That, of course, had more jewels and danglies and 'fashionable decorations' that did nothing but try to crush him beneath their weight. When he'd looked in the mirror, he'd had the idle thought that he looked like a child dressing up in his father's clothes.
He didn't want to be the High King. Yesterday had been his seventeenth birthday. Two weeks ago had been his coronation, after he'd returned from a half-year tour of one of his father's vassal kingdoms to find that in his absence a Dark Enchanter had seen fit to wipe out his entire family, their retainers, and everyone else that had been in the royal palace at the time. The ArchMage had nearly wet himself trying to apologize for letting it happen, though from what Aiden had been able to piece together nobody had noticed until well after the deed had been done.
The Dark Enchanter was exceptionally skilled indeed. He called himself Morgemeil (Aiden had no idea if that was his real name or not) and had taken over many of the small, outlying kingdoms near the edge of Aiden's sphere of influence. Using them as a base, Morgemeil appeared to be building an army with which to take over the rest of the country.
All of Aiden's generals and military advisors were petrified. Half the royal guard had taken to hiding beneath their cots, and a good third of the standing army had deserted their posts. Pretty much the only person in the entire palace or the surrounding grounds who wasn't terrified was his majordomo, but then Aiden was willing to lay odds that so long as the invaders followed proper protocols that man wouldn't even notice them.
He'd been trying for the last four days to get a representative of the Sorcerer's Council to meet with him in the hopes that that mysterious group could work out some manner of defense, but so far he'd had no luck. He was beginning to get the feeling that they were frightened as well, but that just didn't make any sense. There were twenty-four of them. Twenty-five if one counted the ArchMage. Surely twenty-five of the greatest mages in the kingdom couldn't all be afraid of one Dark Enchanter.
For the two hundred and fifty-first time that morning Aiden's crown slipped forward over his eyes. He pushed it back into place with one hand, then struggled through the mass of fabric to get to his feet. The man who had been speaking cut off in mid-sentence, blinking up at him owlishly.
"Court is ended for today," Aiden announced, contemplating the wide steps that led from his throne's dais to the floor and wondering if he could make it down them without tripping over something. "We will reconvene tomorrow."
The one good thing about being the High King was that nobody argued with him. They all simply nodded politely and shuffled out, leaving Aiden to traverse the hazardous steps without any witnesses. Fortunate, for he fell twice before making it all the way down.
Discarding layers of clothing as he went, Aiden maneuvered his way through the elaborately decorated hallways to the wing set aside for royal use only, arriving at his bedroom in little more than his soft indoor slippers, a pair of loose pants, and one under-tunic. He had a brief pang of remorse for the extra work he'd just created for the servants that would have to pick up the trail of clothing from where he'd dumped them, but maybe by the time they caught up with him they'd have gotten the hint.
Not likely, but he could still hope.
Once safely inside Aiden undressed, pulling on his riding leathers swiftly. They were a bit snug in places, as they'd been a sixteenth-birthday present from his mother and he'd grown since then, but they had no gemstones, no ruffles, and weren't purple. Therefore, Aiden loved them.
Checking warily to see if he'd been followed - the coast was clear so far - Aiden snuck back out of his room and utilized some of the servant's corridors to get to the small private garden his mother had insisted upon tending herself much to the consternation of the gardeners. Few aside from the royal family remembered that there was a small wooden door in the garden wall that led to the grazing area for the royal stables.
The aged Master of Horse blinked blearily up at him as he entered, then smiled cheerfully. Aiden had been a bit horse-crazy as a child and the old man had fully encouraged the obsession, much to the dismay of his slightly more 'proper' family.
"Oh, good morning, Highness," the man said in greeting, then frowned slightly. "Or is it Majesty now? Eh, doesn't matter. I take it you'll be wanting Sundance, then?"
Aiden returned the smile warmly, glad that at least one person didn't treat him any differently now that he was no longer the Crown Prince.
"Yes, please. I expect I'll be out several hours."
The old man nodded. "I'll have someone keep her stall warm for you." He toddled off deeper into the stables, yelling for his assistants and getting everything ready. The horse they brought out a minute later was a beautiful cream and white mare. While a stallion would be far more befitting of his station, Aiden liked Sundance for her calm nature and easy gait. She was the opposite of the high-strung equines his father had favored.
Patting Sundance gently on the nose and wishing he'd had time to steal some sugar or an apple from the kitchens, Aiden swung up into the saddle and waved goodbye to the stablehands. A few of them tried to bow, one falling over in the process, but the rest just blinked at him. Aiden grinned. He rather preferred that to being fawned upon.
Sundance stepped gracefully across the lawn, coming up to the main gate at an angle and passing out into Throne City without any problems. Bemused, Aiden decided that dressed as he was in his leathers and riding Sundance, the guards hadn't realized that their king had just left the palace. Without an escort.
Not that an escort would have been able to do much of anything should Morgemeil decide to attack. The Dark Enchanter had already proven himself more than capable of besting a few armed men. It was magic they needed. Only magic could fight magic and win, so off to the Tower of Magic Aiden headed, determined that if he showed up in person the ArchMage and the Sorcerer's Council couldn't possibly ignore him.
He hoped. Still, it was a pleasant enough ride through town. A few people waved cheerfully to him as he passed, though whether they actually recognized him or were just being friendly was a matter of debate.
Soon enough the magnificent Tower of Magic came into view, all gleaming white marble with tiny crystals set into it to catch the light and fracture it into thousands of brilliant colors. He tied Sundance to a bush and stepped through the ornate entrance doors, emerging into a curved room with pristine green and black marbled floors. The handful of wizards present paid him no mind, nor did the red-garbed majordomo standing at his podium.
Aiden wondered if it was a rule somewhere that all majordomos had to be stuffy, red-clad men with more regard for rules and protocols than for people. Hiding a smile, he walked up to the man in his best "I'm important, pay attention to me" manner.
"Hello there," he said, politely. "I'd like to see the ArchMage, if he's not busy."
"He's busy," the man in red replied flatly without ever looking up from his little tablet. Aiden frowned, then tried again.
"How about the Sorcerer's Council? Are they meeting today?"
This time the man looked up. "They're busy," he said pointedly. "You'll have to make an appointment."
Aiden sighed. "I've been trying to make an appointment for most of the week. Would you please just let someone know I'm here?"
The man peered at him down the length of his nose, one brow arched. "Name?" he inquired, sounding a trifle bored.
"Prin... King Aiden," Aiden replied, more amused than he really should have been as the man's eyes widened fractionally. That king part was definitely going to take some getting used to.
"Er, yes, your Majesty," the majordomo said, bowing stiffly and scrawling a note on his tablet. He held the paper up into the air where it glimmered faintly for a moment, then vanished. Several more moments passed, then an elderly man clad in gold-trimmed white robes appeared near the back of the room. He walked somewhat quickly to Aiden and the officious majordomo, bowing deeply as he reached them.
"Your Majesty," the white-clad man greeted formally.
Aiden smiled happily. Finally, he was getting somewhere. "ArchMage," he returned cordially. "I've been trying to see you for several days now. As you've been too busy to come up to the palace, I thought I'd save you the trip and meet you here."
The ArchMage flushed, then paled, then flushed again. It really would have been quite amusing if it hadn't taken such drastic measures to get this far.
"Yes, yes, of course," the ArchMage said quickly, ushering Aiden to the back of the round room and through a set of gold double doors. The man muttered something beneath his breath, then the room faded away and was replaced with somewhere else. The ArchMage's personal quarters, if Aiden had to guess. There were any number of bookshelves, not all of which held actual books, as well as numerous scrolls and random sheets of paper lying on almost every available surface.
The ArchMage showed him to a small table, sweeping two books, a scroll, and what appeared to be a sleeping toad off a chair to provide him someplace to sit. "Tea?" he asked politely.
"No, thank you," Aiden replied with a slight shake of his head. "What I'd really like is your thoughts on what we're going to do about Morgemeil."
At the sound of the name, the ArchMage flinched. "Careful, careful," he hushed, glancing around furtively. "Some exceptionally powerful enchanters can hear when their name is said."
Aiden arched a brow. "I should think that would be highly irritating, to know every time someone says your name. I know it would drive me quite mad."
Again, the ArchMage flushed. "Yes, well, Dark Enchanters are in a league of their own," he hastened to assure Aiden. "I'm sure they have ways around such irritants."
"Or it may be just a silly rumor," Aiden pointed out dryly.
"Yes, well..." the ArchMage fidgeted. "Best not to take any chances with that one."
"Whatever," Aiden muttered. How could the most powerful magician in the country be such a wuss, he wondered. Aloud he asked, "So, have you and the Sorcerer's Council come up with a way to defend us yet?"
The ArchMage actually looked startled. "Defend? Against him? Oh no, no no... There's no way. His power is too great. Anything we attempted would be like flies attacking a bear. There's nothing we can do that would do anything more than irritate him."
Aiden frowned. "You mean to tell me that the most powerful magicians in the realm can't pool their powers to defeat one lone enchanter?"
"Dark Enchanter," the ArchMage corrected. "They get their power from... other means, giving them quite the advantage over those of us who limit ourselves to the powers of light."
Aiden sighed. Apparently, seeking the aid of the Sorcerer's Council had been a waste of time. Everyone was too afraid of Morgemeil to even think of standing against him. If the entire Sorcerer's Council couldn't defeat the Dark Enchanter, could anyone?
Politely thanking the ArchMage for his conversation, not advice, none of that had been worth the time it had taken to hear it, Aiden left the Tower of Magic. Sundance blinked at him curiously and he petted her nose a few moments. He wasn't entirely certain if he was reassuring her or himself.
Aiden mounted, pointing Sundance back toward the palace and musing in silence. He didn't know what to think. It seemed as though he was going to have the shortest reign in the history of the kingdom, as everyone appeared to be in agreement that there was no way to defend themselves against what was coming. He really didn't want to just give up and wait for the inevitable, but at this point he didn't know what else to do.
So absorbed was he in his thoughts, it took several moments for Aiden to realize that Sundance had stopped. It was the jeers that finally roused his attention, allowing him to swing his head around to take in the sight of four young boys, ranging somewhere between five and eight years old, he guessed, taunting a pretty little dark-haired girl who appeared to be about five or six. She was trapped between them and a wall, though she didn't look at all frightened. Rather, she looked furious.
"Ha ha! Girly-girl!" One of the boys taunted. "C'mon, where's your dress?"
"No ribbons for your hair?" Another called.
"Going to run crying home to your whacko Master?" a third jeered, making the commonly understood sign for 'crazy' with his fingers.
The girl stamped her foot. "Sabin's not crazy!" she retorted indignantly. "He's the greatest enchanter in the whole realm."
All the boys burst out laughing, calling out a number of things that Aiden couldn't quite make out but didn't sound remotely nice. He dismounted, thinking to break up the confrontation, when abruptly the girl raised her arm above her head and pointed at the sky.
"Zim Salabim!" she shouted firmly, golden eyes narrowed. A moment later there was a quiet rumble, then several small bolts of lightning streaked down out of the clear blue sky to give the boys a nasty jolt. All four landed roughly on their backsides, one managing to get to his feet and stumble away, the other three still looking rather dazed.
"Hmph," the girl sniffed, crossing her arms as she scowled at her former tormenters. She looked up as Aiden approached, regarding him warily.
Aiden spread his hands to show they were empty, putting on his best 'cute and innocent' smile. He had no desire to get zapped by the child. What he did want to know was where on earth someone that young had learned such high-level magic. The way his father's old Court Magician had explained it, a wizard in training didn't learn how to control the elements until his late teens at the earliest.
"Hello there, miss," he said carefully. "That was quite the impressive magic you just cast."
The dark-haired girl scowled up at him. "M'not a girl," she said flatly.
Aiden blinked. "Beg your pardon?"
The little girl sighed. "I'm not a girl," she explained again. "I'm a boy."
Aiden blinked several times, squinted, and blinked again. The sight before him didn't change. A slender, pretty girl with long dark green hair dressed in a simple blue-grey tunic and shorts. He considered, then decided not to correct her. If she wanted to call herself a boy, he wasn't going to argue. Not after that display with the lightning.
"Okay," he said with a smile, "What's your name, then?"
The girl eyed him for a moment, then shrugged. "Beldon."
Aiden smiled happily. "Beldon, then. Where'd you learn how to do that trick with the lightning?" he asked.
Something resembling a true smile flickered across the girl's face, transforming her from merely 'pretty' to something akin to 'beautiful.' When she grew up, Aiden was certain she was going to break a lot of hearts with that smile.
"From Master Sabin," Beldon said. "He's the greatest Enchanter anywhere. He's teaching me to be a great Enchanter too," she explained.
"Really?" Aiden asked, not needing to feign interest. If this Master Sabin was capable of teaching elemental magic to a child this young, then maybe he could figure out some way to solve Aiden's problem. "Do you think I could meet him?"
Beldon looked mildly surprised, then suspicious. "Why?" she demanded.
Aiden redoubled his 'cute and innocent' smile. "Because he sounds like a very powerful magician," he told her, "And I really need a good magician's help."
Beldon frowned slightly. "What for?"
"There's an evil magician that's trying to take over my kingdom," Aiden replied, seeing no sense in lying to her. With his luck, she'd know a lie-detection spell and zap him. He really didn't want to get zapped. "All the sorcerers here don't know how to stop him, so I'm hoping maybe your Master does."
Beldon snorted inelegantly. "The Sorcerer's Council is a bunch of idiots," she informed him matter-of-factly. "Come on, I'll take you to see Master Sabin."
She set off walking down the street. Aiden remounted Sundance and followed, the horse being a tad confused at having to restrain her pace to that of a small child.
"Hey," Aiden offered, "You want to ride? We'll get there faster..."
Beldon looked up at him, then at Sundance, and scowled. "No," she said calmly. "Horses are stupid."
Aiden blinked and patted Sundance reassuringly as Beldon once more set off down the street. For such a pretty girl she certainly managed to almost border on rude at times. Then again, if she was trying to pretend she was a boy then perhaps she was also trying to imitate 'boy' speech patterns.
They wound their way slowly through the city, passing through the poorer areas to the very outskirts of Throne City where those who had no money and those who were considered outcast lived. At first Aiden was a bit concerned about such a young child traveling through such areas, then he remembered the lightning. Obviously, Beldon could take care of herself.
When they stopped, Aiden stared for several moments before dismounting. It was barely more than a large hovel with holes in the walls for windows and a creaky old door that looked as though it would fall off at any moment. There was nowhere to tie Sundance to, as what sparse yard it had was bare of anything but rocks and small scrubs. He stood helplessly, uncertain what to do.
Beldon stopped just outside the door and turned to frown at him, opening her mouth to voice a question before stopping and rolling her eyes. "Oh." She murmured something quietly and pointed at the ground. A moment later a root lifted up out of the earth and coiled around Sundance's reins, holding them snugly.
"Are you coming now?" Beldon asked impatiently.
A little disquieted, Aiden patted Sundance and followed Beldon into the creaky hovel. It was warmer inside than out, with cheerful, if well-mended curtains hung over the windows. The furniture looked sturdy, albeit worn, and there was a pleasant smell coming from a large pot simmering over the fireplace. There were two other persons inside, seated at the small wooden table doing something that involved three cups of water, several beans, and half of a strawberry pie.
One was another child, a boy this time, who looked to be two or three years older than Beldon. He was fairly plain, especially next to the more striking Beldon. The other was older, probably in his late thirties, with straw-blond hair that apparently wanted to stick up in every conceivable direction. He looked up as Beldon dropped down into an unoccupied chair, smiling warmly at the girl, then blinked as he noticed Aiden standing in the doorway.
"Oh, what do we have here?" he asked. Aiden decided then and there that he liked this man. His voice was soft, cheerful, the kind that was filled with praises and promises that would always be kept. It matched his smile, warm and open, as though everyone he met would be considered a friend regardless of who they were. This was a man who could be trusted without question.
Aiden shifted slightly, feeling like he was intruding. "Sorry, I suppose I should have asked... I met your apprentice in the city and asked if I could meet you... You are Master Sabin, right?"
The blond man laughed. "That I am. Dare I ask what sort of mischief Beldon's gotten into this time?" he asked.
Aiden flushed. "Not really mischief so much as... well, I've never seen a child hurl lightning before. It was quite impressive."
Sabin arched a brow. "Again?" He shook his head, reaching out to ruffle Beldon's hair in amusement. "You really need to stop letting them get to you, my dear," he told the girl affectionately.
Beldon scowled. "They deserved it," she muttered.
"I'm sure they did," Sabin laughed, "But a good Enchanter doesn't go around throwing lightning at people just because they deserve it," he admonished.
"Why not?" the young boy asked, speaking up for the first time.
Sabin smiled patiently. "Because it's not polite," he explained.
"I don't wanna be polite," Beldon mumbled.
Sabin patted her head again, then gestured for Aiden to come closer. "So, then," he said, "What brings you to my humble abode, stranger?" He waved one hand, murmuring a few quiet words, then a fourth chair appeared for Aiden to sit upon.
Aiden tested the newly-arrived chair gingerly, then seated himself when it appeared as though it was solid enough. "I guess you could say I've run out of options," he replied sheepishly. "I'm Aiden, by the way."
The Enchanter arched one pale brow. "The High King? I thought I saw the resemblance but I wasn't certain..." He smiled, somewhat self-deprecatingly. "The generations change so quickly..."
Aiden flushed, cursing his skin for being so prone to doing that. "Yes, well... um... I suppose you've heard about the Dark Enchanter that's threatening the kingdom..."
A shadow passed through Sabin's so-pale blue eyes. He glanced at his two apprentices, nodding once. "Melanth, Beldon, go clean up the work room, please."
Beldon stood, appearing slightly curious, but simply shrugged and headed off one of the adjacent doorways to do as requested. The boy, Melanth, started to object only to have Sabin cut him off. "Please, Melanth, don't argue. Just go."
Melanth looked as though he'd like to do just the opposite, then sighed and headed through the same doorway Beldon had taken, grumbling beneath his breath the entire way. Sabin waited until he was out of sight before waving and arm in a large circle above his head and murmuring a few words.
Aiden cocked his head curiously. "What was that?" he asked.
Sabin smiled, somewhat grimly. It looked terribly out of place on the man's face. "To negate prying eyes and ears," he explained. "You are speaking of Morgemeil, of course."
Aiden nodded slowly. "Yes."
Steepling his hands together, the Enchanter nodded thoughtfully. "And I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to assume that you've already spoken with the ArchMage and the Sorcerer's Council..."
Flushing again, Aiden nodded. Why did he feel like he'd somehow let this man down by not coming to him first? He hadn't even known Sabin existed until less than an hour ago!
Nodding again, Sabin smiled, reaching out to ruffle Aiden's dark auburn curls much as he'd ruffled Beldon's hair earlier. "Don't worry about it," he said reassuringly. "Most people would have done exactly the same. It is fortunate, however, that you chanced across my little Beldon." He stood, humming a cheery tune beneath his breath as he rifled through cabinets. "I am... something of an experimental Enchanter," Sabin explained, fishing several odd jars out of a cupboard with a sleepy possum in it. "While I know the traditional methods, I prefer to design my own. It keeps me from being limited in what I can accomplish, but at the same time it can be rather difficult as I constantly find myself needing to design new spells and enchantments."
He set the jars on the table, then headed toward the doorways at the rear of the room, gesturing for Aiden to follow before disappearing into the one that his two apprentices had not taken. Aiden rose, somewhat bewildered by everything, and followed, stepping through the dilapidated doorway into what proved to be a small bedroom. There were three beds, all looking rather well-used with blankets atop them that had been patched more than a few times.
Sabin had been hunting underneath one of the beds when Aiden entered, looking up at the sound of Aiden's footsteps and laughing at the expression on his face. "Go ahead," he said cheerfully, "Ask."
Aiden flushed for what seemed the hundredth time that day. "I don't want to seem rude," he said slowly, "But I've seen what wizards and sorcerers can do. It seems to me that you could repair all these things better than new if you wanted to..."
Sabin smiled, abandoning his search for whatever had been beneath his bed to sit on top of it instead. "Yes," he agreed, "I could. I could do a lot of things if I so wished it. But what would be the point? My things may be old and unseemly, but they are sturdy, warm, and comfortable. As long as I am content with my life, there seems little point in changing it simply because it does not meet someone else's expectations."
For several long moments Aiden remained where he was, rather more surprised than he cared to admit, as he thought about what the man had said. Having been born a prince, he'd grown up surrounded by riches and expensive things. If something got old or faded it was replaced, even if it had still been functional. It was the way things were, in his world. He'd never really thought about it before. Half of what being royalty was, it seemed, all about presenting the proper appearance. Witness the horrible formal robes he'd been forced into this morning, for instance.
They might have been impressive and expensive and all that, but they certainly hadn't been comfortable. Quite the opposite.
Sabin chuckled softly. "You look like you're thinking hard, Majesty Aiden. While you're running through your life trying to figure it out, try to keep in mind that everyone is different. What works for one man does not always work for his neighbor, his friend, even his loved one. Finding out what your life is all about is part of the beauty of living."
Picking one of the two unoccupied beds at random, Aiden sat down heavily upon it. "My life hasn't made sense to me for a long time." He shook his head. "I may be King in name, but I sure don't feel like it. I'm not sure if I ever really felt like a prince, actually."
Silent for a moment, Sabin stood and crossed the small room to join Aiden on his chosen bed, reaching out with one arm to lightly embrace him. "Who is to say how a prince or a king feels?" he asked. "Only those who hold such a role, and even then, each of them is different. Today, you are a prince learning to be a king. Tomorrow, only tomorrow knows." He paused, then smiled wryly. "Though Celestine would argue that she knows, but that is still debatable."
Aiden blinked. "Celestine?"
Sabin chuckled. "The possum in the cupboard. She decided she could see the future a few months back and I haven't decided if she's telling me the truth or not."
Numbly, not knowing what else to do, Aiden nodded.
Laughing again, Sabin stood up and ruffled Aiden's hair, resuming his search of the room for supplies. He unearthed all manner of strange things from equally bizarre locations, piling them in the center of the room. Finally his search seemed to be complete, for he placed a small bag on the floor nearby and began putting things into it. As he did, each shrank down into a tiny, doll-sized variation of its original form, allowing everything to fit despite the vast quantity that needed to be packed.
"There," Sabin announced when he was through. "Add the things on the table and we're ready to go."
Aiden blinked. "We? Go? Go where?"
Sabin laughed. "Off to see if we can do something about your problem, of course," he answered cheerfully. "I expect we'll be gone a month or three, so you may want to drop someone a note explaining your absence."
"But..." Aiden blinked yet again. "I'm no magician, and I'm only passable with a sword. I'd be of no use to you."
The Enchanter shook his head, smiling. "Not true. You carry within you the old power, passed down through your bloodline for generations. That is something I cannot duplicate by any means, nor, I think, can Morgemeil. Perhaps it will be of use, perhaps not." He reached out to ruffle Aiden's hair for the third time. "Besides, it is said that a great Quest is the best way to discover yourself. It seems to me that perhaps that is something that you have been needing for a long time, Aiden-the-prince-who-has-not-yet-become-a-king."
Although he wasn't quite certain he could follow the man's logic, Aiden had to admit that Sabin had a point. He had felt lost and confused, uncertain of who he was expected to be. While a Quest might not be the answer, it was at least something to try.
"All right," he said finally, "Why not? We'll go on a Quest to save my kingdom from the Dark Enchanter Morgemeil."
And, with any luck, they might even survive it.