Chapter 1: Imperial Palace
Wren fingered his long golden hair as the carriage took him towards the beautiful Imperial Palace by the Unis Sea. Ever since he was a child growing up in the lesser Fontain Castle in the formerly independent Kingdom of Fontain, he had heard stories of the Imperial Palace and the beautiful men who inhabited it. The mysterious King Isaac was said to be so beautiful that everyone in the Empire was in love with him, yet very few people had actually seen him. And there were nine Princes serving him, his younger brothers, all in line for the throne.
Wren himself was first in line for the throne of Fontain, not that it mattered as much now that Fontain had been taken over by the Empire. Fontain still kept its throne and the succession still stood, but the Kings of Fontain now served the Empire and were servants of King Isaac. To cement this new relationship, Fontain was required to send its first prince to serve in King Isaac’s court for three years or until King Isaac released him. And so Wren was traveling across lands he had never thought to see, all the way across the continent to the palace by the sea.
His main concern was his hair. When it became clear that the kingdom of Fontain was going to be taken over, he and the other royals had started growing their hair out, since in the Empire long hair was a status symbol. King Isaac and his brothers had never cut their hair, he had heard, and it trailed down nearly to their feet. He was eager to see if this was true or not, but he knew that he was at a disadvantage. His hair had been growing for nearly a year and came past his shoulders, which he had heard was the length required for nobles. But he worried that he would be seen as less than the other nobles in the palace because of his relatively short hair.
He knew that everyone except the king and princes regularly cut their hair for use in various ceremonies, so perhaps he wouldn’t be too much at a disadvantage, but he wanted to fit in to the court and not stand out. He wasn’t comfortable with court life and in Fontain he had preferred to spend his time outdoors away from the hustle and bustle of the court. When the carriage drew nearer to the palace, his heart began to lighten. The smell of the sea washed over him and he inhaled deeply, trying to get all of the salty, fresh aroma in as possible. The two servants who had come with him looked less miserable and actually peered out the window, as he had been doing the entire two-day trip. They seemed surprised to see signs of civilization.
The city around the palace was enormous, and the traffic was so bad that they came to a complete stop several times. Wren didn’t mind, though, as it gave him a chance to examine the city in detail. It was a beautiful city. The architecture was light and airy, with swooping arches and curves in all of the buildings and rarely a straight line in sight. Even the windows were round or oval and he marveled at the skill of the glassmakers to design windows for all of those unusual openings. The whole city looked like a series of sand dunes and fit its location by the sea perfectly.
But it was the people who really stood out. Wren was easily able to spot people of different classes by their hair length. There were very few nobles in the city, but their hair gave them away as much as their dark-colored clothing and heavy cloaks. It was winter, after all, and there was a distinct chill in the air. Their hair didn’t seem any longer than Wren’s and he was relieved. He would fit in.
The other people had a wide variety of hair lengths and outfits. A few had shaved heads and wore rags, and he knew they were the poorest of the poor, the type of person found in every major city in the continent. They begged for food and money from the passing people, most of whom ignored them completely. The passing people wore thick clothing, though not as thick as the nobles wore, and some had hair to their shoulders but none longer than that. It was interesting, because while some people looked good with the length of hair they had, some people looked terrible and he could tell that they would be quite attractive with a longer or shorter hairstyle. It must be terribly constricting living in this world, but this was the world he and Fontain were entering so he’d better get used to it.
Luckily, he looked good both with his previous short hair and now with his long hair, although he personally thought he looked better with short hair. His hair was a fair caramel that brought out his green eyes. But he wasn’t likely to ever wear short hair again. He studied his servants. They wore their hair to their ears, as was supposed to be proper for royal attendants. They both looked relatively good, though again, they had looked better with short hair. Or maybe he was just used to them with short hair. They were staring at the city with rapt attention after two days of ignoring the passing countryside. He knew they were looking forward to the court life, unlike him.
The carriage eventually moved through the traffic and reached the outskirts of the palace. Wren let out a sigh of awe. It was everything he had imagined. Like the city itself, the palace had few straight lines and looked like it had been sculpted by the sea itself out of crystalline white stone. It was glorious. Towers curved out of the main body of the palace and he wondered if he would be given a room in one of those, because the view must be spectacular. The main entrance loomed before them and as they entered, Wren shivered. He was going to be spending the next three years of his life here, in this beautiful palace. He only hoped the people were as beautiful as the palace itself.
They arrived in the main courtyard and got out of the carriage. Two men with impossibly long hair waited with a long line of what had to be servants. He knew the long-haired men were princes, but which ones? He had memorized all of their names, but he didn’t know any of their faces. He approached them and bowed low.
“I am Wren, First Prince of Fontain,” he said after he had risen.
He paused, hoping they would introduce themselves. Up close, they were astonishingly beautiful. The rumors about that were true, as were the rumors about their hair. Both of them wore their hair pulled back so as not to get in their way, but their hair went nearly to their feet.
“I am Tye, First Prince of the Empire,” the first one said and Wren was surprised. He hadn’t expected the first prince himself to show up. It was quite an honor.
“I am Dashel, Third Prince of the Empire,” the second one said and Wren was doubly surprised.
He had expected far lower ranking princes to greet him, not the first and third princes. He bowed again to show that he understood the honor they were bestowing on him and he noticed the two exchanging a look. He couldn’t decipher the look and wondered if they were already judging him. Probably. He only hoped that their judgment of him was good.
His servants were joined by the palace servants as they began unloading boxes from the second carriage in his caravan. He was pleased to note that their hair was almost exactly the same length as the palace servants. A slight trim was needed, perhaps, but then they would fit in perfectly.
Tye, the first prince, took hold of his arm and began leading him inside.
“Let your servants handle your things. King Isaac wishes to meet you at once.”
Wren hesitated, but Tye pulled him forward. He wasn’t dressed to meet the king. He was dressed for travel, which he had been doing since early in the morning and it was now late at night. Why did the king want to see him so urgently? But he didn’t dare question the first prince. They might technically be the same rank, but as long as he was at the palace, all of the Empire’s Princes had a higher rank than him.
Tye’s grip on his arm was tight enough to keep him in place but it also felt possessive. Perhaps he felt a kinship to Wren because they were both first princes. It was a hard position to be first in line to the throne, having to always be ready to take up the crown if something happened to your brother, knowing that it was your duty to stop anything from happening. There was also a lot of suspicion that went into the position. Many first princes actively tried to kill their brothers in order to become King, so first princes regularly underwent scrutiny. Wren loved his brother dearly and would do anything for him, so that had never been a concern for him, but he knew it was part of being first prince. He wondered what the relationship between Tye and King Isaac was.
They walked through various hallways with curved ceilings and occasionally Wren was distracted by the beauty of the palace, forgetting that he was being brought before the king with no time to prepare. Tye and Dashel would slow and give him time to admire the architecture before pushing him forward, and they seemed amused by his admiration.
“This must be your first time in an Imperial city,” Tye said as Wren stopped to feel one of the walls that glistened with light.
“Yes,” Wren said, a little distracted as he tried to figure out how the light had been placed behind the wall yet still shone through the wall.
“Perhaps I will take you on a tour of our cities during your stay here,” Tye said. “Since you seem to have such respect for our buildings.”
“Really?” Wren tore his eyes away from the wall to look at Tye, who smiled at him.
Tye was so beautiful that Wren blushed at his smile. He had pale skin, as crystalline as the walls of the palace, and his hair was a dark chestnut. He looked good with his hair pulled away from his face, though Wren wondered if it would look better loose, with strands framing that square jaw of his. He was a little nervous to meet the king just because he knew the king was supposed to be far more beautiful than the princes and both Tye and Dashel were astonishingly beautiful. He worried that the king’s beauty would make him tongue-tied, and that would be quite embarrassing.
Tye continued to guide him through the palace with Dashel at his side, and soon they came to a set of large doors inlaid with numerous sparkling diamonds in the pattern of a crescent moon.
“Our family crest,” Tye said. “The crescent moon, from which we draw our strength.”
Wren nodded, though he wasn’t sure whether Tye meant they literally gained power from the crescent moon or whether it was meant metaphorically. He knew that the people of the Empire used their hair in offerings, but he didn’t know anything more about it. The religion of the Empire had yet to reach Fontain, so Wren felt a little clueless about this aspect of Empire life.
Then the door opened and Tye brought him inside. As he walked forward, he saw a figure in front of him, standing before a throne. The figure had its back turned, but he saw ebony black hair nearly reaching the ground and knew this much be King Isaac. Tye and Dashel left his side and went to stand by the door. The figure turned and Wren’s breath caught. He was beyond beautiful.
Everything that was beautiful about Tye and Dashel had been perfected in this face and body. He had a perfectly sculpted face, with a strong nose and forehead and deep-set aqua eyes that looked glorious with his black hair. His lips were full and formed almost a heart shape, perfectly framed by his strong chin and square jaw. His body was powerful; his entire appearance exuded power. His shoulders were broad, but he had a tapered waist and long, slim legs. His skin wasn’t as crystalline as Tye’s, but it looked perfect on him, a healthy glowing tan, and Wren was mesmerized.
He was so intent on looking his fill that he barely noticed Isaac drawing close to him until Isaac grabbed Wren’s hair in one hand and jerked his head backward, exposing his throat and forcing Wren to look up into his merciless eyes. Wren’s own eyes opened wide as he heard rather than saw Isaac draw a dagger. He froze, terrified, knowing he could do nothing to stop the King of the Empire if Isaac wanted him dead. The blade came closer and he shut his eyes, bracing himself for the worst.