Rhys walked briskly down the corridor that led to his father’s study. His alabaster hair was half neatly pulled up softly framing his face; every curl bouncing as he stepped. His lips were set into a hard line and his furrowed brow creased his dark umber skin. To say he was pissed off would’ve been an understatement. Seeing his father put him in the worst of moods; being summoned by him with no explanation or regard for a prince’s schedule of things to do, put him over the edge.
Considering his father was the one who gave him such an enormous amount of duties to do each day, he of all people should know how little time his son had to spare. Training to be the next king left little time for oneself or their family, according to his father. He came to the set of large oak doors that separated him from the less than savory encounter he was about to have. In front of them stood a pair of guards, to which he gave a slight nod to them both. Nodding back the two stepped aside. He jerked the door open and announced his presence in the large, open, room.
Lord King Ercor looked up from where he sat at his oversized desk and then continued to file through the papers in front of him. His second in command, a man who only went by the name Tityra, sat in front of the ornate fireplace in the middle of a blood-red loveseat. Playing cards were spread on the low table in front of him in what seemed to look like a game of solitaire. The scruffy-looking man didn't even look the prince’s way as he moved through the room.
Rhys’s face displayed a look of annoyance that could be seen clearly even in the dimly lit room. The light from the fireplace danced off the walls casting shadows on the already dark and drab decor of the room. Everything was colored in burgundies and chocolates. Game trophies of mystical and non-mystical creatures hung on the walls, an homage to the king's early days as ruler; when he could still hunt and fight with the best of them.
Age had caught up with the Lord King faster than he would have hoped, now a mere shell of the man he once was. His onyx curls were graying here and there, more so on his coarse beard, and the wrinkles that gathered around his eyes and forehead had him looking exceptionally older than he really was. Even with how sparse the light was in the large room Rhys could see how they creased his skin.
How his father could read in these conditions he had no clue, but he hoped it would ruin his eyesight at some point. After a few moments had passed and his father had yet to say anything Rhys opened his mouth to speak only to be cut short.
“We have important things to discuss, Rhys.”
“What you define as important and what I define as important are two different things.” His son snapped.
“I think we can agree that your future is important to both of us.” Ercor doesn't take his eyes off of his documents as he speaks. Rhys’ rich ivy and sap-colored eyes narrow at what his father is insinuating.
“Have a seat, boy.” Without looking he gestured vaguely in the direction where an armchair sat in front of his large desk. When he doesn’t receive an answer or hear his son settle into the armchair, he huffs to himself and turns a document over; continuing the conversation.
“I’m becoming older Rhys...and you’re well past of age.” The older man dips his quill in ink and signs a page.
“I’ve trained you your whole life for the throne and that time is quickly approaching; whether you like it or not. However, before that, you must obtain a bride.”
“I refuse,” he says outright, the words coming out before he had time to think.
“How predictable.” Ercor places his quill in its inkpot and leans back in his plush armchair, looking at his son fully with his arms crossed, his golden vambraces clinking together as he does so.
“Then what of our country? Who will lead it when I cannot? You’re to let the sovereignty of our country crumble out of pettiness? Don’t make me laugh boy, even I know you're too smart for that.”
“Marriage isn’t needed to run a country, unlike you, I do not need to harm innocent people for my own gain.”He spat back.
“On the contrary, royal marriages benefit the country a great deal. Why do you think so many lands are under our control? Through the treaties made out of marriage. Even when I married your mother it was all to get the mountainous region of Scala under our reign.”
Rhys’s usually composed demeanor nearly crumbled when his father mentioned his mother. He didn’t come looking for a fight, not this time, but with how things were going it might as well end up as one. His teeth clenched as he kept the urge to lunge over the goddamn desk just bubbling under the surface.
“But I know how you are, son. You won't listen to a damn word I say. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of the most eligible suitors for you to choose from that would benefit our land-” Ercor held out a stack of papers which Rhys quickly smacked out of his hand.
“I said I refuse!”
The papers fluttered around the two of them, the younger of the two’s breath coming out shallow.
Tityra watched their encounter carefully from where he sat; his hand hovering over his scabbard that lay next to him. His sword wouldn't be drawn, he knew better now than to get in the middle of the Lord King and the Prince’s fights but it was just a precaution in case things went south on the Lord King's end.
“What a shame. And to think I was going to let your mother out of the east wing if you had agreed.”
Their eyes met for a brief moment, just long enough for Ercor to see Rhys’s shocked reaction and for the other to see his father's despicable grin. Rhys slammed his hands onto the desk, making it creak under him.
“What are you saying, old man…?”
“Exactly what you heard. If you are to choose a suitor, you are going to have to court each one and evaluate the certain assets they have to offer our kingdom. It would be quite a long journey and I was going to be gracious enough to let her accompany you.”
“That’s low, using her as leverage...”
Ercor came from behind the desk and began picking up the scattered papers from where they lay on the intricately designed rug, chuckling to himself at his son's temper. When he finished he pushed them towards his son once more.
“So what will it be?”
Rhys’ eyes bored holes into those pages as he played back their conversation in his head. It was unfair to his mother, being caught between this man’s antics from the very beginning. She had been cast away in the east wing of their castle since she had gone mad and tried to drown Rhys when he was seven. Ercor would be damned if his last chance at an heir to the throne be put in danger once more. So she was confined there and Rhys was forbidden to have contact with her up until recently. He had only seen her a handful of times, the first being quite brief.
Before she attempted to take his life, she was the sweetest person in the world. His mother was the sun, a bright light he could look to when he was feeling suffocated by his father. She was his shield from his father’s rage and the many forms it took. It was only a matter of time she would snap. As Rhys grew older it became harder for him to hold it against her as he slowly realized his father was the catalyst for it all. The man beat her into submission and it was only a matter of time before she would retaliate.
She wanted to get Ercor where it hurts, his legacy, and without Rhys, he would have nothing. But in the end, she was still a mother and the remorse in her eyes when Rhys saw her for the first time confirmed a hope he had held onto for a long time.
That she wasn't a bad person.
Because if she was he wouldn't know what to do.
Rhys had spent minutes just standing outside the entrance of the east wing debating if he was even ready to see her yet. He held no ill will towards her for what she did. He was mature enough back then to know the reason behind her actions. But it had been years since they just talked. He had seen mere glimpses of her on the rare occasions his father brought her out for public appearances, but that was it. Not so much as a ‘Hello’ or ‘I love you.
Their meeting consisted of her asking him for forgiveness. Her steel eyes still held the same kindness and sadness they had when he was much smaller. And for someone cast away from the world, she seemed at peace with how things were. All Rhys could do was hold her delicate hand in his, in an attempt to show himself that she was here, she was present with him in this moment, and not an image he would see for a fleeting second. She placed her other hand over his and gave him a weak but shining smile. It was almost as if she knew exactly how he felt, that smile screamed ‘Don’t worry, I am here.’
At that moment, in the small bedroom at the top of the east wings’ tower, Rhys cried. He cried like he hadn’t in over a decade, he cried like he did when his mother was still around to comfort him after the constant abuse from his father. For years he put on the hardest face around that despicable man, to show as little weakness as possible, and this beautiful, caring woman crumbled his facade in an instant; in the way only she could.
He had entered the east wing to visit her a couple of times after that, but his schedule was tight and strict. It was not tolerated if he got caught wasting time, which apparently his mother was considered as such.
He considered the proposal. As much as he hated the prospect of marrying out of necessity it had to be years upon years since his mother was even allowed outside of the castle let alone out of the eyes of Ercor. He loved his mother with every ounce of his being. If he had to sacrifice something for her to even have a little bit of freedom he would. He wasn’t king yet and he couldn’t free her from Ercor’s grasp until he was. The idea of following in his father's footsteps made him nauseous and the words he said earlier rang in his ears.
“Unlike you, I do not need to harm innocent people for my own gain.”
While it was true for him that whether he was married or not didn’t determine if he could rule the country, he needed a wife to even come close to the throne and Ercor was going to have his way or nothing else. The king knew his wife was Rhys’ weakness and was going to exploit it for all it was worth.
Rhys sneered as he snatched the papers from his father and looked away.
“Good. I’m glad to see you are finally taking responsibility for your role as future king. There are times you must do things for the greater good of your country... You’ll both leave in the morning under the watch of Tityra. It will be a three-month-long journey so pack well.”
Ercor shooed him away with the back of his hand, clearly done with the whole exchange, and sat back down behind his desk. Rhys left without another word; fed up with the victorious atmosphere his father was exuding. He had a lot of packing to do.
The crisp dawn air bit at his face as he waited at the entrance of the castle next to their carriage. He pulled his tawny fur coat closed so the frigid air wouldn’t penetrate the layers he wore. After a whole night of thinking about this new situation, he was honestly ready to go. He had only left the castle when his father deemed it necessary to further his education for the throne. There was so much in this world he hasn’t seen and a three-month trip without his father sounded like a blessing right now. Albeit he does have his father’s lackey hanging around the entire time but from what Rhys has seen he won't do much.
His attention was grabbed when he heard the creak of the gate opening and two women emerged. Gala Casteleilles walked towards him. She was donned in a pristine white fur shawl that blended in with her bound hair and that sweet smile one again. That smile gripped at Rhys’ heart. The queen was accompanied by one of her female servants who carried her belongings. Rhys isn't even surprised that his father isn't seeing them off like he would actually give them the time of day. He approached his mother and hugged her. When she hugged back it was warm enough to leave him feeling toasty and content even as the wind persisted. Gala pulled back and looked her son in the eye.
“I know you’ve already made up your mind, so I won’t try to talk you out of it. As long as it's your decision, in the end, I support you. Thank you.” she cupped his left cheek with her gloved hand as she said it.
He tried not to take in all her features when he looked at her; he had to constantly remind himself he would see her every day for the next three months. The two of them made their way into the carriage as the servant loaded up the luggage. Tityra, who was sitting on the front perch next to the driver, gave the signal and they were off to their first destination.
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