The sun was glistening blindingly on the water of the Inner Sea, and over the waves the royal party could see the solar glow linger on both the bustling landscape of the island of Martaine and the bright, empty cliffs of the southern Rutland Isles. Beside them, the reddish light faltered on the tops of the golden buildings of Torquen, picking out the defining features in their statues’ faces and rushing into superfluous crevices not meant for any aesthetic gaze. The gigantic carved pillars that adorned most buildings at the University of Matalia were dappled with shady patches of light, which ebbed and flowed on the pillars as the sun blew through the lemon trees. In the magnificent Renaissance courtyard of San Giacomo College, the architectural bastion that had inspired a design copied throughout Islandia’s universities, over a hundred courtiers stood as regally as they possibly could, all desperately pretending that the sun in their eyes made them anything other than uncomfortable. Everyone there was silently exhausted by the relentlessness of the summer sun, and most would have given anything for a glass of wine and some shade. The cool, trickling fountain in the centre of the courtyard only served to exacerbate this desire.
The young Rowenian king, John, and his thirteen young siblings, were among the only ones who seemed able to stand the heat. For days they had happily basked in the Matalian sunshine, bathing in the sea and the university’s famous baths, taking drinks on the sprawling lawn of San Giacomo College with the other young royals who had congregated there alongside their families for the convention. Whilst the springs and summers of Rowenia were usually pleasant and warm, they could not compare to the almost tropical environment of Matalia and the other islands of the Inner Sea. In any case, the older children had been enjoying the benefits of what they called the mature royal lifestyle since their older brother John’s accession earlier in the year. Though they were children of a king, the recently-deceased King Edmund, these last few months had held their first real tastes of royal life. King Edmund’s fourteen children had been greatly loved and indulged, provided with the best tutors to teach them and the best doctors to care for them, but they had all been sheltered and over-protected from what their father saw as the ‘tyrannies’ of public life. Only the third child of a monarch, Edmund had had to watch two older sisters, both unpopular and childless, sit uncomfortably on the Rowenian throne before he inherited it at the age of sixty, and he had decided that he could not allow the hostile feelings of a populous to mar his children’s lives. With the sole exception of John, the children had remained shut up in Kemerin Palace for virtually the whole of Edmund’s short but effective three-year reign. Eighteen-year-old Elizabeth could remember sharing a cramped but comfortable bedroom first with her younger brothers Richard and Thomas, and then her younger sisters Mary and Cassandra. She had spent her days being tutored with her nearest siblings by professors from all over Islandia, in a room near her parents’ apartments. Sometimes, during the day, she would dress up in her finest gown and skip down to the palace’s enormous grand hall, and would pretend she was dancing with all Rowenia’s most eligible bachelors at magnificent state banquets. The practice, along with her dance lessons, was all in vain, of course: when the time came for royal banquets to start, Elizabeth and her siblings were sent upstairs before they could even catch a glimpse of the guests.
While they mourned their father, therefore, his children could not help but be glad for their change in circumstances. Thanks to Edmund’s marvellous success in restoring the popularity of the monarchy, they had been able to ride through crowds who cheered rather than hissed, and attend dances and banquets where young nobles sought desperately to attract their attention. This trip to Matalia had been no different.
Torquen was an unusual city. It had two sites, like two colleges of the same university, and no one had ever thought to give them separate names. Both were just Torquen, separate manifestations of the same settlement, even though they were at least an hour’s drive apart by carriage. The young Rowenians preferred coastal Torquen, which was a gorgeous summery oasis compared to the quiet dignity of inland Torquen, home to the Grand Ducal court; a court that was beautiful and grand but far from enticing. Matalia’s current ruler was Grand Duchess Celeste, an elderly woman who had a hatred of revelry and late nights, and believed that those who did not had serious constitutional problems. For the duration of their stay she had mostly remained in her rooms at the palace, surrounded by her elderly advisors, who doubled as her best friends. Her unsubtly resentful son, Hereditary Grand Duke Jonas, was more understanding, and kind enough to arrange for these advisors to occupy his mother’s time whilst he arranged for their guests to quietly enjoy themselves. After first docking at Torquen four weeks ago, the Rowenian party had passed on an initial visit to the city of Pureaux, followed by several pleasant days on the shore of Lake Giacomo, a day-long trip to the island of Nell, and finally a two-week stay in the gorgeous southern region of Havilund, whose whitewashed houses, lemon trees and white-sand beaches overlooked a dazzling crystal-clear ocean, uninterrupted but for the faint green coastline of Calbania’s Luringia forest to the east. The Rowenians had scarcely believed that there was so much beauty and excitement in the world to be devoured.
Now, back in Torquen, they were no longer simply a family party. The Rowenians had lately been joined by King Isaac III of Keperlia and his four children, the oldest of whom was only fourteen. Eager to learn about the immense northern landmass of Keperlia, which was to be their next destination, the young siblings of the Rowenian king had eagerly swamped King Isaac and his wife Lucy with questions pertaining to their kingdom’s climate, its wildlife, the hundreds of tiny islands that seemed in books as though they were entirely separate worlds of their own, and the various indigenous tribes who ruled the mountains and the enormous Boreal Forest beyond Isaac’s domain. The jovial king, very much in the manner of the friendly, wholesome Keperlian royal family, was delighted to oblige. He spent entire days with the young Rowenians, sitting on a stool on the sunny veranda with as much dignity as though he were on his throne, and as much joy as though he were a child himself.
In the middle of one day, when the Rowenians had been sitting on the beautiful sandy beach of San Giacomo College, Calbania’s newly-invested Grand Duke Christopher had arrived in the inner city along with his own wife and young family. Considerably more serious than its old foe Keperlia, Calbania was in the midst of what had once threatened to become a civil war: old tensions between the traditionally powerful northern Calbania and the southern region of Luringia had broken out, which had put the Calbanian king under increasing pressure to allow more power and influence to the Luringian ruling classes. Accordingly, the Grand Duke, once young and carefree, seemed reluctant to join in with the merriments, and the Rowenians did not see him at all until the state banquet that evening at the Pallazzo Dell’universita. He and his wife barely looked up from their plates, and their frowns never left their faces. Only their five young children, particularly the eternally-excitable eleven-year-old Lois, seemed eager to talk and be merry.
Though Grand Duchess Celeste was mostly out of sight, her son Jonas, on the hot June day that found the four families back in Torquen, had been pacing up and down the terrace and wondering about the Arvintans. This convention, aimed at bringing all the powerful families of Islandia together for the first time in centuries, including the royal family of Islandia’s most mysterious nation. At its head would be Queen Olivia, who was widely rumoured to be Arvinta’s most capable monarch to date.
The Rowenians had once exchanged letters with Queen Olivia’s youngest child, Princess Beatrice. They had been proud of their letters: they had tried, with some success, to sketch a portrait of a world considerably more colourful than the one to which they were limited in Kemerin. They had consulted beautifully illustrated books for new words and descriptions, and the younger children had drawn pictures of their own. The letter they received in response had rather disappointed them, though between themselves no one was prepared to admit this. In the stuffy rooms of their palace apartment, they had formed an image of the Arvintans as models of sophistication and elegance, and to preserve their own images no child had been willing to point out the more obviously troubling aspects of the letter. Privately, however, Matilda had been rather hurt by Beatrice’s advice that she should give up drawing altogether, citing clear lack of talent as her justification. Henry felt that his response would have read better without the list of grammatical errors added onto the end; his letter had been his first complete composition in the Arvintan language, after all. And Isabella had been positively affronted by the suggestion that someone of her age ought to be capable of forming more graceful letters. Princess Beatrice’s perfect handwriting surely could not be emulated by all.
“My father says that their learning is beyond compare,” said Duchess Lois of Calbania, the evening before they were due to arrive. The adults having retired to discuss matters of state, the young people had been left to wander about the perfectly-trimmed college gardens. Lois was eating cherries she had picked from a tree, and their juice had stained her pale bodice.
“It is not just their learning; their intellects and talents are beyond comprehension,” said Prince Luke of Keperlia. “My mother says that each one of them could read and write by their second years. Some of them compose music for all different instruments, and some of them can paint like life. All this they have done almost without instruction.”
“I believe I shall be friends with them all,” boasted Princess Mary, Elizabeth’s enterprising younger sister. “Even if they are older than I am. I like to be around other scholars.”
Privately they each wondered if all these things were true; there were doubts in each of their minds that none was willing to voice.