Chapter 2: Invitation to Stay
Wren heard the sword whiz past his ears and suddenly his head felt lighter. Was this what it felt like to be beheaded? To his surprise, though, he was still attached to his body and quite alive. Isaac let go of him and he opened his eyes, confused. Then he noticed the hair on the floor, nearly a foot of it, and he raised a hand to his head. The king had chopped off his hair. He was stunned. His hair was now nearly as short as he had worn it before Fontain was taken over by the Empire. He stared at Isaac in shock, but Isaac wasn’t paying attention to him.
“Take this to the shaman,” Isaac was saying to Dashel, who looked as shocked as Wren felt. “Perhaps we can have an advantage in battle after all.”
“My Lord, you cannot just-”
“Do as I say,” Isaac said, cutting off Dashel’s objection.
Dashel knelt on the ground and collected Wren’s hair as Wren stood and looked at him, still in shock. When Dashel had collected it all and left the room, Wren turned his attention to the king and realized Isaac was watching him closely.
“So,” Isaac said. “The first prince of Fontain.”
Anger rushed through Wren and he stepped towards Isaac aggressively.
“You won’t get away with this,” he said. “When my brother finds out how I’ve been treated-”
“You’re free to leave,” Isaac said.
“What?” Wren asked, taken aback.
“You can leave,” Isaac said, making a shooing gesture with his hand. “You needn’t stay three years.”
Wren was beyond confusion. First the king had chopped off his hair, and now he was free to leave? But if he returned like he was, with his hair so short, it would lead his brother to declare war on the Empire. After all, the king had essentially stripped Wren of his title as first prince by shortening his hair. But if his brother declared war, then the Empire would move in and totally crush Fontain, and Fontain would lose the rights and privileges they were currently being given by the Empire. Instead of an independent nation under Empire rule, they would become fully a part of the Empire and lose all of their independence. If he returned, he would be dooming his nation.
“I can’t return like this and you know it,” Wren said.
Was this Isaac’s subtle way of turning Fontain into part of his Empire? Well, Wren wouldn’t allow it. He could easily grow his hair back in three years and no one would know any better. He didn’t like the thought of staying with someone as ruthless as Isaac, but he would if it meant that Fontain would remain independent under the Empire’s control.
“I’m staying,” Wren said.
“I’ve given you permission to leave, so leave,” Isaac said coldly. “I won’t give it again.”
“I’m not leaving, not until my hair grows back.”
Isaac studied him. Wren took another step towards him and met his gaze. He knew he was in the right in this decision. He would have to force the king to go along with his decision, however, because Isaac did have the right to forcefully kick him out of the palace and he couldn’t allow that to happen. He would have to stand up for himself and make the king accept him. He kept his gaze fixed on Isaac’s as the King faced him fully and seemed to tower over him. He refused to look away when Isaac took a few steps towards him until they were nearly nose-to-nose. He knew that keeping the king’s gaze was the only way to protect Fontain, and there was no way he was going to lose.
The staring match seemed to go on forever, and King Isaac seemed as determined to be the winner as Wren was, but Wren had everything to lose in this contest and the king had very little, and after nearly ten long minutes of staring at each other and trying to intimidate the other, the king finally took a step back and looked away.
“I will grant you food, board, and anything else you desire while you stay,” he said.
Wren heard someone exhale and thought it was probably Tye, who had no doubt been watching the confrontation with baited breath to see who would win.
“You are now required to stay the entire three years,” Isaac added. “You will not be allowed to leave early.”
“That’s fine,” Wren said.
Really, he was just glad that he didn’t have to go back with hair like this and be the start of a losing war. He felt victorious, as if he himself had just fought a battle, and knew that his staring match was the equivalent of a duel with the king that he had won. He would have to be careful around the king, because he was sure that the king didn’t like to lose. For such a beautiful man, he was quite ruthless and Wren found that he didn’t like Isaac at all.
“One of the princes will show you to your room and then give you a tour of the palace. I expect to see you at court tomorrow morning.”
Court. He had completely forgotten about court. He fingered his now-short hair and wondered what people would think about him. He had been fine before, but now he wouldn’t fit in at all. His hair was at least longer than the servants, he thought. That was some advantage. But he would be ridiculed in court and he hated court enough as it was. King Isaac didn’t seem to care, however. He turned his back to Wren and gestured for him to leave. What a jerk.
Wren turned on his toes and started to storm out of the room, waiting only for Tye to join him before hurrying out of the throne room. He was furious at what had happened, but he knew it could have been much worse. Isaac could have killed him, after all, or demanded that he return to Fontain. Still, he was in a bad situation and it was all Isaac’s fault. Tye took his arm again and slowed him down as he started speeding through the halls.
“That was a very dangerous thing you did in there,” Tye said. “People have been killed for less.”
“What are you talking about? He nearly killed me.”
“Challenging him like that. Questioning the king is not allowed, you can be killed for doing so.”
A shiver went through Wren’s spine. He hadn’t known that. He wasn’t sure if it would have changed his actions, but it certainly would have given him pause. But what kind of king outlawed questions? Not a good king, that was for sure.
“How can you have him as king? He’s horrible.”
“He’s a strong ruler,” Tye said. “The people respect that. He gets a lot accomplished.”
Wren had to admit that Isaac probably did get a lot accomplished, but not through the right means. And that was important. It was more important, in fact, to use the right means than to get a good end. How could the people here not see that? Wren fingered his hair again and Tye must have noticed the gesture because he too reached out to touch the ragged edge of hair.
“We have a barber at the palace who can turn that into something that looks nice without taking too much more off. Why don’t I take you there first so you don’t have to walk around looking like that?”
It must have looked pretty bad, Wren thought. But then again, it couldn’t look good since it had been severed with a sword. He agreed and soon the barber was trimming his hair. Oddly enough, the barber saved all of the hair that he trimmed and gave it to Wren afterwards in a bag. Wren took the bag but must have looked mystified because Tye explained.
“We use hair in ceremonies here, so even the scraps can be valuable. You can sell that for some money, or you can use it in a ceremony. I’ll have it sent to your room and you can decide later. If you decide on a ceremony, I’ll teach you how to do it.”
“Thank you,” Wren said.
“No problem. Us first princes need to stick together, after all. If there’s anything you need, anything at all, just ask me.”
Wren smiled and agreed, and soon they were headed towards his room. It was, as he had hoped, in one of the towers. He didn’t even mind the endless stairs to get there when he saw the view from his window. He let out a delighted cry and rushed to the window. Sea air rushed in through the open window and he could see the city below, and then the sea beyond, stretching out into the horizon until it met the sky. Tye looked impressed as well.
“Looks like you were given the best room in the palace,” he said. “I didn’t think the king was planning on having you stay, but he must have been.”
All of Wren’s things were already in the room, his wardrobe already put away. His servants were downstairs, no doubt getting a tour of the palace just like he would be soon. They had a lot to learn, since the palace was far bigger than Fontain Castle and their roles would be different, but hopefully they would embrace the difference and not fight it.
Wren closed his eyes and inhaled the salty air. He wouldn’t mind being trapped in a palace with King Isaac if he had this to come back to every night. But it was freezing outside, so he reluctantly closed the window. He would need to get a fire started when his servants returned in order to be warm enough at night. He wasn’t used to such cold temperatures and he hoped the clothes he brought would be sufficient.
There was a knock on the door and Dashel entered. He seemed surprised to see Tye, but then turned his attention to Wren.
“I’m here to show you the rest of the palace. Are you ready? You might need a warmer coat than that,” he added.
Wren went to his wardrobe and pulled out the warmest coat he had, and Tye and Dashel exchanged a look.
“We’ll have to go shopping for you,” Tye said. “Fontain must not have winters like we do here. I’ll have the tailor get your measurements and make you a proper winter wardrobe.”
“I didn’t bring that much gold,” Wren began, but Tye waved his hand.
“It’s on the Empire. You’re a guest here, after all, and the king did say you could have anything you desired. Part of our obligation is keeping you warm through the winter. Your clothes will be fine in spring and autumn, but not once we get into the deep chill of winter.”
Wren agreed, a little nervously since he wasn’t positive that the king had intended for him to dig so far into the Empire’s pocket, but Tye and Dashel both seemed set on getting him better clothes. They also seemed to think that it would get colder and if it did, he knew his current clothes wouldn’t cut it. He wasn’t too cold right now, but if it got much colder he would be freezing and he didn’t want that.
Dashel led him out of the room in his thickest coat and Tye said goodbye, reminding him again that he was ready to help if he needed anything. Climbing down the stairs, Wren worked up a sweat but kept his coat on and was glad he did when they stepped outside and the cold air hit him like a tornado. His breath was sucked from his body and his nose stung as he inhaled. But the garden they had entered was beautiful in its frosted glory, and he was eager to explore.
Like the palace and the city, the garden was made of curves and elegant archways. Even though the plants weren’t blooming, it was still an exquisite piece of art and he could just imagine how beautiful it must be with flowers. He wandered as slowly as he could through the garden, but the cold kept him moving. Dashel told him the history of some of the flowers that had been around for centuries, and some of the archways that had been built by various kings to celebrate victories. There was a gazebo in the center built to commemorate the divine Guin, the goddess that the people of the Empire worshipped, the goddess of the crescent moon.
“According to legend,” Dashel said as they stepped into the gazebo, “Guin descended to this very spot and chose a husband, the first Triphon king. Their son, Reid, united the six kingdoms into the first Empire. My brothers and I are descendents of Reid, making us also descendents of Guin. This gives us the birthright required to rule this Empire and makes us closer to Guin, giving our offerings to her more power.”
“So you’re part goddess?” Wren asked skeptically, wondering if Dashel actually believed this myth or if he only accepted it because it gave him and his brothers such a strong right to the throne.
“There is some truth to the legend, as you may find out during your stay here,” Dashel said with a calm smile, as if he understood Wren’s skepticism and had seen it many times before.
“So the people make offerings? Is that the religion? What kinds of offerings do they make and what do they get?”
“It’s part of the religion,” Dashel said. “They offer hair, because of another legend that you will undoubtedly hear while living here, and by burning the hair they receive various benefits and boons. Guin does not always give the gift that people request, but she always gives the gift that people need.”
Wren nodded, but inwardly he was thinking that it sounded like chance. People made a wish, something good happened, and they attributed it to their goddess. Still, he was curious to try it and he now had hair to offer up. He wondered about the other legend, but he had no doubt that he would hear all about Guin during his time here if she was the goddess everyone worshipped. People who worshipped a religion were almost always inclined to talk about that religion to people who didn’t worship it in an attempt to get them to convert. It was one of the reasons religion was kept so far apart from matters of the state in Fontain, although now that Fontain was in the Empire that might begin to change.
He shivered and Dashel was instantly apologetic, taking Wren back inside where it was marginally warmer. Wren rubbed his hands together and blew on them to warm them back up and wondered when he would receive his new wardrobe. Now that he had accepted the idea of new clothes and had experienced the outside weather for himself, he was eager to be dressed properly. Dashel assured him that it would be soon, and continued on his tour of the palace while remaining indoors so as to prevent chilling Wren further.
It was too late at night for court to be in session and Wren was thankful for that; he wasn’t looking forward to walking into the court looking as he did. His hair had been straightened out and looked presentable now, but it was far too short for court and he knew it. He worried about it the rest of the tour, and finally Dashel took him back up to his room at the top of the tower before he bid him goodnight and vanished. His two servants were waiting and they helped him undress and get into his nightclothes, then they retired to the room directly beneath his to sleep.
Wren tossed and turned for several hours, cold even with the fire going and the thick blankets piled above him. He was nervous about the next day in court and ashamed of his hair. He wasn’t sure how to act, whether he should tell people what had happened or keep it a secret, and he didn’t know how other people would react to him. He finally settled down but just as he was starting to fall asleep, he noticed a shadow detach itself from the wall.