Roxas scowled at the picture in the sitting room. It was an entirely inoffensive image of a madonna holding up a smiling babe. It was designed to cheer the minds and gladden the hearts of anyone who looked on it. At the moment, it wasn't working.
"Where is he?" Roxas muttered to himself, drumming his fingers against the arm of his chair. Standing up, he began to pace, kicking at the rich rug under his feet. Everything in the room was expensive. Beautiful hardwood floors had been imported from Braut at ruinous expense. Lovely tapestries gleaned with gemstone threads, picking out ancient and historical scenes. Paintings done by the greatest of artists adorned the walls. Sometimes Roxas found the surfeit of luxury annoying. But it had all been in place for generations, accumulated very slowly over almost two thousand years. Roxas was willing to make an exception for that.
"Roxas." Roxas turned as his brother entered the room. He and Cloud had been close at one time, but that had been years ago. For some time his brother had been getting grimmer and grimmer and seemed to be criticizing everything he was doing. He just didn't understand it.
"Cloud." Roxas inclined his head, a touch shallowly. "What can I do for you?"
"You can sit for one." Cloud said briskly and Roxas frowned before taking a seat. Cloud sat across from him, adjusting the slim coronet he wore on less formal occasions. It was actually quite restrained compared to what their father had worn. "Roxas, we need to discuss your future."
"My future?" Roxas said, confused. He'd already planned out his future. Or at least he'd thought he had. "I'm going to join the army. Remember?" Cloud just looked at him for a moment, then carefully laid his hands on the arms of his chair before leaning back.
"My ministers would love for you to do that." Cloud's tone was dry as a bone. "So they could arrange a fatal accident for you." Roxas gaped at his brother, shocked. Surely he wasn't serious?
"Cloud, what are you talking about?" He managed to say. Cloud frowned and shook his head.
"I can't tell if you're naïve or being disingenuous. Roxas, have you noticed that a lot of first born children don't live to take up their titles around here?" Roxas winced at that. He knew about it of course. But surely Cloud didn't think he'd do something like that! He loved his brother, even if he'd turned into a bit of a stuck up since he'd taken the throne. "Father was the fourth born. And while Uncle Richard really did die of pneumonia, I don't think for one minute the other three all had 'hunting accidents.' Do you?"
"Cloud! That's horrible." Roxas said sharply. Could Cloud really think he would do such a thing? His brother paused, then heaved a sigh.
"It is what it is. In case you hadn't noticed, Roxas, royal brothers and sisters never stay in the country." Cloud's tone took on a slightly acid note. "If you go back in the histories you see the girls are all married off and the boys either die or are sent on 'trade missions' that never come back."
"So that's it? You're exiling me?" Roxas demanded and Cloud hesitated just a moment before nodding. His expression was bleak but Roxas found his sympathy quite limited. "Where?"
"Hyra." Cloud said briefly and Roxas winced. Hyra was far, far away, deep in the southern desert. For a long time it had survived solely on the farmland of the great river that snaked into the desert and flooded every year. That had been an adequate living, but just a generation ago the area had become rich. A great salt lake had been discovered and was being mined, and arcane silver had been found buried in the rocks of the stony desert. That mine was brutally punishing to work, but arcane silver was prized by wizards the world over. Hyra was rich now and several attempts to take it over had met with utter disaster. The desert was brutal for anyone not born to it, and the people who lived there were hardy. "The King owes me a favor. He'll see you're given full honors." Roxas bit back the words he wanted to say. He didn't want to be a useless drone, being 'honored' for his relatives. It wouldn't make any difference.
"I can see you have everything decided." Roxas' tone was withering but Cloud just looked at him steadily. Roxas couldn't stand it anymore and stood. "I'll go pack. When am I leaving?" That was an important detail. Cloud pursed his lips for a moment.
"A week. You're going to be traveling with a caravan. Leon will give you the details." Cloud stood as well and nodded once before leaving the room briskly. Roxas watched him go, wondering where his older brother had gone. The brother who had taken him out on a hunt and shown him how to fly a kite…
It didn't matter. That brother was gone and had been replaced with the King. Roxas grimaced to himself and went to go pack.
"They want us to do what?" The old man heaved himself up in his bath. The slave girl behind him frowned and leaned back a bit as the water sloshed onto the marble tiles. The King was well gone to fat, so quite a lot of water could be spilled with careless movements. The red haired man across from him looked up from the letters he'd been reading, a small smile playing across his face.
"They want us to host their prince in exile, father." The young man repeated and the King scowled, reaching up to scratch his hair. It had once been as red as his son's but it had long since faded into grey.
"What's he done? I'm not interested in hosting some gilded serpent." The slave girl began soaping the King's back again and he settled into her attentions with a grunt. Her thin white shift clung appealingly to a young and desirable body, but the two men in the room were unmoved, concentrating on matters of state.
"He hasn't done anything, as far as our spies can tell." Axel consulted the second paper, a report from their ambassador and his spies. "The King and his advisors seem to be afraid he will do something, but old Freri seems to think he's too young and fair minded to think of it." The King barked a laugh and shook his head.
"Damn northerners. If you and your brothers behaved like that I'd thwack you across the earhole." Axel grinned, amused. It was quite true and while the King wasn't particularly imposing now, there was still plenty of muscle under the flab. As a young man he'd been quite formidable.
With their long centuries of privation, Hyra had developed a very different system of handling extra children than many other countries. Poor as they were, they could expect very few royal marriages to take away their daughters and even fewer prospects for extra sons. So they were willing to take whatever came their way and make their own fortunes. One of Axel's older brothers was a merchant prince, which would have been unthinkable in most lands. Another was in training to be a bard, which would have been equally unthinkable. And not one of them had any thought of overthrowing their oldest brother. There would have been no support if they tried.
Axel himself was the eighth son. So far down the line of succession that dreams of the throne were ludicrous, he'd decided on becoming an advisor to the throne. He had a flair for politics and quite enjoyed finding things out. It helped that he had magical talent and was very quietly refining it under the tutelage of a very good wizard. Along with his flamboyant personality and taste for various pleasures, everyone in the court underestimated him. It could be highly useful at times.
"Did you want me to show him around father?" Axel offered. He wasn't sure he wanted to spent time with the gilded serpent either, although that was probably unfair to the boy. But he could take the lad to the taverns and whorehouses. That would enhance his reputation as a useless fop nicely. His father looked a touch relieved at the suggestion.
"Could you Axel? It'd be a relief." The King said and Axel grinned, flipping to a new sheet.
"It will be my pleasure! Now, Albren has a report on the status of the salt mines." That was his merchant prince brother. He was a very good manager and had gone to the mines to take a personal interest on behalf of the King. Axel began reading the letter to his father, ignoring the slave girl. Nothing he was reading was secret. That got handled in special rooms, although there wasn't much business like that. Hyra was still a rather open place although Axel didn't think it was going to last.
Wealth and power would always corrupt.
Roxas clung to his viara, trying not to pant in the heat. He was desperate for any coolness but that would only dry his mouth and make him even more miserable.
The trip to Hyra had been every bit as miserable as he'd feared. It had taken almost three months, attached to this ramshackle caravan. The merchants didn't want him along and they'd made their feelings plain. He'd needed to do absolutely everything for himself, from setting up his tent to handling his own cooking. Roxas had a dark suspicion that most travelers with the caravan would have gotten at least a bit of help. No one was willing to talk to him, which had suited him well enough at first but had gotten very lonely after a while. The way the caravan was constantly stopping to hawk their wares was annoying but expected and had added at least a month to the trip.
When they reached Hyra, though, things had gone from lonely and uncomfortable to outright miserable. Roxas had decided he hated the desert. His clothes, meant for a Northern summer, were no protection against the blazing sun. Roxas had burned and peeled and burned again, never tanning. The arid heat was pure torture for someone from a cool, wet land.
The viara at the front of the caravan made a low, deep call and Roxas looked up as the caravan picked up the pace. The viara were strange creatures. Related somehow to the T'assa plant people, they lived in the one climate the T'assa always shunned. The plant people disliked dryness above all else, but the viara were quite different. Their skin felt like the waxy bulb of a desert plant, and they vaguely resembled camels but with bumps protruding to the side as well as up. They were great, ugly creatures but were capable of a great turn of speed and were very clever and easily trainable. Those attributes had made them beasts of burden and war mounts for the desert nomads. Roxas didn't really like them, but he suspected his mount was the worst of the caravan. It was always struggling to keep up and lurching in a way that made him feel sick.
Roxas rubbed his eyes, wondering if he was seeing a mirage again. He'd become depressingly familiar with the illusion of water on his trip through the desert. But no… the blowing sand was parting to reveal a great city and Roxas suddenly realized what had caught the viara's attention. The great Virgin River was ahead of them and the city was clinging to its banks. They had scented the water, even at this great distance.
"Oh thank god." Roxas murmured to himself as the caravan began its descent out of the sands. He felt dizzy with relief and had to cling to the saddle as the viara stumbled and almost went to its knees. He was here. Finally, finally, he had reached Vdala, the capital of Hyra. He still wasn't keen on being 'honored' for his relationship to Cloud but right now he would take anything over the brutal sun.
The caravan did not stop for water and Roxas started to get a splitting headache. His dizziness increased as well and he was feeling like he might throw up at any moment. Closing his eyes, he lowered his head and endured. They were here. Surely they would stop for water soon.
Roxas came back to awareness as his viara suddenly stopped with a startled sound. A man was holding the reigns and Roxas tried to muster up a glare. He knew it was halfhearted at best, but what did this barbarian think he was doing? The man was dressed in flowing black robes and a headdress was concealing all of him except his brilliant green eyes.
"You look like hell." Roxas' jaw dropped at the words, spoken in the Northern tongue. The merchants all spoke his language but their command of it was stilted and formal. This stranger sounded as fluent as a native speaker. "Prince Roxas, I presume?" Strong hands gripped him, helping him down from the viara. Roxas was about to protest when a wave of dizziness and pain hit him.
"Y-yes." Roxas managed to say before he slumped against the stranger, trying desperately to remain on his feet. The man barked several sharp words at the caravan. Roxas tried to understand but felt his command of the language slipping under the hammer of his headache. One of the caravan guards hurried over to take the viara as the merchants spoke to the stranger. They were clearly trying to placate him but not having much luck. Finally the man in black shook his head in disgust and turned his attention to Roxas. The blonde found himself boosted onto a new viara, this one young and strong. It took off at a much faster pace as soon as the stranger mounted. He was mumbling rapidly to himself in the Hyre language and Roxas wanted to question him but just couldn't find the strength. He dreamed longingly of water, cold, crisp water…
It wasn't long, though, before the man pulled the viara to a stop. Roxas found himself helped down again then gently tugged into a waiting shop. The blonde almost fainted as he felt beautiful cool air envelope him. This building was magically cooled! It felt heavenly and Roxas closed his eyes as the man guided him to some cushions, speaking rapidly in the Hyre tongue again. The blonde opened his eyes as something was pressed into his hand.
"Oh!" Roxas drank the chilled fruit juice eagerly, completely draining the glass. The man laughed and poured him another.
"Prince?" Roxas blinked, his command of the language coming back a bit as the proprietor of the shop spoke to them. It was a café, he saw now, serving hot and cold beverages and tasty little snacks. But how had they known he would be arriving? His confusion only increased as the man in black replied.
"Do you have anything cold to eat? I believe he's suffering from heat exhaustion. Also, could you find something suitable for him to wear?" Roxas blushed and looked down at his clothes. They were far too tight and brief for the desert climate. All his exposed skin was cherry red. The café owner, a short man with a ready smile, bobbed a quick bow.
"We have some lovely melon, my lord, and paopu fruit." That perked Roxas' interest. He'd never seen fresh paopu fruit before, only candied and dried. The man in black nodded.
"That sounds excellent. And coffee for me, of course." The shopkeeper clapped his hands and a girl brought out a tray full of freshly sliced melon and paopu. Roxas tried a piece of paopu and sighed in pleasure at the cool, sweet taste of the fruit. Feeling a million times better, he finally paid attention to his savior.
"I'm sorry. I didn't catch your name." Roxas blushed faintly as the man laughed, pulling down his headdress. Roxas blinked as he realized the stranger was a young man… a very attractive young man with spiky red hair, flashing green eyes and startlingly pale skin.
"That's because I didn't give it. Prince Axel, at your service." Axel gave him a small bow, a hand pressed against his chest as Roxas gaped. The blond regained control of himself as one of the shop girls refilled the pitcher of fruit juice.
"Oh! I'm sorry. I had no idea." Roxas was guiltily aware of his earlier thoughts, where he'd considered Axel a desert barbarian. The Prince shrugged with a smile before taking a small sip of his coffee.
"Mmm, strong coffee… no offense was given or taken. You were too far gone to heat exhaustion to greet the King properly, let alone an eighth son!" Axel's gaze trailed over him as Roxas blinked at that. Eight? "Your clothing is terrible. I can't believe the caravan master let you wear that. What was that idiot thinking?"
"They didn't really want me along." Roxas admitted and Axel grimaced.
"Even worse. Unless you did something to offend them?" Axel gave him a very sharp glance and Roxas was suddenly aware of the bright intelligence in those green eyes. They seemed to see right into his soul. The blonde quickly shook his head, glad he could deny it honestly. "Umph. I'll talk to my brother about it. Politeness costs nothing, as every merchant should remember." Roxas wondered for a moment what a prince would have to do with merchants then promptly forgot about it as he took a slice of the melon. It was firm and a little crunchy, full of moisture. "Well, welcome to Hyre. I promise, it's a lot better than what you've seen so far!"
"I hope so." Roxas thought of what had happened to him in the past week and winced. "I had to sell my horse halfway through the desert. He just couldn't keep up… I hope the nomads take good care of him." Roxas felt very sad at the loss of his horse. The gelding had been with him for years and had been his favorite in the whole stables.
"I'm sure." Axel tactfully refrained from mentioning that the nomads in the Anvil, as they called the deep desert, would have no use for a horse. The viara were much better for traveling and he was sure the horse had been in the cooking pot before Roxas had got out of camp. But the blonde probably didn't want to hear that. "I should take you to a healer for that sunburn." Roxas looked down at himself, startled.
"It's just a sunburn." He said dismissively then winced as Axel gently tapped the back of his hand, pulling away from even that slight contact.
"A sunburn is a burn, Roxas, and if you're not about to blister I would be surprised." Axel's voice was gentle and Roxas looked up, meeting concerned green eyes. "And sleeping is going to be a nightmare. The healers have remedies that will help take away the pain and promote healing." Roxas swallowed nervously then nodded. He'd been having trouble sleeping for a week thanks to his constant burns.
"If you're sure." He said tentatively. He felt like he was imposing on the redhead. Didn't he have, well, something else to do? But he was the eighth son so perhaps not. Or perhaps the King had asked him to play host. Axel smiled, sipping his coffee.
"I am. We should – ah." Roxas looked up as one of the shop girls stopped by their table, offering Axel a folded bundle of black cloth. The redhead took it with a smile and a nod. "This is for you. I take it your wearing underthings?" Roxas blushed and nodded. "Just change into it then." Roxas hesitated then very quickly stripped, ignoring the giggling of the girls as he pulled on the black robe. It shifted uncomfortably over his burns but he had the feeling it would be better in the long run. It would at least some him from more in the future. "Good. Now, let me show you how to wind a head scarf." That took some effort and Roxas was sure he'd have to practice for a long time before he was anywhere near as fast as a native Hyrian. But he finally got it in place. "Good. Ready to go?" Roxas nodded and Axel waved over a shop girl, who brought them a tiny chalkboard with a total. Axel examined it briefly then pulled out several gold coins, passing them to the girl. "Keep the change." Roxas followed Axel out to the viara, feeling a thousand times better.
Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad after all.