It’s a bright, beautiful morning. Or at least, it will be. As yet the sun is just flooding the hills to the west with purple, and beginning to outline the palace in fire. I didn’t get much sleep last night, so I watched the first glimmering of dawn from the balcony outside my bedchamber, wrapped in a thick blanket. If you can see the sun there’s no point trying to go back to sleep, so with a sigh I’d hauled on some clothes and abandoned the prospect of bed. I turned seventeen two days ago, with much celebration and partying. It was good, and distracted me from what was coming just a few days later: investiture. Even now it’s not something I especially want to dwell on, but it’s only a couple of hours away now. I’d hoped I might sleep through it, though there was no real chance of being allowed to. I shamble down the halls of the palace, waking up as I walk, adopting the upright and confident walk I was taught as a child. Let the body lead and the mind will follow. Annoyingly accurate. I barely notice the royal guards who dropped into place behind me as I left my bedchamber, though I’m pretty sure I did give at least one of them an acknowledging nod. Bad enough to be a prince, worse to be a prick of a prince. I like to think I’m not my older brother, the actual heir. He’s fifteen years older, very serious – as I suppose you need to be if you’re to be taking over the reigns of the whole kingdom and its extensive vassal states. His life has been different, always driven towards ruling; I am of course the spare. It’s a privileged position, because who knows what might happen to Clarence. He could have died on his investiture and now I’d be saddled with all that ails him. I’m aware that I had things easier than he did, fewer expectations, fewer hopes and dreams for my future. It’s made it hard to have dreams of my own though. A destiny as back-up until Clarence has children of his own isn’t very appealing, but it isn’t as if I can just run off and join a carnival. Certainly not with the bodyguards so alert. I’m also not terribly adept at juggling, which I think is a key skill for such work. Instead, I’m just pulled along in the current of Clarence’s and my father’s lives. Today is to be an excellent case in point.
I breeze through the kitchen – a refuge from an early age – and beg coffee and chocolate from chef, who indulges me and pretends it’s a favour and not his duty to do as I say. That’s what every relationship here is: duty, with, if I’m lucky, a veneer of warmth over the top. I can’t really know if these people like me. In an attempt to be less like my brother, I request coffee and chocolate for the two guards who accompany me, Peiter and Vens. They’ll have been awake even earlier than I was, changing shift in the middle of the night while I slept. Their presence is a kind of comfort, a sense of continuity if nothing else. Their utter loyalty to the crown isn’t the same as loyalty to a friend, and at times I have felt bitterly alone. Topped up with drinks we depart. I’m old enough to be allowed out in the grounds without permission, as long as I’m joined by the guards. The quickest way to leave the palace is through the kitchen of course, and has the fewest eyes. By now, my location and direction will be known by the rest of the guard, or at least by Helrence, my father’s master bodyguard and ruler in his own right of the royal guard’s dominion.
Dawn is well underway when we crunch off the gravel path, heading down the royal gardens. Everything is royal-something here, we don’t have any ordinary grass apparently… Ahead, sunlight sparkles off the dark water where the gardens end and the sea haven begins. From the docks the expanse of blackness spreads out from the five mile loch until it meets the main harbour and then the sea itself. In the distance something massive rolls, waves surging across the bay. That’s probably Almeister, getting a touch of the sun on her belly. Venchorix and Joachter, my father’s and brother’s leviathans respectively are a little older and more likely to be slumbering in the depths. Almeister knows that today is important too, and even from several miles away she can feel when I’m near. We always have something of a game to see who can get to the docks first, while of course pretending that we’re doing nothing of the sort. I walk a little faster, paying close attention to the visible wake out in the water. If Almeister goes deep I won’t be able to spot her at all, but this is her also playing the nonchalant game.
I swear we reach the dock a moment before Almeister does, but have to leap backwards anyway as the surge of water washes over the planks as she rises up. She is vast, and beautiful in her own way. For generations our royal house has bonded with these undersea colossi. Her head alone is most of the length of the dock and she playfully snaps her enormous jaws, studded with rows of three-foot-long teeth. She’s terrifying, but she knows it. I move closer, and lay a hand on the warm flesh beside her eye, which she rolls at me and blinks. As a young child my blood was drawn, my very essence mixed with that of a baby leviathan – she is part-me. The leviathans were my great-great-great-something grandfather’s contribution to establishing and maintaining the kingdom and its empire. With the tamed yet lethal leviathan in tow, no one could stand against our fleet, and their protection against even greater threats from below is essential for crossing the great seas. We’ve swum together since I was very small, though she was a lot smaller back then. She was probably only a little larger than me when we were first introduced, in a warm swimming pool not far from this point. We’ve been inseparable ever since, inasmuch as beings who live on land and in the water can be.
In a few hours I’ll be taken to the investiture pool – or the drowning pool, as I’ve been calling it – so the genetic gifts Almeister’s blood has conferred upon me will become active and dominant. It’s not every royal prince who gets to make this next step. My father and brother’s bond with their leviathans is just as real as mine and Almeister’s, but soon I’ll be joining her in the water and together we’ll defend our family and our kingdom. But first, I’ll have to drown. That’s the part I haven’t been looking forward to. It might not take, my blood might not flourish with the leviathan additions, but now, resting my forehead against Almeister, I feel like it’s going to be all right. I give her face a hug, reassured.