So many things didn't make sense. Too many equations didn't tie themselves up into a nice, neat bow.
The city of gold and jewels around him was real, stark, and unapologetically everywhere. Why, in his own bedchamber that night, the Rambling Man could scarcely sleep a wink due to the constant dazzling reflections of the setting sun upon his bedroom walls. Such pizazz and spectacle would tire very quickly, the Rambling Man thought to himself. Gold and jewels and precious metals are wonderful and exotic in fleeting amounts; an entire city built upon the stuff makes them commonplace and dull. What he would give to sleep in a normal room of brick and mortar that night...
Copper. Silver. Gold. Devised and built by rulers of the sea to separate each from the other, and to surround themselves with their own fantasies. The Prince: surrounded by beautiful men and woman and many precious things; the Queen: surrounded by mystery and darkness and foreboding; and the King: surrounded by... by what? Abandonment? Isolation? Memories, perhaps?
Furthermore, the King of the Sea knew Old Man Durward, who had been, up until recently, nothing but a specter and memories trapped in a box. How long ago had the Queen taken the life of that sailor? Had he and the King been friends before his execution or had it been during his phantasmal appearances, communing with the Sea King on his remote island?
And now, the Princess herself: alive, well, and no longer brooding on her past. What was the meaning for her stark change? What reason was behind this new mindset? Was she cured of her dark mood in this place?
Not that her brighter spirits would be a bad thing, the Rambling Man reasoned quickly as he lay in the glittering moonlight. But this change in her was an anomaly: a curiosity, such as the entire adventure had proven to be thus far.
Nothing added up. Answers lay just as far beyond reach while more mysteries and riddles piled up. And paving the road to to these answers were yet more lies, this time from his own lips. The mighty Golgareth, mighty Stone King of the mountains and ruler of the dwarven folk, did indeed exist as he had suggested--the dwarven king was likely resting well in his own bed chambers that night, completely unaware of these tall tales being spun about him. His words were merely a means to an end--and end, this time, for the King of the sea himself and his own riddles.
His woven tale, even for a master of the craft of story-weaving, would only distract the Prince for so long. He would test this tale, communing with his father the King of the sea, then travel northward to find this story so full of holes like a derelict rowboat on an abandoned shore. His time was limited.
And where, in all of this, had the Princess's mother, the Queen of their homeland, gotten herself off to?
What the Rambling Man needed was a palaver with the Princess herself, alone and unobstructed. In her, the Rambling Man hoped, would lie the answers to so many of his questions about this place and her curious behavior. A nation worried for her safety across the seas, and they needed to be assured of her health and good fortune. Most ideally, it would be the Princess herself returned to report on her own safe return.
The mere thought of meeting with the Princess in private reminded the Rambling Man very much so of their one prior meeting in secret--the very meeting that would eventually lead to all of this harrowing business and risk-taking.
He would speak with her. He would take the Princess back to her lands, taking from her the key around her neck to give to the King of the Seas along the way. Then all would return as normal and the Rambling Man would continue his journeying and lute-playing across all the lands, perhaps one day returning here to play.
His mind awash with these thoughts, sleep had been eluding the Rambling Man all night. So he slipped from his bed and crept from his room, passing the sleeping guards to seek out answers in the twilight halls of the golden palace.
The interior of the palace dazzled with precious metals and gemstones, even in the fleeting starlight filtering in from the outside windows. The sky was clear, and the weather fair, granting the Rambling Man greater visibility through the winding corridors.
He neared the great hall and heard a great commotion spilling into the halls surrounding. Even at this late hour, he saw that the citizens of this golden city were still drinking, still partying, and still carrying on as if without end. Were they truly so free of obligations that they could live like youths, doing as they liked without thought or regard to consequence? Were there no such consequences in this place? Was everything truly handed to them from the palms of the Sea Prince?
Peeking in through a doorway to avoid detection, the Rambling Man could see a great many people from the city, dressed in their elaborate gowns of glow and gold. They danced and laughed merrily, feasting endlessly from a great banquet and drawing from one of a dozen kegs near the far wall.
And there, as the Rambling Man searched the room whole, he saw the Sea Prince. He was sat upon his golden throne: head resting in his hand--his posture lax and drowsy. His eyelids drooped low as if weighted. Beside him as before was the Princess, just as she had been standing earlier. She stood awake and alert, staring placidly out at the shifting crowd. Her hair hung long and fair behind her, cascading like waves of sun-baked grain blown in a gentle wind. An intricately carved tiara of shimmering gold rested delicately upon her brow. A flowing gown of silk spread around her like a pristine cloud plucked down from the heavens to wrap her sensuous form.
The Rambling Man watched for a time, formulating and testing approaches in his mind, finding none satisfactory, when the Princess herself made his job easier. With a nod of her head to the drowsing Prince, she excused herself, leaving the hall through the back. Taking advantage of his luck, the Rambling Man pursued her through the halls, catching her as she turned a corner. Clasping her arm, he pulled her into an abandoned room and shut the door behind. It was a storage room, he noticed once inside, empty save for dusty candelabras and resting chandeliers. Cast over everything like a thick dust was the near palpable aura of moonlight, turning every mundane object into a shimmering spectacle of radiant silver.
"Princess!" cried the Rambling Man as they stood ethereal under the light of the moon. "I've searched high and low, crossing the seas and braving dangers, so that I may take you back to your homeland! Your father is concerned about your well-being, and so are your people. Come, let us get your mother and leave this place behind us!"
"Why?" came the Princess' single reply.
Her reply--so short, so simple--caught the Rambling Man dead in his tracks. He stood there a moment, groping for words. This he had not expected.
He looked down upon her beautiful face, masked in a spectre's glow from an out-worldly lamp, and saw her for the first time as she really was: clear-minded and strong-willed. Her eyes were clear as she looked upon the Rambling Man--but not into his eyes. Never up into his eyes. She turned instead to peer out the window, staring at a point in the sky a thousand miles distant. Her manner was as cold and distant to him as the moon above: brilliant in its radiance, but forever beyond reach.
"Why return?" asked the Rambling Man, incredulous. "It is your home. It is where you belong--where you, your mother, and your father rule the land in peace. Because of you, everyone in the land was happy and contented. But now in your absence they fret with worry, uncertain about the future. You must return for your people."
"I mustn't do a thing that I don't otherwise decide," scolded the Princess, looking resolutely forward at the moon. In return, it comforted her by bathing her flowing figure in its soothing light, striking elongated shadows behind into the room. "I have chosen to leave. I have left. That home is no home of mine any longer. I am here now."
"What of your father and your people?" inquired the Rambling Man.
"What of them?" raged the Princess, silent tears sparkling like diamonds upon her moon-touched cheeks. "I've left them--all of them! I've outrun my nightmares and my pain, and I've come here, to this place, where every day there is dancing and jubilation and plenty to share with everyone. No one demands anything of me here. No one takes advantage of me here. No one causes pain, or suffering, or turmoil. I've fled across the sea to outrun my nightmares, and now I see them all rush back to me, carried to my soul upon your lips and your tongue. So I shall not return with you, Rambling Man. Your journey to find me only allowed the memories you bring with you to return, memories I do not wish to have returned! Please leave now. Leave, and do not ever return to this place!
In a rush of emotion, the Princess ran into the shadows and fled the room, her composure undone and her tears flowing free. Feeling sick in his gut, the Rambling Man hung his head in shame: a failure. He stepped from the room--encountering the Sea Prince and an entourage of his guards. Each pointed deadly tridents at his face.
"You've shamed us with your presence, Rambling Man!" scorned the Sea Prince. "You brought with you lies about my father and succeeded only in tainting our sanctuary with your misery and filth. Your mere presence only disrupts my lovely fiancée!"
"Fiancée?" asked the Rambling Man, shocked. "You mean..."
"That's right," sneered the young Prince with a wicked grin. "She accepted my proposal of marriage after seeing what beautiful things I could offer her. I intend to give her nothing but a lifetime of happiness with her every desire fulfilled. Nothing to disturb her--nothing to torment her. We're to be wed in a mere week."
Chewing this over thoughtfully, the Rambling Man, his heart still heavy with shame, could only sigh and submit. "If that's what the Princess wishes."
"Indeed!" replied the Prince. "But your presence has disrupted all of this. I'll not hear of it any longer. For disturbing the Princess and her child, your punishment shall be most severe."
"Wait," cried out the Rambling Man, shocked. "What child?"
The Prince's prideful sneer slipped to the floor, leaving a suddenly sobered, suddenly apologetic and mournful expression in its wake. "'tis true," he replied with his voice melancholy. "The Lady Princess is with child."
Suddenly wrathful, the Rambling Man lashed out at him. "What type of man steals away the innocence of the Princess a mere week before your wedding? You fiend!"
"You don't understand," replied the Prince, his voice low and his eyes catching the Rambling Man's in their mournful gaze.
"She was already with child when she arrived here."