By Harrison Katz ’23. Art by Amsel Saleem ’21.
“Sir Hayden!” King Satorus boomed, his voice echoing through the royal throne room like the roll of thunder on a calm night. Most regarded the king as intimidating with his stentorian voice and eyes like an evening storm, but once you overcame the trumpet-like bellowing of his pronouncements, you would learn that Satorus was a kind and righteous man, wh deeply about his people and even more so about his family.
“The Princess Vandalia–my daughter–” he declared. The king paused, clasping his hands together and sitting forward in his throne before continuing, “has returned from her visit to the Calangian Isles!” From what Sir Hayden had heard, the princess was an accomplished diplomat. She’d been trained in the art of rhetoric from a young age. The paladin Sir Hayden had not seen the young royal for many years. Ever since the death of her mother, the dear Queen Dianthus, she seemed to always be away on diplomatic missions.
The king stood and descended the polished marble stairs of the chancel to the common hall, upon which Sir Hayden kneeled. “My spies have sent a warning of utmost urgency,” the king said in a whisper, “assassins from our enemies are after my daughter.” He spoke with disgust, his voice rising to a shout as rage released from his throat. “Her convoy has yet to dock. Away to the southern harbor and escort her here at once! You mustn’t delay!” The king returned to his throne in perfect strides, as if going at any other speed would cause the floor beneath him to collapse into the depths. He sighed, thrumming his colossal fingers together in worry. Hayden had never seen the king nervous. “Go now! Serve us valiantly, paladin, like your father, and his father before him!” he exclaimed, slamming his fist upon the gold armrest of his crimson throne. Sir Hayden rose and bowed before the king.
“It will be done,” Hayden revered, then turned, his armored boots clanking against the marble as he strode from the throne room. He marched through the castle, nodding at the occasional passerby or servant, but slowing for none. As he exited the castle, he was greeted by the sweet smell of flowers, jasmine in particular, for which the island city-state of Floresia was known and named. The castle of the King Satorus Hiraeth, surrounded by a stone wall, rose from the hilltop at the island’s center. Around the wall stretched thousands of smaller homes and shops, themselves protected by another stone barrier. From this outer wall were pathways that led toward the northern and southern docks. Five caravels, one carrying the dear Princess Vandalia, approached from the south, a few hundred meters out. If Sir Hayden rushed, he could reach the docks before the princess. There would be no time to journey to the stables.
As the paladin raced to the docks, the sun began its vanishing to the realm below the horizon. He stopped not once: not to admire the beauty of the island and sunset, not to catch his breath and rest, and not to converse with the citizens of Floresia. He arrived at the southern docks as the convoy lowered their anchors and as the paladin’s legs were about to give out. Clanging hammers echoed over the sea as dockmen and carpenters built new galleons. Sir Hayden caught his breath as the boatmen laid out a boarding ramp. A crowd had gathered near the docks, recognizing the return of their beloved princess. Eight armored men bearing the Floresian crest– a yellow jasmine –descended the ramp. They approached the paladin swiftly, with their halberds held outward, toward Sir Hayden, despite him being donned in standard paladin attire.
“State your name and business, paladin!” the Captain of the Princess’ Guard demanded. His voice was raspy and filled with suspicion, muffled by the helmet atop his head and before his face.
“I am Sir Hayden Raeus III! Here to ensure the safety of Princess Vandalia!”
The guardian contemplated before replying.
“We are capable of such work ourselves!” he announced, gesturing to his fellow guardians, who were scanning nearby rooftops for threats. Hayden frowned.
“By order of His Majesty, the King Satorus Hiraeth!” he countered. The soldiers immediately stood at attention.
“As the sire wishes,” the raspy-voiced one said, “I shall retrieve the dear princess from her quarters.” The guard disappeared and returned minutes later, just as the light was halfway lost from the sky. A short, extravagantly dressed herald followed with a trumpet in hand, halting to stand erect at the pinnacle of the ramp.
“Her Highness and royal legate, the dear Princess Vandalia Stella Hiraeth!” the herald proclaimed, blowing the Floresian anthem into his trumpet. The crowd, the Princess’ Guard, and Sir Hayden bowed their heads at once. A tall, young woman emerged, her elegant cloak encompassing a regal dress. Both were a refined white with gold trim. A jasmine wreath crowned her head of lightly-curled platinum hair. Two lines of black paint, appearing from the outer corners of her bright blue eyes, formed vines and flowers that flowed across her high cheekbones. Sir Hayden was startled by how much the royal had changed, and couldn’t help but admire her matured beauty. She looked uncomfortable and cleared her throat.
“Please, rise.” The crowd obeyed. A few went on with their business, yet most stayed to observe.
“Sir Hayden Raeus III, Your Highness,” the paladin said, slightly bowing his head. She adjusted her cloak and looked up at the castle.
“Thou art here by word of my father?” She asked. Her voice was soft as the paladin remembered, yet more authoritative. Sir Hayden thought back to his childhood, heart fluttering as he remembered the times the King Satorus Hiraeth and his father, Sir Hayden Raeus II, allowed him to play with the young princess as she watched the squires training under the sunset, her tutoring sessions concluded for the day.
A young Hayden sat upon the low stone wall separating the castle gardens from the training courtyard. Half a dozen squires were practicing with weighted wooden swords, testing their form upon one another, but young Hayden was not watching them. He was deep in thought, wondering how the world could be so cruel.
“Art thou well?” a soft voice asked from behind. Hayden did not turn to greet it.
“No, madam,” the young Raeus mumbled. The owner of the soft voice clambered onto the wall and sat next to him.
“What hast thou sorrowful?” Hayden finally turned to address the voice. He had never seen the girl before, and assumed she was the daughter of a noble. He was, however, astonished by the symmetry and softness of her face.
“My mother. She just passed. I already miss her.” The girl furrowed her brow at his words and looked upon the young Hayden with sad eyes.
“I love my mother dearly,” she admitted, “I will not imagine the way thou feels. Though, I shall take it upon myself to enliven thee.” Hayden stared at the girl, but said nothing.
“Come, thou must follow!” she encouraged, leaping from the wall to the gardens and skipping along the gravel path. The young Raeus leapt after her, albeit in a less cheerful manner.
“Where are we going?” he demanded. The girl stopped and turned to him, her face flooded with glee.
“I shall play thee a song!” She pointed to the piano sitting upon a raised platform in the center of the garden.
“His Majesty will have us thrown in the dungeon!”
“His own daughter?” she challenged. Hayden froze, then dropped to a kneel.
“Your Highness! I apologize… I had no idea-“
“No, no, please,” she begged, “Think of me as just another girl.”
“By order of His Majesty I am to ensure your safety, my lady!” Hayden proclaimed, “he fears an attempt on your life.” She stared at him and sighed.
“Doth he not see my guards are plentiful?”
“Apologies, my lady,” he replied, turning to the crowd and cupping his sheathed sword, scouting for danger. None was in his sight. One of the onlookers, a peasant, stepped forward. The paladin drew his sword.
“You are not to approach Her Highness,” he ordered. Three guardians stepped forward as well, halberds at the ready.
“Please… dear princess… spare a coin… my family was slain by fire and my home sits in ruin.” The princess slipped a pearly hand into her cloak, retrieving a small purse. Hayden lowered his weapon.
“You mustn’t pore on such sadness,” she said, her voice a song, “take this gift and start anew.” She tossed the purse to the man, who stared up in awe. Hayden was pleased the princess had remained as kind-hearted as she was in childhood.
“Blessings upon you, Gracious Highness!” Princess Vandalia looked to the ground and nodded, intertwining her fingers.
“I am ready to return to the castle,” she quietly insisted to the raspy-voiced captain.
“Of course, Your Highness.” The princess and guardians began their journey into the market district behind the docks. Sir Hayden followed as the rear guard.
Most of the market stalls that lined the cobblestone path were still occupied with merchants hoping for a few more sales before the last stream of light fell into the sea.
“Pristine armor!” a stallman yelled, holding an iron gauntlet that reflected the red of his beard.
“Animal hides!” another proclaimed, his massive frame appearing pompous as he gestured eloquently toward a rack of skins. Although not as busy as it would be during high noon, the marketplace still bustled with commoners. The princess smiled at onlookers, insisting that people not bow before her, but said nothing else. This bothered the young paladin, as he remembered the royal to be talkative and passionate. He decided to commence a conversation.
“I trust your journey was enjoyable, my lady?” Sir Hayden inquired, eyeing the market dwellers with suspicion and searching their hands for weapons.
“As pleasant as one ought to be,” the fair damsel replied, her voice as soft as the fabric of her attire.
“How goes the piano and song?” The princess turned to look at Hayden, her mouth slightly agape. Understanding clicked in her eyes and she drew a deep breath. Sir Hayden wondered, had she forgotten him? The last time they met was only half a dozen years ago, how could she have?
“Hayden…?” she questioned, “of course… how could I…” she trailed off and Sir Hayden felt his heart contract.
“All is well, Your Highness,” Hayden lied, “It has been a while since we last saw one another.”
“No, Hayden, all is not well.” She was staring intently at the ground between their feet. “I do remember thee… I do… I just…” She reached a hand into her cloak, pulling out a silver medallion. It bore the Floresian crest, with a prominent “V” in the middle. He had carved it for her the day the queen had been killed. The queen’s funeral was the last time he had seen the princess. She smiled softly as she examined it, and the contracting of Hayden’s heart was replaced with light fluttering. She’d kept it. “Too many thoughts are plaguing my mind,” she explained, “I should have recognized thee… my father has kept me afar… he fears for my life.” Hayden prepared to speak, to tell her that all was truthfully well, but a whistle resonated in his ear. Five of their possé collapsed, the captain included, arrows protruding from their necks. The market district filled with screams, dwellers and stallmen running in all directions.
“No!” The young royal cried, eyes wide in horror.
“Princess! We must get to safety! This is an attempt on your life!” Hayden announced, drawing his sword. The assailants revealed themselves as the crowd dissipated. There were twelve in all, clad in Floresian guard attire–a chainmail and tunic bearing the Floresian crest. One of them stepped forward. He wielded no weapon, but the others trained their bows upon Sir Hayden and the remaining three guardians.
“Ah, Princess Vandalia Stella Hiraeth of Floresia,” he admired, “the tales of your beauty are true, Charmspeaker.” His voice was low, threatening and slippery. “Truly a shame I have not been permitted to desecrate you before taking your life.” Sir Hayden’s knuckles turned white as his grip upon his sword tightened. The princess visibly shuddered. The speaker continued: “No matter. The Calangian Isles has had enough of your diplomacy. First your mother, and now you. We thought you would have learned your lesson when we gutted her, witch.” The princess froze, unreadable. She took a step forward.
“Fear will no longer dictate me,” she croaked. Sir Hayden could tell she was struggling to maintain her posture. The last rays of light in the sky cast a shadow over her scowl. Hayden’s heart ached for her. “I shall no longer hide who I am…” She took another step forward. Sir Hayden moved to her side.
“Princess… Vandalia… I will hold them off. Go,” he whispered. She shook her head.
“Hayden…” She closed her eyes and Hayden felt the air shift. The wind heightened, and when the princess opened her eyes Sir Hayden nearly fainted. The striking, soft blue was now a vibrant, glowing red. The assailants took a step back. The young paladin was unable to take his eyes off the princess. It wasn’t just her eyes. The veins in her face had begun to glow red as well. Hayden felt as if he was unable to breathe. And then she spoke, or rather sang, her voice the hum of a Siren as she stared intently at the speaker: “Thou shalt kill thy companions.” The very air around them seemed to carry the essence of her song, flowing with a soft, euphonic voice, pulsing with authority. It was as if more than one person was singing at once. Sir Hayden watched in disbelief as the Calangian leader drew a mace from his back. He turned to face the other assassins.
“What are you doing?” one asked, “praetor?” The Calangian praetor didn’t answer, instead swinging his mace into the assassin’s face. He swung again, and again, killing three assassins instantly. They fell to the floor, their faces disfigured and eyes empty. The praetor killed one more before being cut down. In a matter of moments half of the assassins were dead. The young paladin knew a cue when he saw one.
“For Her Highness!” Sir Hayden declared, leaping at the nearest Calangian and beheading him. The remnants of the Princess’ Guard joined him, fighting with vigor, but were still outnumbered. Two guardians fell, taking two assassins with them in a merciless fight. The paladin and final guardian were forced on the defensive, dueling four assassins at once. The last guardian fell. Hayden blocked left, then swung right, but was kicked in the chest and fell, his sword knocked out of reach. An assassin moved to strike.
“Enough!” Princess Vandalia commanded, drawing a ruby-encrusted smallsword from beneath her cloak. “Thou wilt not touch him,” she intoned, her voice rising in song. The assassin froze, and a moment later the princess impaled him. He fell to the ground, dead. Princess Vandalia countered a retaliator to her left, and then leapt back, taking in a breath. The red of her veins glowed brighter as she closed her eyes. The three assassins moved to attack, but she threw her head forward, the wail of a banshee rushing forth: a whirlwind of energy that disintegrated the assassins. Hayden did not move. The princess was at his side at once.
“Hayden, thank the heavens thou art unharmed. I…” She collapsed, exhausted from whatever magic she had worked. The glowing red dissipated, her eyes and face returning to their normal shade. “My father… my mother… the power of the voice… I was–”
“Vandalia… princess,” Hayden corrected, “there is no need to explain yourself. I-I understand.” He didn’t, but he hoped he soon would. Hayden stood and helped Vandalia to her feet.
“Thou art not afeared?” the princess asked, an aura of hope encompassing her as she wiped the dust from her cloak. The sky had darkened, so the young paladin could barely see the damsel. He took a step forward, but not so much as to be improper.
“Of course not.” Hayden thought for a moment. “The Charmspeaker. I like it.” The corners of her lips curled into a smile, her eyes brightening. Hayden thought her eyes alone could light the night sky. Princess Vandalia took a step towards him.
“I have… something for thou,” she said softly. Sir Hayden raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
“Yes, I meant to give it long ago.” Hayden paused, and then noticed she was moving closer. He blushed beneath his beard—her lips met his.
“Vandalia, darling, do try to be careful with that,” Satorus begged, eyeing his young daughter as she took a seat in front of the ballroom piano.
“Come now, Satorus,” Dianthus coaxed, “Vandalia is only following her path.”
“That is what I am afraid of.” He brushed a golden lock from Dianthus’ face.
“Her becoming a woman?” He sighed and glided to his daughter, who beamed up at him.
“She’s pure,” he mumbled. Dianthus sat next to Vandalia, laying a hand on her shoulder.
“Wouldst thou like to learn to play?” she asked. The young princess nodded. Dianthus turned to look at her husband, his figure casting a shadow over them, obscuring the light of the candle chandelier hanging from the ballroom ceiling. “Satorus. Our beloved is ready. I must teach her. It is only a matter of time.” He took a deep breath and nodded.
“Yes, dearest. It must be done.” Young Vandalia wasn’t sure why learning to play the piano was worth arguing over. Little did she know playing the piano had nothing to do with her parents’ discourse. Dianthus turned to smile at her daughter, her veins emitting a soft red glow.
“Very well, dear, I shall teach thou, but only if thou wilt learn to sing as well.”