Author's Note: Hello all! This is a new story that occurred to me a few days ago, let me know if it's any good or I should just quit while I'm ahead. Please read, reveiw, and most of all, enjoy...

"So you are leaving then? I can't say that I blame you. I would abandon this sinking ship myself if I was not obligated to stay here and try to save it."

Gabriel raised a brow at his often pessimistic friend. He supposed the man had few things to truly be happy about, but really, the dour attitude was wearing thin. There wasn't much time left for him here, and he'd rather not spend it arguing. "Erik, drop the act, please! We both know why you're going to stay, and it's not an obligation to you at all. This is your place by birthright."

The man that sat across from him, Erik DeRoux, was simply and somewhat formally dressed in pressed black slacks, a black dress shirt and a garnet vest. Despite that he was half Shaliman, Erik often went out of his way to distance himself from the surrounding culture. Thus, his grand office had been redesigned to reflect his French heritage; the palace kitchens had been supplied with cheese, meats and wine from Provence and Erik refused to even consider clothing himself in the more traditional robes of a Shaliman king.

Gabriel noted that the man was wearing gloves once again despite the pleasant warmth of the weather outside. Not that Erik cared to spend much time out of his chambers, which were always kept cool, but he had hoped that he might see the man's hands once before he made his departure from the place that had acted as his home for the past ten years.

Where small hope had existed for the absence of the gloves, Gabriel knew better than to hope for Erik to remove his mask. After so many years, he had simply learned to take it in stride. It really wasn't such a problem once he had become accustomed.

The mask concealed most of Erik's face, leaving only his bright eyes and the cynical slant of his mouth open for observation. He rarely smiled; usually a smirk was all that one could hope for. As expected, Erik smirked at Gabriel from across his desk. "Birthright." He mused over the word for a moment. "You have lived here for so long, Gabriel, yet you are still an American, aren't you? You make my place here sound so noble. I think you might have forgotten my circumstances."

Gabriel shifted slightly in his chair, knowing he was in for another one of Erik's small tirades. He fought the urge to roll his eyes when Erik stood from his chair and paced to the end of the room, reaching for a liquor bottle off the walnut table that ran the length of the room.

"I am not here, taking the mantle on as my birthright. I am here because I am the nation's only available blood royal- or, lest anyone forget, the only available half blood. The product of the king's affair with my mother, resulting in the man you see before you: the half-prince of all Shalimar, now the hated king to a corrupt nation on the verge of collapse! Aren't I lucky?"

Gabriel nodded along in silent respect. He knew Erik's origins only too well, as the mask and gloves were a strong reminder. He silently chastised himself for hoping that Erik might reveal to him that which he had no right to see.

They had been good friends for years, Gabriel thought that he was perhaps the only true friend that Erik had close at hand. Certainly he had few friends within the Shaliman palace! As Erik had said, he was the illegitamate son of the former king; a man whose appetite for women far outran his sense of responsibility before he had finally settled down to marry.

While the people of Shalimar had rejoyced and celebrated at the king's marriage decades ago, they had been reluctant to accept or even acknowledge his past discretion with a woman of foreign blood. That a child of such striking resemblance had been born, outside of marriage to a percieved 'whore of the west' had seemed an insult to both the Shaliman people and their beloved new queen.

Erik had spent his life back and forth between France and Shalimar; adored in one place, ignored and hated in another.

Gabriel supposed that tumultuous upbringing had gone a long way to shape the man that Erik had become, and he honestly couldn't blame Erik for his deep resentment of the people that he was now, by blood, sworn to protect.

With the sudden death of Erik's father only months before, Erik had been thrust into the spotlight as king. His half-brother, Kumar, was far too young to assume the responsibility of the nation; the people had no choice but to accept Erik as a temporary ruler, at least until Kumar was able to take his rightful place.

He had been the golden child all his life. Favored by both his parents and the public, Kumar was the ideal choice. Being a legitimate son of pure Shaliman blood, the people loved him deeply- however, at seventeen, they understood that he was simply far too young. Erik had been grudgingly accepted as a substitute so long as it was understood that he would abdicate to Kumar without protest when the time came for the "true" king to take over.

For his part, Erik would have been happy to continue on, working as he had for years behind the scenes as a translator and unseen foreign analyst at the Shaliman embassy. Fate, obviously, had other plans in store for him.

Gabriel shook himself out of his slight reverie. His friend needed support, encouragement. Gabriel knew that just beneath Erik's gloss of cool detatchment, the man had to be terrified. An entire nation rested on his shoulders! What man wouldn't crumble under such pressure?

Gabriel offered him a smile, "You can do this, Erik. If I may say, you are not the ruler that your father was; he played his way throughout his reign, and look at the problems he caused! If anyone is to lead this place out of the trouble it's in..."

Erik poured two small glasses of bourbon and turned to him. He laughed, somewhat humorlessly. "Trouble? You make it all sound so...small. I'm trapped in the middle of a political nightmare."

Gabriel rose and, by force of habit, took the glass offerred to him. "I think that's the American in me, though I do wonder of my government is any better than yours."

Erik glanced down to the drink in his friend's hand, suddenly remembering. "I forgot. Can you still drink?"

Gabriel paused a moment before he set his glass aside. "It might be better if I don't tempt fate." He said with a wry smile.

Erik nodded, his eyes averted for a moment. "When do you leave?"

"The day after tomorrow, early. I haven't even started packing. I don't know where to start. Thank God for Kalila, she'll have everything ready by the time we're set to go." Gabriel said, sensing the heaviness of his own words. Truly, he didn't want to leave. Uprooting his wife and daughter, and essentially leaving his friend like this had been the last thing he wanted, but his condition was worsening. Since the death of the king and with each exposed scandal, the nation was quickly becoming very dangerous. Besides that, Gabriel wanted to see his own family, his parents and sister. He might not be able to in the future.

Gabriel took a deep breath and let his eyelids droop for a moment. It was late in the evening, and he always felt exhausted these days.

Erik was silent for a time. "And the girl?"

Gabriel sighed and looked up into Erik's bright eyes. "She's my daughter, Erik. Christine has to come with us. All this time, and she's barely even seen her true country. There are people on my side of the family that she's never even met. It's time I took her home."

Erik nodded again, his thirst apparently vanished as he set his own untouched glass on the edge of his desk.

"You look tired, Gabriel. I'll not keep you."

It was a dismissal if Gabriel had ever heard one, and Erik's tone spoke plain. He nodded to his friend and left the grand office.

Moments later as he was walking down the corridor, Gabriel heard the piercing sound of glass shattering against a wall.

Life had not been kind to Erik. Gabriel knew this, had known the truth for over a decade.

He and Erik had been introduced at a celebration for the marriage of one of the king's favored officers. Gabriel had been to Shalimar several times in his life, though mainly for his pursuits as a photojournalist. Shalimar, while a relatively small country, boasted some of the world's most exotic wildlife and customs. Truly, it was a photographer's paradise. In many respects, Shalimar could be seen as similar to Gabriel's native America due to its multiculturalism. The people that made up the country were from several different races and many different religions were peacefully accepted all throughout the nation. Temples, churches and synagogues made up a large part of the country's architectural identity.

Thankfully, Shalimar had never been plagued by large conflicts between its many faiths.

The king, as Gabriel had known him, had been a lean man of swarthy complexion and many clever words. Bhaskar al Sharma, he had ruled the small country with ease, years of experience being a great aid in times of trouble and his natural charisma hadn't hurt him in the least. When he was a younger man, it had often been said that he could charm even the most hostile of men into his favor. Certainly he'd had his fun in charming women!

He had been young when he'd been placed on the throne. Arrogance accompanied youth, and even a young king was not beyond this truth. Bhaskar had learned early on that when his title or wealth did not serve the purpose of seducing a woman, his own natural charm served him well enough. It had been this sense of self that had bolstered his ego large enough that he had gone in pursuit of many different women while on a long tour of negotiation with several countries throughout Europe.

Portugal, Spain, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy...

There had been a woman for the king in every capitol city visited, but only one that had been of any consequence.

Adelle DeRoux, a young fashion model at the time of their meeting, had been overwhelmed by the king's interest when he'd approached her outside of a cafe in Paris. How could she not? She had been barely more than a girl at the time, newly nineteen when Bhaskar had out and out seduced her into his bed. For three days he had held the svelte young woman in his sensual spell, releasing her only when his itenerary demanded he board a plane to Rome, the next in a long line of cities where he carried on in the same manner with many other women.

For a king not even yet in his thirties, the world had been his oyster. While he had always been discreet to keep up appearances, Bhaskar had never hesitated before going in pursuit of the female form. The world had held few challenges for him; for the sake of himself, he had decided that he would enjoy as many women as he could before settling into a life of marriage and monotony for the sake of his people.

And the girl he had left in Paris had been heartbroken, the way all young women are when they realize the ugly truths behind the flattering words of men. Bhaskar had promised Adelle forever, whispering empty proposals and then abandoning her completely without even the respect for her to say goodbye. It had cut her to realize that she had been used in such a way; that she had given him her body only to be tossed had taken time to accept the type of man that Bhaskar truly was, but Adelle had carried on as best she could in the interest of the child that the king had left her with.

Adelle provided everything for their son, but Erik had deserved to know the truth of his heritage.

Bhaskar had known nothing of the son that had resulted from his time with Adelle- truth be told, he could hardly remember her when she came before him years after their affair had ended. She had been nothing to him but another face in a long line of worldwide conquests. He had known nothing of his supposed son until the boy was five years old and had become self-aware enough to realize that, when compared to other children, his home lacked a father.

There had been no denying Adelle. Fueled by the hurt of his cruel dismissal of her those years ago, and the fear that Erik would be rejected in the same way, she had refused to allow the king to run. She cared nothing of Shaliman customs and she had not been intimidated by the wife he had taken in their time apart; Adelle cared only for Erik.

"You left me, but I will not allow you to turn your back on your own son," Adelle had declared to Bhaskar.

The woman had been fearless.

That a king would sire a child and then turn away was an indication of true weakness. He could not allow Adelle to go public with their past affair; to prevent the scandal she'd threatened to expose, Bhaskar had grudgingly accepted responsibility for their son.

Erik had never carried any delusions of his place in Shalimar, not even when he was just a boy. He knew that he was an embarassment to the people, the shame of their king. He was given the title of 'half-prince' purely as a formality, but he felt as if he should have been marked 'king's bastard mistake' instead. It was far more accurate, at least.

When he was permitted to visit his father in Shalimar, Erik was often pushed to the side and ignored.

Out of sight, out of mind.

It had continued in this way for years.

After the "accident" that had claimed his mother, Erik had been content to remain in the shadows of the palace, his hatred for the king and the people of Shalimar growing with each passing year.

Gabriel had heard the condensed version of this story from Kalila, his wife who had worked in the palace as an advisor.

They had been married a short time after meeting at a press conference the year before and yet even so, being married to an advisor of the king of Shalimar had earned Gabriel an invitation to the celebration. The party had been in full swing, the grand hall of the palace treated with colored lights and thrilling music. No expense had been spared; champagne flowed, people danced, and gifts were piled high.

Gabriel had been given special permission to take pictures and have them sent via e-mail to his publisher in New York. He had been taking pictures of the honored newlyweds on the floor when he had caught sight of Erik through the lens of his camera. What he had thought he'd seen was a flash of a strangely decorated mask, but he wanted to be sure his eyes weren't playing tricks on him.

He had lowered his camera, not sure of what he had thought he'd seen. The man in the mask was where he had been the moment before, leaning casually against the back wall, but obviously avoiding the crowd of partygoers.

Kalila approached Gabriel's side, handing him a drink. "Who are you spying on?" She had asked with a smile, pointing to his camera. His new wife was not and had never been a stunning beauty as his first wife had been, but Gabriel found Kalila's clever personality and petite frame irresistible.

Gabriel had shrugged. "I'm not sure...there's someone over there in a mask, is there going to be a performance later?"

Kalila had smiled again and, after glancing in the direction he'd indicated, shook her head. "Oh, no, no. That is only Erik. Count yourself lucky, he's rarely seen at events like these. He's not very receptive to other people, you know."

"Who is he?"

"He is the king's first son. A bastard from an affair, years ago. He is not looked on with favor and he knows this, so he usually keeps to himself." Kalila had told him. Her blithe explanation unsettled Gabriel; he felt like he had discovered a gold mine when all anyone gave a damn about was silver.

Gabriel had had no idea the king had had a son by any woman other than his queen. The journalist in him was suddenly eager; perhaps the party wouldn't be a waste of time after all. "Do you think I could get an interview with him?"

Kalila glanced over to the corner where Erik stood, his lanky frame leaning against the wall, his head bent over the wine swirling in his glass. "If you can get him to talk, but don't make a spectacle of yourself."

Gabriel had laughed and kissed her cheek before heading towards the bizarre man in the mask.

Erik woke early the next morning. His dreams had been filled with memories, none of them pleasant.

He glanced at the clock. 'By this time tomorrow, Gabriel, Kalila and Christine will be in America.'

It was wrong to think of her in such a possessive way, Erik knew, but he could not help himself. The girl was special to him, she had been since he had first come to be aquainted with her parents. Christine was considerably younger than he was, but he would not hesitate to admit her being his closest friend. He shrugged to himself as he dressed for the day.

They had met a few weeks after the party where Erik had been introduced to her father; she'd been just a child then, barely older than six years old, while Erik had been near twenty at the time. This vast difference in age had never kept them apart, however. They simply adored each other.

Erik's friendship with Christine had been seen as comical when she was younger; they were entirely mismatched, but she had thought of Erik as her playmate and had never hesitated in seeking out his company, usually at the most inconvenient times. There had been one memorable occasion when she'd barged into his room, wanting to play, while Erik had been "entertaining" a courtesan. Luckily the child had not seen anything damaging, but from then on Erik had been careful to keep his door locked at all hours.

After only one warning not to touch his mask, Christine had never mentioned it again. She accepted Erik as he was, and had grown to adore him as her favorite person in all of the palace. Given his lonliness, Erik had been thrilled to spend time with someone, even if with just a mere girl. As the years passed, people began to take more notice of Erik's growing relationship with the palace's favorite resident child. Uncomfortable concern soon began to grow, however, when it came to light just how much time Erik and Christine spent alone together; it was unnatural, and even Gabriel had been left a little uneasy when he realized how close they were.

Erik had been a grown man that spent most of his time in the company of a girl barely more than a child!

Of course nothing had ever crossed the line of close friendship, but Erik was not oblivious to the attention he'd been drawing to themselves by sharing her company. He'd spoken to Christine about it, and warned her that they shouldn't spend so much time together. It wasn't what he wanted, but Erik would rather not see her at all than allow any kind of suspicion to taint their friendship.

Christine had understood. She didn't want people to think Erik was some sort of...

But how could she give up her best friend?

She had set her clever mind to work, pondering on how they could continue seeing each other without drawing outside attention. The girl had gone after Erik the next morning, slipping a little note under his office door, instructing him to meet her at a specific fountain in the palace gardens at noon the following day.

Erik had gone to see her and Christine had told him that they could meet there and avoid anyone thinking the worst of them. The foutain had become a special place for the both of them, and they often met there when they wanted to see each other. The foutain itself was quaint, unlike the other, more ostentatious fountains and sculptures that were peppered all throughout the vast gardens. Their fountain was small, of smooth gray stone. Orchids and lillies surrounded the fountain base, leading off to a wooded gravel path that wound its way through the gardens, branching off to lead towards different areas. The sky above their heads was obscured by the overhanging branches of trees, many of them several centuries old.

It was where Erik headed now; not only did the fountain serve as a meeting place, but the surrounding area was beautiful, peaceful. An ideal place to come and relax when a man needed to clear his head. Since the death of the king, Erik had come down to the fountain nearly every morning to bolster his strength to face the day. Sudden kingship was not for the faint of heart; while his father had lived, Erik had pursued his studies in foreign relations, political studies and finance. His mastery of these subjects had pulled him through the past few months, but with each passing week there came a new problem to loom on the horizon.

Bhaskar had been a favorite of the people for his charisma and his ability to relate to the common man, but he himself was anything but a man of the people. His entire reign had been nothing but lies! Money embezzled from charities, the lower class exploited, resources hoarded away for the rich! Erik knew that the time would soon come when he would dismiss all the people that had been in his father's pocket; he no longer trusted any of them.

The nation was fragile and uneasy enough with Erik in the place of ruler; if any more of the scandals of his father were exposed, Shalimar could erupt into chaos.

Erik would not let that happen.

He might have grown up hating his father and Shalimar itself, but he was not so selfish that he would put his own feelings ahead of an entire nation. He wanted to correct the problems that his father's weakness and greed had created, and then when Kumar was ready to take over, Erik would return home to France and never even think of Shalimar again.

But first, he had to say goodbye to Christine. His heart ached at the thought.

His girl had turned into a young woman, newly sixteen as of the past month. Her image flooded his mind, and Erik smiled, comparing the face of her six year old self to the young woman she had become. In ten years, there had not been much change in her features. Her face was still a pale oval with rosy cheeks and a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose. The freckles had faded slightly as she grew older, but her bright eyes and smile had remained the same.

Her hair was dark brown, a trait from Gabriel. Erik had never seen Christine's mother, but he supposed he should thank the woman for birthing such a lovely girl. Erik was not blind to Christine's emerging prettiness; she was slowly shedding her gawky adolesence. Her body had grown taller with her years, she was only a hand shorter than Erik himself, but her body lacked any indication of a woman's shape.

Erik shrugged to himself. What did he know of her body? He had no wish to know anything of it, and Christine was always wearing loose Shaliman robes anyway.

He shook his head. It was inappropriate to think of Christine in such a way; she was only his friend, nevermind any plans that his father might have had for the two of them!


He turned quickly to find Christine coming up the path toward him.