So many things didn't make sense. So many equations didn't tie themselves together into a nice, neat bow.
The city of gold and jewels was real, stark, and unapologetically everywhere. Why, in his own bedchamber that night he could hardly sleep a wink due to the constant dazzling reflection of the setting sun upon his own walls. Such pizazz and spectacle would tire quickly, the Rambling Man supposed. Gold and jewels and precious metals are fabulous and exotic in fleeting amounts: an entire city built upon the stuff made it commonplace and dull. What he'd pay to sleep in a normal room of brick and mortar once more...
Copper. Silver. Gold. Devised and built by the rulers of the sea to separate each other, and surround themselves with their own fantasies. The Prince, surrounded by beautiful men and women and many precious things; the Queen, surrounded in mystery and darkness and foreboding; the King, surrounded by... what, precisely? Abandonment? Isolation?
And the King of the Sea knew Old Man Durward, who had been, up until recently, nothing but a specter and memories. Why? How long ago had the Queen taken the life of that sailor? Had they been friends before his execution, or was it during his phantasmal appearances that he did commune with the Sea King?
And then the princess herself: alive, well, and surprisingly bright, both in appearance and mental capacities, seemingly. What was the meaning for this abrupt change? What reason was behind her new mindset?
Not that it was a particularly bad thing, the Rambling Man reasoned quickly. But it was an anomaly. A curiosity, such as the entire adventure thus far had been.
Nothing added up. He looked down at the “truth-shell” lying at his feet: an impressive piece of sea life though it were, it could no more detect the truth from man's lips than it could conjure sweet rolls and butter.
The story he told the Sea Prince, as daring and bold as it had been, was based on truth enough: the creature Golgolorth, of the Great Mountains, did exist. The Mighty Stone King was likely resting well in his chambers that night, completely unaware of these tall tales spun about him.
His woven tale, even for a master of story-weaving, would not pacify the Prince for long. They would test it, and find it to be full of so many holes like a derelict rowboat. His time was limited.
What the Rambling Man needed was a meeting with the princess, alone and unobstructed. The mere thought reminded him of his secret meetings with the princess so long ago; the very meetings of which would eventually lead to all of this adventuring and risk-taking.
He would talk to her. And he would convince the princess to away with him, back to their own kingdom.
Which also begged the question: where, in all of this, was the princess's mother, queen of his homeland?
So many questions. He needed to investigate. With sleep eluding him anyway, the Rambling Man rose, readied himself, and slipped out of his bed chamber.
The palace walls dazzled with precious metals and gemstones, even in the fleeting starlight from the outside windows. The sky was clear, and the weather fair, affording him greater visibility through the winding corridors.
He could hear a ruckus coming from the great hall, and realized that even at this late hour, the citizens of this golden city were drinking, partying, and carrying on. Were they truly so free of obligations that they could live like youths, doing as they like without thought or regard to the consequences? Were there no consequences in this place? Was everything handed to them from the palms of the Sea Prince?
Peeking in through the doorway to avoid detection, the Rambling Man could see many people from the city, dressed in their gowns of blue and gold. They stood and danced, feasting from a great banquet and drawing from one of a dozen kegs near the far wall.
How did they come to acquire such elaborate luxuries as these?
And there, near the far wall, the Sea Prince sat upon his golden throne, head resting on his hand, his posture lax and drowsy. His eyelids drooped dangerously. Beside him was the princess, just as she had stood before. She was awake and alert, staring placidly at the shifting crowd. Her hair was long and fair, cascading behind her like falling water. An intricate tiara of gold rested upon her head, and a flowing gown of silk, accented with golden highlights, covered her form.
The Rambling Man watched for a while, formulating and testing approaches within his head, 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 room for the privy. Taking advantage of his luck, the Rambling Man pursued, waited for her to conduct her business, than caught her on her way back. Clasping her arm, he led her into an abandoned room and shut the door behind. It was a storage room, empty save for a few dusty candelabras; cast over everything was the radiant hue of moonlight.
“Princess!” cried the Rambling Man. “I've searched high and low, crossing the seas and braving dangers, so that you may return with me to your homeland! Your father is worried about you! Come, get your mother and we shall leave this place!”
The princess's reply was short, simple, and caught the Rambling Man dead in his tracks. This he had not expected.
He looked down upon her beautiful face, draped in a lunar glow. She appeared sober and clear-eyed, but would not look into his eyes. Instead she stared resolutely out the window, refusing to move even an inch. Her manner was cold as ice.
“Why return?” asked the Rambling Man. “It is your home. Where you, your mother, and your father rule the land in peace. Because of you, everyone in the land is happy. Now in your absence they worry and fret, 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. “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?”
“What of them?” raged the princess, her voice rising and her emotions flowing. Tears welled in her eyes as she yelled at the outside world, still unwilling to face the Rambling Man. “What do they have to offer me? I only ever wanted one thing from that country, and that was your hand in marriage. You refused. You refused to live in prosperity and wealth with me in the castle, and yet you care enough to come seeking me, telling me what my country has to offer. Well, I received exactly what it was that that country had to offer me. Nightmares. Terror. Pain and suffering, delivered to me by the very people that I give 'peace and happiness' to. That is a curious way to pay me back.”
“'Tis only one man,” reasoned the Rambling Man. “The other men of the city are not,”
“I care not!” roared the princess, weeping silently. “I've left them, all of them! I've outrun my nightmares and my pain, and I've come here, where every day there is dancing and celebration and wealth to share. No one takes advantage of anyone else. No one causes anyone pain. I've escaped my nightmares, but here you are, pursuing me still to return me to that torment, bringing back with you all the painful memories I had so recently escaped from. With you here, I am forced to remember... And I do not want to remember! Please leave now, Rambling Man. Leave now, and do not ever return!”
In the rush, the princess ran from the room, her composure undone and her tears running free. Feeling sick in his gut, his head hung in shame, the Rambling Man stepped out from the room—to encounter the Sea Prince, and a small entourage of his elite guards. Each was armed and dangerous-looking.
“You've brought shame with you, Rambling Man,” scorned the Sea Prince. “You entered our sanctuary of happiness and tranquility and tainted it with your foul politics and proposals. Your mere presence disrupts my fiancée.”
“That's right,” sneered the young prince, arrogantly. “She was quick to accept my offer of marriage once she saw what beautiful things I could offer her. I promised her a lifetime of happiness, where nothing would ever disturb her, and she simply could not refuse me. We're to be wed in only a week.”
The Rambling Man chewed that over thoughtfully, heart still heavy with shame. Then a moment later, he resigned with a huge sigh. “If that is what the princess wishes.”
“Indeed,” the Sea Prince leered. “But you've come here, and disturbed my princess, and my promise. The punishment, you'll find, is quite severe. Guards! Throw him into the dungeons. Lock him away where he can harm no one!”
Then, a moment later, the Prince's evil grin widened, splitting his face horrifically. “Prepare him for my pet, Barlow. It's been some time since he had some fun. That way he'd be sure not to disturb our marriage, and by the time the baby arrives, he should be nothing more than a memory.”
“Wait, what?” cried the Rambling Man, startled and disbelieving. His head shot upright, his eyes wide and searching, agonized by what he heard. “It can't be!”
“Afraid so,” replied the Sea Prince, turning to face the Rambling Man once more. His expression was suddenly sobered; his evil sneer wiped clean from his face. He looked far from pleased to deliver the news.
“How dare you steal away the innocence of the princess before marriage!” yelled the Rambling Man in a fit of rage. The guards restrained him as he spit and cursed and raged at the Sea Prince, his own composure lost.
“But that is just the thing,” replied the Sea Prince morosely. His face was downcast, and his voice quiet, heavy with sorrow. He looked pointedly upon the Rambling Man, genuine disappointment showing through in his eyes.
“She was already with child when she had arrived here.”