Nerin groaned, anger flowing through him. “Brother, please, this may be my only chance!” he cried.
His brother, Harudan, only rolled his eyes. “Nerin, this won’t be your only chance, you know that. Stop being dramatic,” he said, tapping his foot against the wooden floor. “They’re here to sign the treaty. After that, you will be able to see them as much as you like.”
Nerin crossed his arms over his chest. “How do you know?” He sounded like a petulant child and he knew it, but it wasn’t going to stop him from arguing. He wanted to meet the Princess. She would be arriving soon. He’d never seen an Askari before, nor had he ever met a Princess. He wanted to do both, but Harudan, as per usual, wasn’t going to let him.
“Because I’m the King, Nerin, I’m going to make sure they keep coming back,” his brother said, running a hand through his long black hair. “I want to have a good relationship with them.”
“And why can’t I have a good relationship with them?” Nerin asked, raising his eyebrows at his older brother.
“Because you’re twelve.”
“I’m thirteen, my birthday was last week!”
“You act like you’re twelve.”
Nerin huffed. “You’re just saying that because you forgot how old I was.”
Harudan sighed in frustration. He crouched down so that they were at eye level, but Nerin stepped away. They stood in Harudan’s office, which was lined with portraits of Kings and Queens long past. At the back of the small room, behind Harudan’s desk and between two arched windows, was a portrait of their father, who’d died of illness the year before.
Nerin missed him, but even he knew at his young age that things were better with him gone. Harudan was a better King. He actually wanted to make peace with Minisia and the Askari, instead of starting a war with them as their father had done.
He fidgeted with the quills on the desk, clacking them against the wood. The sound woke Harudan’s pet drake, Ignis, who eyed Nerin in annoyance before dropping his head back onto the cushion he slept on. With a small smile, Nerin gave him a scratch behind the ears as an apology.
Behind him, Harudan sighed again. “Nerin, listen to me,” he said and placed his hand on his shoulder, his fingers brushing against his chestnut brown hair. “This initial meeting is very important. We have to make a good first impression-”
“And you don’t think I can do that? I know how to act like a Prince, Harudan. Father had me trained too,” Nerin snapped. He whirled around to glare at his brother.
“I’m not saying that. I know you can make a good first impression. But you’re excitable. The Princess has had a long journey, I don’t want to overwhelm her,” Harudan explained as he moved to lean against the table. “We’re going to have a very important first meeting about the treaty, something you would get bored with, I’m sure, then we’re going to have a big dinner together. You can talk to her then, I promise.”
It wasn’t what he was after. Surely, both members of the royal family should be there to greet a newcomer, especially someone as important as a Princess. But he could see in the set of Harudan’s eyes and the straight line of his mouth that arguing any further would be pointless. Dinner would have to do.
“Alright,” he said with a sharp nod. “I can do that.”
Harudan smiled at him, the corner of his eyes crinkling. “Thank you. I’m glad you understand.” He didn’t, but he wasn’t going to say that. He continued to pet Ignis, the little drake letting out chirping noises of pleasure.
Harudan shuffled through the papers on his desk. It wouldn’t be long before he sent Nerin away to do whatever it was he had to do before the Princess arrived. Ever since he had been coronated, they’d spent less time together. Nerin knew why, he wasn’t stupid, far from it, but that didn’t stop him from missing the time he spent with his brother.
Someone knocked on the door and Harudan let out a grumble. “Come in,” he ordered. A single servant opened the door, peeking their head around the wood nervously. “What is it?”
“Erm- Sir Jonin sent me to tell you that the Princess’s party has arrived, your Majesty,” they stammered. They looked between the brothers nervously, as if expecting one of them to snap any second. They had probably been there when Nerin’s father was King.
Nerin looked to his brother hopefully. One last chance to change his mind even though he knew deep down that it wasn’t going to happen. “Thank you. Go, I will be there momentarily,” Harudan said, waving the servant away. The closed with a quiet click and Nerin took a moment to notice how tired his brother looked.
Dark grey bags sat under the amber eyes he had gotten from their father. His usually vibrant apple coloured skin looked pale in the daylight. His black hair seemed to be the only neat part of him. “Harudan, are you alright?” Nerin asked, his eyebrows furrowed in concern.
Harudan shook his head and waved him away. “I’m alright, I just didn’t get much sleep last night,” he said as he moved away from the desk. “Head back to your room. One of the servants will come and get you for dinner.”
He didn’t respond. He should have guessed the minute he found out about the Princess’s arrival that Harudan wouldn’t let him greet her. He let out an irritated sigh and left his brother’s office, ignoring the yell he got when he slammed the door.
Just because Harudan said he couldn’t go didn’t mean he was going to listen. For once, he had no one escorting him around the palace. His brother expected him to go back to his room and wait patiently. If he believed that was what Nerin was going to do, he was stupid.
Even his father had known better not to let Nerin wander the palace unescorted. But Harudan was tired. He had other things to worry about. He wouldn’t even notice that Nerin wasn’t where it was meant to be. As long as he moved quickly, he would be fine.
His room was a few halls away from Harudan’s small office, more than enough space for Harudan not to see him turn down the wrong hallway and scamper down the servant’s stairs. One of the cleaning maids walked past him as he ran down, barely sparing him a glance. They were all used to seeing him.
The servants quarters and the kitchens were next to each other. The easiest way to get to the palace’s main hall was to run through both rooms. The servants bustled about, trying to get things ready for the big dinner that night. One jumped and dropped a plate of stuffed pastries when Nerin burst in the room.
“Your Highness!” the cook yelled. “You know you’re not meant to be in here!”
Nerin only shrugged and grinned at the fat man. “But you’re not going to say anything,” he said.
“No, I’m not, just get out of here,” the cook replied, waving him away with a dirty wooden spoon. Nerin whooped with laughter and ran from the room.
Many passages had been built into the castle during construction years ago. Some were common knowledge, but most no one knew about. No one but Nerin, who’d made it his life's mission to discover them all. He didn’t need to use any to get to the main hall without being spotted, but he made a note of the nearby ones in case he was caught while he was there.
The passages were the reason he had to be escorted almost everywhere he went. His father had told him once that he looked and acted like his mother, who had died giving birth to him. The same black hair, the same red eyes and pale orange skin like the sky before sunset. The same quietness and ability to find things no one else had. And, apparently, the same ability to be in places they shouldn’t.
The main hall wasn’t far from the kitchens. Going through the kitchens was a faster route. Harudan wouldn’t even be there yet and it gave him plenty of time to find a decent hiding spot.
It was a lavish room, but one he was used to seeing. As with every room in the palace, it was lined with tapestries and portraits and giant arched windows to let in the sunlight. A rug lined the centre of the hall between two sets of large double doors. One led out to the courtyard, the other to the start of the castle’s many halls and beyond, to the throne room.
Two smaller doors sat on either side of the room guarded by sets of armour. These were the servants' doors. Nerin sat in front of one and opened it a crack, just enough to see and hear everything in the main hall.
As he had expected, it was empty bar Harudan’s Guard. Two knights stood on either side of the doors that led out to the courtyard, sharing nervous glances. The view out the windows was obscured slightly and Nerin was unable to see what was going on in the courtyard.
He jumped when the doors leading to the throne room opened with a loud creak. He cursed his nervousness. Many times, he had listened in on the King’s meetings and only a few times had he been caught.
Harudan strode out, tailed by two of his Guard. He’d changed in the time it had taken Nerin to sneak down. Gone were the dishevelled white shirt and faded black trousers, instead he wore newer versions of them, pressed and tailored to fit him. Over the top was a jacket their father had bought him not long before he died, deep blue with gold trim, brushing against his thighs as he walked.
“Where is Jonin?” he asked as he surveyed the room.
The two guards at the door looked to each other again. “Unsure, your Majesty. He disappeared when the Princess arrived. I believe he went outside to greet them,” one said.
Harudan sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Someone had put it up so that it wouldn’t get in his way as it usually did. “Well, open the doors. We’ve kept her waiting far too long.”
Anticipation washed over Nerin as the guards pulled the doors open. Light flooded the room and he had to blink away the sudden blindness. Dainty footsteps echoed through the room. A woman with deep blue skin and hair as white as snow walked down the centre rug. Her hands were bunched in the folds of her gold coloured dress, her arms covered by a thick white petticoat. Of course, she would feel the cold.
“Wow,” Nerin breathed and then his hand shot up to cover his mouth. He couldn’t give himself away now.
Others followed her in. A balding man with even darker skin and a group of knights in black armour. Each of them surveyed the room with expressions Nerin couldn’t read, except for the Princess, who kept her eyes trained on Harudan.
One final person walked into the room, looking more nervous than the rest. From his flowing grey robes, it was obvious that he was a monk from the Sanctum of Ishin. Nerin had seen them many times when they sent their apprentices to the palace to work. But he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why one of them would be with Princess Sharina and her party. He was an Ishini man. He would have no place with her.
“Welcome, your Highness,” Harudan said, his rumbling voice echoing around the room. “I trust you had a safe and pleasant trip.”
The Princess curtseyed. “It was quite uneventful, thankfully,” she said in the language of his people. Even her voice was pretty, like tinkling bells. “Thank you for having us, your Majesty. I understand this would be quite unusual for Brenmar.”
“It is,” Harudan agreed. “But I’m hoping that after the next couple of weeks, we won’t have to worry about it anymore.”
“Yes.” Nerin winced at the awkward air, but it couldn’t be helped. Ten years of tensions. It was going better than he thought it would.
Harudan cleared his throat. “My servants will take your bags up to your rooms. I was hoping we could have a quick meeting to discuss how everything is going to happen,” he said, gesturing to the closed double doors behind him. “It is almost sunset. We will pray and have dinner together. I have a younger brother that is desperate to meet you.”
The Princess smiled. “That would be lovely,” she replied. “There is also something else-” But Nerin never learned what that something else was because someone cleared their throat behind him.
Sir Jonin stood there, the Captain of Harudan’s Guard. A big and bulky man that had a constant frown on his face. He raised his eyebrows at Nerin and the boy grinned. “Hello, Jonin, I didn’t know you were here,” he said, trying to sound innocent.
“You are not as good at hiding as you like to think,” Jonin said in his gravelly voice. A meaty hand reach down as grabbed the collar of Nerin’s dust-covered shirt.
He huffed. “That’s a lie and you know it.”
Jonin didn’t listen to him. He heaved Nerin to his feet and pushed the servants' door open all the way. All eyes turned to them and Harudan let out a tired sigh. Jonin walked him forward until he stood at his brother’s side.
“Again?” Harudan hissed. “How many times?”
“He was hiding behind the door,” Jonin explained. He looked to the Princess and bowed. “Your Highness.”
“Not your best hiding spot,” Harudan said before sighing again. “Apologies, your Highness, this is my younger brother, Nerin. He has a bad habit of sneaking around. And this is the Captain of my Guard, Sir Jonin Hegor.” At a nudge from his brother, Nerin bowed sloppily, beaming at the Princess.
She looked a little taken aback, a frown wiping the smile from her pretty face. “It is lovely to meet you both,” she replied, curtseying again. It wasn’t the first impression he wanted to give. If only Jonin hadn’t walked him out like some prize hog.
Harudan ran a hand down his face. “Someone needs to take you back to your room,” he said to Nerin, who flinched when Jonin grabbed his collar again. “Not you, Jonin, I need you with me. You! Monk!”
Nerin had almost forgotten about the apprentice monk, standing behind everyone else. At the words, he jolted and dropped into a graceful bow. “How may I serve you, your Majesty?” he asked. His copper hair flopped into his eyes, but he didn’t bother to push it away.
“Take Prince Nerin back to his rooms. He will show you the way. Just make sure he doesn’t sneak off,” Harudan replied. He nudged Nerin forward and the boy let out an irritated grumble. Pushed off to the side for the apprentice monk to take care of. It was an insult. “Come to my office at sundown tomorrow so that we may discuss your terms of employment.”
The monk bowed again. “Of course, your Majesty,” he said. His gaze flicked to Nerin, a small cry for help. He obviously had no idea what he was doing.
Nerin rolled his eyes and walked over to him. “Come, we can take the servants halls so that we do not get in their way,” he told him and grabbed the edge of his robes to drag him away. “What is your name?”
“And your last name?”
“We do not have last names.”
Nerin shook his head. “Of course, how could I forget?” There had been many apprentice monks at the palace over the years, but he hadn’t bothered to talk to them much. They followed the Old Gods. They were outdated.
As they walked through to the servants' halls once again, he turned to look over his shoulder. The Princess stared back at him curiously and gave him a small smile when he caught her. He beamed back and closed the door after him. Perhaps he had made a better first impression than he originally thought.