The golden palace was most magnificent, inside and out. Finely dressed courtiers and councilmen in flowing robes filled the throne room; they were milling about, drinking ale from bejeweled goblets and feasting merrily. They paused to watch as the Rambling Man, dusty and dirty from the long journey, and his strange companions filed through.
As they approached the throne, the Rambling Man cast his gaze upon the chiseled stature of the man seated there. His features were sharp as fractured rock--his body toned and hard as if living flesh wrought from the stone of the earth. He was impeccable as a man; indeed, he matched the seemingly perfect nature of the men and women who accompanied him in his chambers: healthful, vibrant, and of a physical prowess unknown to the lax and idle. He wore a golden band carved delicately to encircle his brow and direct the lush waterfall of dark hair cascading down his rigid back. His sea-blue eyes glimmered as the waves of the ocean and looked just as deep.
The Prince of the sea, despite the going-ons around him, looked presently bored.
Standing by the prince's throne, her tiny hand resting gently on his muscular forearm, was a most beautiful woman. Her face was turned away as she and the Prince held conversation. But when the Prince looked up and away from the woman to face the newcomers, so too did the lady beside him. And as she did so, the Rambling Man's breath caught in his chest as he once again, after so many weeks of worry, looked full into the face of his long journey's purpose: the Princess.
She was the very Princess whom the Rambling Man had left his hearth and home and Sweetheart to travel in search of. It was her who had captured the attention of the countryside with her woeful tales and sudden disappearance. It was her, the Princess of the mighty kingdom back across the seas, who had shuttered herself away and clothed herself in all black, with only her cloud of darkness surrounding her for company.
But was this really the same woman who had left the kingdom so far behind? Is this the same woman who stood now at the Prince's side, dressed in the vibrant colors of the kingdom; is this the same person who settled herself amongst so many as they celebrated their many desires fulfilled; could this possibly be the same lady who stood now full and proud in a land of gaiety and delight, taking solace and shedding herself of her dark mood?
Her eyes caught his for but a moment, and the Rambling Man saw recognition in them. She recalled him--recalled him well, he wagered--but moved not to acknowledge him. Her eyes moved suddenly upward and away, as if considering the crowd before her but not really seeing them.
The Rambling Man saw, hanging just above the neckline of her long, flowing dress, a small, ornate key of gold hanging from a small chain around her neck. Then the Prince spoke and stole his attention away.
"Who are you and what business brings your unsavory ilk to my doorstep?"
Beside him, Durward stood stiff and the silent as the corpse he once was; Cory trembled upon his shoulder, trying to hide himself from view.
Thus it remained solely up to the Rambling Man to dispense the colorful stories the King of the Sea had told him to spout.
"We come with greetings from your good father, the King of the Sea. We are but messengers with the gravest of news."
"Very few dare to speak of my father to me in my own court," growled the Prince of the sea, leaning downward toward the Rambling Man with a piercing and dire gaze. "And you ignored my first question: I asked what you're known as in whatever land spat you out?"
"I am known as the Rambling Man, and with me are little Cory the monkey and a friend of your father's, Old Man Durward."
"No friend of my father is welcome here," warned the Prince. "And what manner of name is the Rambling Man? Why, that's no name at all!"
"An earned honor, you may call it," was all the Rambling Man would answer with.
"Very well. And what of this 'gravest of news,' then?" asked the Prince in a spiteful voice.
"In brief, it is as follows." The Rambling Man took a moment to prepare his rehearsed speech in his head before continuing. "Golgareth, Stone King of the mountains and leader of the dwarven folk, has kidnapped your mother, the Queen of the Sea, sealing her away inside his stone forest at the roof of the world. With her absent from her post of tending to the waters of the ocean, the seas will rage unchecked and will lash out against seafarers the world over. Prophesies say that only a son of the Queen--you, fair Prince--can travel to rescue her from her fate and restore the waters of the world to their restful calm."
"Oh, but how I detest prophesies!" raged the Prince of the seas upon his golden throne. "Loathful blatherings of senile old men promising vague and obscure actions of unwitting sods centuries after those old badgers are dead and buried! And as always, without fail, should these prophesied avatars of their time fail in their outlandish quest, the world shall surely end and life as we know it will blah, blah, blah. What rubbish you bring into my hall, Rambling Man."
"It was your father who relayed this information to me, your greatness. I am but a humble messenger." The Rambling Man bowed low with bent knee outstretched arms, enhancing the fabrication. "He assured me the truth of all of this and asked for your assistance promptly."
Mutterings stirred amongst the crowd of onlookers at the Rambling Man's words and his display. They turned to each other, speaking suddenly of anxiety and uncertainty with their great leader gone about on this quest. The Prince noticed all of this and wore a most sour expression.
He snapped his dark gaze back down upon the Rambling Man. "I do not know who you are, Rambling Man, nor do I know about these tales you bring me. But whether they be true or lies, your presence in my hall is disturbing my patrons. Guards!"
Soldiers materialized at the Prince's side, each brandishing violent-looking tridents. "Escort these mongrels to a holding area whilst I think on this matter. I wish not to see any of them again until I have decided on this matter."
And so, the guards doing as commanded, the Rambling Man and company were lead from the great hall. Without even a second glance or a single exchanged word, the Rambling Man left the Princess standing where she remained, a statue in flesh, beside the Prince of the sea.