Rowan Nedderman tried not to skip as he walked down a busy commercial street with two giant bags of groceries. Today was a good day. No, it was a huge day - it was his husband's birthday, and the one-year anniversary of bringing their infant son home.
He was a little sad that his family would not be joining him in the celebrations. He couldn't muster more than a sigh about it, for he had spent a lifetime fighting bitterly with his family because of his sexuality. They had nothing nice to say about his spouse or his son, so he was better off without them (most of the time, save for occasional bouts of loneliness). He had his own family now, and today was all about them.
Grinning at anyone whose eye he caught, he entered a luxurious casino, knocking over a metal urn and the doorman. The din caught the attention of the pit boss, a tall, well-dressed woman who glided over to the scene. "Aren't you in the wrong place?" she asked Rowan.
"Aw, sorry, Helena." Rowan put down his grocery bags and grinned. In spite of herself, Helena's burgundy-painted lips stretched into a smile too. "I was shopping for the party we're having for Danny's and Cole's birthdays," Rowan explained, "when I realized I forgot to invite you. My phone died on me, so I came myself."
"It's tonight? And you're telling me now?"
"Danny said he'd handle the invites! He's the one who forgot."
Rowan groaned. "Neither of us have slept in two days."
"It doesn't get better," Helena said. "The problems only change. Just wait till you get to the teen years."
"You're forty and kids hate you. What do you know?"
"I hate kids too, but I've babysat my brothers' spawn for a quarter of a century."
Helen elbowed him hard.
"Got it," Rowan coughed, shooting a joking glare at the snickering doorman. "You can babysit my spawn too."
Helen had just opened her mouth to respond when petrified screams ripped through the air. "GUN!!" someone yelled. Rowan only caught a glance of a stampede brewing deeper in the casino before all hell broke loose.
Guns roared. People shrieked as they ran for their lives. Horror flooded the room as bodies fell like autumn leaves. Casino chips, wood fragments, glass and blood flew into the air. In wild panic, people clawed at the walls as if the concrete would give way in some miraculous mercy.
Why now? Why me? Rowan thought as he turned and found the doorway blocked by a rifle-wielding woman in business attire with her face covered by a monkey cap. As the barrel rose, he shoved Helena behind him. His eyes met the woman's. For some reason, she hesitated upon seeing the terror on his face. "Please," Rowan begged in desperation. "It's my baby boy's birthday."
"I'm sorry," the woman mouthed, and closed her eyes.
Rowan Nedderman fell, never to see his husband or son again.
Eighteen months later
It was a dreary, cold afternoon in Emmer, capital of the kingdom of Mevinje. The frosty spires of the ancient castle sparkled in the deceptively bright, frigid sunlight. In the sprawling castle grounds, nestled into a clearing in the temperate rainforest sat a small mountain lake, relic of a glacier that had melted away long before humans set foot on the mountain. Over its frozen surface, the Crown Prince, Culver Ermine, drifted backwards with his eyes on the gloomy clouds rumbling overhead. With a quick twirl, he glided down the shoreline, picking up speed before launching himself into the air, wheeling in a full circle and landing on his right leg.
"Just as expected of your Highness! The kingdom is blessed with a fine Prince!"
Culver winced inwardly. Monarchy may have evolved in Mevinje, but the flattery that inevitably accompanied most certainly had not. Forcing a smile, he nodded at the Prime Minister shivering in the shadow of a giant fir. "Minister Echart," he acknowledged. "The budget session went well, I presume."
"It did." Echart paused to put on skates of his own, failing to notice Culver's murderous expression or his bladed foot the raised like the blade of a guillotine. "There we go." When Echart straightened up, Culver was innocently skating in small circles with a vacant look on his face. Echart joined in, noticing Culver's visible flinch but ignoring it. "Something did pop out to me though," he said. "The military funding is much higher than it was when Dr. Treo discussed it with me, and the rest of the Council was oddly stubborn about keeping it that way."
"I increased it. I brought in representatives from Garrix for updating of our artillery. Dr. Treo that looked after things from there."
"Hmph!" Echart kicked the ice with the toe end of his blade and glared at the lake stretching out in front of him. "If that nincompoop were so smart, he would have considered Garrix from the beginning. This country suffered great losses because of his decision to stick with those old rust buckets."
The "rust buckets" were military helicopters, and the great loss was the skirmish Mevinje had lost at her western border because their neighbor, Astor, had newer, faster helicopters of their own. Culver refrained from reminding Echart that it was his brazen words at a border peace meeting that had triggered the fight.
Half the Mevinjean pilots forced to participate in that fight never came back. Culver had flown into a rage upon hearing the news, brought in defence contractor Garrix overnight and shoved the representatives unceremoniously into a bunker with the Defense Secretary, Dr. Treo. Before Echart had returned from the disastrous war, a contract for the design, manufacture and delivery of new helicopters, fighter planes, tanks and ammunition had already been signed.
Of course the Council of Ministers wouldn't budge from the swollen budget. Supersession of Culver's word over Echart's aside, none of the ministers wanted to see again that promise of Hell that had been in the Prince's eyes.
Irritation returned. Culver stopped skating abruptly. "You must excuse me," he said coldly. "I am tired. I’ll head inside now."
Culver hid his trembling hands inside his coat pockets as he waded through the snow. Few knew that his loss in that battle had been personal. It had taken everything in him to keep a straight face when the report of the battle had reached him and he had read the names of the martyrs. Only in the wee hours of the morning when Culver was sure he was alone could he mourn, and when the rising Sun brought with them the real world, he had to pretend he was absolutely fine. A year had passed and he had healed somewhat, but the rage at his lover's death and at his own helplessness still haunted him.
"So much for retiring." Now that the fool Echart had brought up that battle again, sleep was a moot point. Culver changed into unobtrusive street clothes and put on the overcoat from a castle guard's uniform he had nicked. Off he went, and attendants who passed him by all did double takes - ever since birth, he'd had a small, slender, almost feminine frame and literally every castle guard and soldier in Emmer was bigger - but the stream of expletives he kept up was so uncharacteristic of nobility that it allayed any suspicions. The gentle Prince Culver would never wish warts in the most vulgar crevices of someone's mother. Once he had left the keep of the phenomenal old castle, he made his way to a parking lot at the edge of the forest on the estate and got into the unobtrusive car he had purchased for such excursions into the city.
Out of habit, he cast a melancholy look at the empty passenger seat and stroked the leather.
With an angry stomp on the gas, Culver peeled out of the grounds. He drove recklessly, not watching what street he was turning onto and not caring whether he was being tailed. All he had on his mind was an escape from the world of politics, prejudice, intrigue and vicious competition that was royalty. He was sick of everything that identified him as part of the machinery that had killed the person he had loved and had hoped to spend the rest of his life with.
Before he knew it, affluent suburbs had given way to the distinctly urban apartment complexes, eateries and storefronts of Middle Emmer. Those were succeeded by the tightly packed, gaily lit towers of Central Emmer rising from the bustling panoply of humanity roiling around them like an angry ocean. Here in a parking garage he left his car and joined the throng streaming up the street, letting it jostle him and sweep him away in its current like a tidal bore. At random, he'd step into a side street to break the monotony of his pace. He crossed one large avenue, then a second, then a third. The buildings got smaller and grimier. The polished businessmen, affluent shoppers and casually clad tourists had long since been left behind. Now the sidewalks sparkled with the glittery dresses and jewelry of party-goers, the bright LED lights of nightclub signs dancing off sequins, gemstones and piercings.
In this crowd that was too drunk, too high or too focused on getting into the aforementioned stupors to recognize him, Culver felt safe enough to sit down on the steps of a closed bar and people-watch without being disturbed. Here he could cast a condescending eye on passers-by and criticize them in an attempt to delude himself into thinking he was better than someone, at least.. The compelling, sinful puppet strings of schadenfreude that make onlookers watch their fellow humans turn themselves into dinnertime stories now drove Culver to watch the outcome of the unrestrained hedonism around him.
There were the standard drunkards stumbling into everything solid in their path, some alone, some held up by others. There were the drug dealers furtively passing packets and vials to regulars and newbies at varying levels of sobriety. There were the prostitutes scouting customers, their pimps watchfully patrolling the sidewalk or keeping an eye from alleyways. There were the people whose bodies had finally had enough and were passed out or throwing up in alleys, plant pots, trashcans, purses and right on the road. Oh yes, the Crown Prince of Mevinje had stumbled into a very seedy part of town indeed.
Culver would never know what kept his eyes riveted on the tall, long-haired man that tumbled down the steps of the bar across the street. In the years to come, he would remember the vague, passing thought he had had about liking the man's coat. Tea-colored hair spilled out onto the dirty slurry that remained of the previous week's snowstorm. With a groan both pained and disoriented, the man drew himself up to his full height of six and a half feet, raised his right leg and went flying down the street in a comical sideways scramble before colliding with a parking meter.
"Hey, that's one helluva filthy wine glass!" he hollered to a watching bouncer. "Why's it so big?"
"Get off the meter, jackass," the bouncer growled. The people lined up outside the nightclub whooped and laughed.
"So duuuuuurty," the tall man sang. "Get off on the meter? It's a wine glass, ya dumb sea cow!" Culver jumped up as the man began to unbuckle his belt to the catcalls and jeers of his spectators. "But if you say so, honey -"
The bouncer stepped away from the door to stop the man from exposing himself right as Culver crossed the street in two leaps. The girls at the front of the line saw their window of opportunity and knocked over the belt separating them from the door. Like water from a failed dam, the waiting crowd streamed into the club, almost drowning out the bouncer's enraged roar. Outraged, then alarmed and ultimately frightened screams began to issue from inside the club as people waiting in other lines up and down the street stampeded into the unguarded club, squashing those already inside. Alcohol had taken the reins off tempers, and elbowing quickly turned to angry jostling and shoving and a full-blown fight suddenly exploded on the street.
Culver wove between wrestling pairs and trios, dodged flying fists and hopped over lashing feet in pursuit of the man with tea-colored hair. Oblivious to the chaos he had caused, the giant was tracing a serpentine path towards the far end of the street, and Culver quickly gave chase. "How is he so damn fast?" he growled, struggling to keep up with the taller man's large, swift strides. "Couldn't he be a bit more drunk?"
In the slippery muck, the much shorter Culver with his favorite custom-made leather boots worn smooth by overuse and his small strides could barely stay upright while the giant sprauchled about in Wellingtons. For a grueling hour, the Prince followed his target out of Central Emmer, past a long line of warehouses and through the shifty low-income neighborhoods of North Emmer and towards the river that divided Emmer in half.
The legends claimed that the river Taia claimed one life for every life she gave. And, to Culver's increasing horror, this foolish flagpole of a man was about to become her newest victim. Before him was a stone ledge beyond which the clear waters of the Taia flowed unobtrusively in a fairly narrow channel. In spite of the popular myth that nobody who fell into the river had survived, many tried to tempt fate, fooled by the calm-looking waters.
"Hey, stop!" Culver yelled as the man strayed dangerously close to the edge of the stone ledge overhanging the river. The man continued to sing, oblivious to the impending danger and to the royal stranger's attempts to save him. Culver pelted down the street faster than was good for him, shouting and frantically waving his arms. His target kept dancing before an imaginary crowd, feet constantly inching towards the edge of the stone slab.
"Get away from the ledge!” Culver screamed, running as fast as his legs would carry him. “Get away from - WHOA!"