Prince Hjalmar joined his family at breakfast for the final time, and thought of the woman he loved.
His father, King Ingmar the Second of Krova, was once more talking about potential marital matches for Hjalmar. At the age of twenty-two, it was past time he was married, his father would keep saying. His mother, Queen Brigetta, would say very little, and nod where appropriate during her husband’s long musings. Hjalmar’s younger brother Ansgar sullenly ate his meat, pretending to not be interested in the conversation at hand. Princess Cicila, the third and youngest of Ingmar’s issue, tucked into her food, genuinely uncaring for the discussion.
“I’ve half a mind to offer a proposal to King Erik, he has a daughter who should be eighteen soon,” said Ingmar, scratching his large white beard thoughtfully. The king was once a lean man, but years of drinking and feasting had left him with a large belly and slow movement; though his mind remained sharp. “An alliance with Skjælvarden would be most welcome. There has not been a Stenvarg-Björnssen marriage in over two hundred years, and it would minimise the risk of future warfare between our two nations.”
Hjalmar looked at his father, not caring for this daughter of another king, but remembering a small fact that might hamper that particular plan.
“Father, King Erik’s daughter is Ingrid, yes? Is she not the one who prefers… the company of women?”
King Ingmar frowned curiously at his son. “So? This is talk of an alliance, not of what people get up to in the night,” he said, and took a sip of his beer before adding: “However disgusting it might be.”
Ansgar twitched, but their father did not seem to notice it. Hjalmar supressed a grin, and continued pretending as usual to be interested in what his father had to say.
“Then again, maybe you should be married to a girl from home soil,” King Ingmar said. “Lord Lodwig has a daughter your age. He is second only to us in military strength. Such an alliance would quash any potential uprising from his house, and might aid us should House Björnssen and those in Skjælvarden decide to march against us in the future.”
Hjalmar muttered his agreement through a mouthful of bacon, though the truth was, he did not care. Not for Lord Lodwig’s daughters, nor anyone else’s, save one. He was already in love.
And he was planning to run away that very night.
Prince Hjalmar was the eldest child of King Ingmar, head of House Stenvarg. They had been the ruling power of the kingdom of Krova for three-hundred-and-fifty years. Krova was a small kingdom situated in the west of the northern continent, Ulvaeus. Though Hjalmar was his father’s heir, the apple had fallen very far from the tree. King Ingmar, like his father before him, was a staunch, cold man who prioritised royal succession and the keeping of peace before individual needs and desires. Hjalmar was on the opposite side of the spectrum, and always had been; he spent his youth partying and drinking in local taverns, and was a talented chess player. He enjoyed poetry and music, and was very adept at the lute, which he used to charm women into his bed.
That all changed the night he met his love, who he was planning to elope with.
Further thoughts were ruined by his brother piping up.
“Father, when will I get a bride?”
The king looked at his younger son with clear annoyance. “Ansgar, you must be patient. We must arrange for the future of this kingdom before a second son. Your turn will come.”
Ansgar looked down at the rest of his breakfast, dejected. Feeling a stab of pity for him, Hjalmar wanted to say that he would gladly give whatever bride his father arranged for him to Ansgar. However, he knew that would not go down well with the king. Still, if his plan went successfully, Ingmar would tomorrow be searching for a bride for the new heir.
“I do not know why you are so desperate for a bride,” said Cicila to her brother. At sixteen, the princess was already known for her big mouth and tendency to say whatever was one her mind. Like the rest of her siblings, she sported light blonde curly hair, and was dressed in the traditional colours of House Stenvarg, pink and orange. “You are a prince. You can go out into the city and have any woman you want.”
Ansgar laughed nervously and shrugged it off, and Hjalmar was certain it was not women that interested his brother, whatever façade the prince presented to their father.
“I will not have my children seeking the attention of peasant harlots,” snapped King Ingmar.
“Good, I have no desires to lie with a woman,” said his sister, barely concealing a grin.
“Be quiet and finish your breakfast, Cicila,” said the king sternly.
Cicila exchanged a look with Hjalmar, and mischief flashed in her eyes. Hjalmar looked down at his food and forced the smirk to stay in his throat. He wolfed down more bacon, and took a swig of coffee. His sister’s antics would perhaps be the only thing he would miss from the otherwise drab breakfasts he shared with his family.
After their meal was finished, Hjalmar made to excuse himself.
“What are you doing today, son?” asked the queen, who had remained mostly silent throughout the morning routine.
“I am going for a walk in the grounds this morning,” said Hjalmar, trying to sound as casual as possible. “Perhaps I might shoot some arrows later.”
The king snorted. “A coward’s weapon. You would be better to start practicing swordplay. A real man settles his fight in close quarters.”
Hjalmar considered saying something biting in return, perhaps about his father’s weight or that he had not been in a fight for over a decade, but he thought better of it. Besides, Cicila had already irritated him enough this morning; to push him further was unwise.
Instead, he nodded his head in false agreement, said his farewells, and left for the courtyard.
The winds were biting cold, but Hjalmar was used to it. Winters were very harsh in Krova, and the summers were hardly worthy of their name. Often times, in the dead of the cold season, the snow would reach up to five feet. Men and women worked relentlessly around the city to clear paths, and he could only imagine the hardships the countryfolk had to suffer through. When he eloped, he resolved that he would not settle on this continent. He had other areas of Arlanon in mind.
Hjalmar had, many years ago, visited the Jade Isles, far away in the south, and was taken aback at the blistering heat. Such a locale would be a marvellous place to spend the rest of his days, but he would probably have to acclimatise himself slowly.
Pulling his bearskin cloak tighter, he strode out into the snow and bade hello to every guard he walked past.
“Ah, good morning, my prince,” said a familiar voice.
Hjalmar looked behind him, and saw Minister Magnus Nylund, the king’s chief political strategist and confidant. Magnus had served House Stenvarg loyally for twenty years, and Hjalmar and his siblings saw him more as a member of the family than as a servant of their father. He was a tall man with short dark brown hair and a thin beard that would never match the king’s. Today he was wearing a sky-blue robe that fell to his immaculate leather shoes.
“Good morning, Uncle Magnus,” said Hjalmar. “How are you today?”
“I feel better than you look,” smiled Magnus. “I take it your father has been discussing marriage at the breakfast table again?”
“When does he not?” replied Hjalmar with a sigh.
“Indeed,” agreed Magnus. “Still, the royal line must continue. And you might find marriage to your liking.”
“With the right girl, perhaps,” replied Hjalmar, knowing she was only a thousand or so metres away.
The minister gave him a curious look, wondering what the prince meant by that. “Yes… quite. Anyway, I have affairs to attend to. Good day, my prince.”
“Good day, Uncle,” said Hjalmar, and continued on his way.
He walked for ten minutes through the palace grounds, making sure to take it slowly, so as not to appear like he was rushing anywhere. Every guard and groundskeeper he passed nodded in his direction, which he returned. Other than them, the palace grounds appeared empty. He imagined everyone else was inside, trying to get warm.
Near the outer palace walls that separated the home of House Stenvarg from the capital city, Snöstad, was a thicket of bushes. Hjalmar glanced around, to ensure he was not being watched, before ducking into the undergrowth. He batted aside the branches and shook snow and leaves out of his hair.
In the centre of the thicket was a small enclosure, enough to crouch down in.
Sitting that was Lina.
She was twenty-three years old, and the most beautiful woman in all of Arlanon to Hjalmar. Her full name was Annalina Fransson, though she preferred Lina. Her blonde hair was straight and fell past her shoulders. She wore black, as was befitting her employment. Her blues eyes reminded Hjalmar of the southern oceans.
They had met six months ago, when Hjalmar was drunk in a tavern. He was used to getting the attention of many women in the kingdom, but Lina had seemed unimpressed with him at first. She only warmed to him once he started sending flowers to her guild, and they began meeting in secret. However, they both knew that if King Ingmar found out about their relationship, it would immediately come to an end.
Lina was not of noble blood, nor did she work for any rich family. She was an assassin, of the Rödklor guild, which was often utilised by politicians, nobles and the greedy. As the niece of the Rödklor chief, she was in good standing with the guild, and often made a pretty penny. Lina was not a cold-blooded killer, however. To her, it was just a job, and she made sure to only take jobs where the mark was someone that had committed illegal activity. Hjalmar respected that, but another side of him did not care, for he knew Lina did not want to be an assassin forever.
“Hej, my love,” she said softly as he bent down and kissed her.
“Good morning,” replied Hjalmar, sitting in the snow. “Have you said your goodbyes?”
“Not yet. I still have the afternoon. How was breakfast?”
“It was the last one, thank Ozma. Nothing special, though my father once more treated me to a string of brides he had in mind.” He pursed his lips. “We still intend to do this, yes?”
“Of course, my love,” said Lina, smiling warmly. “The guild is just the guild. We can build a new life somewhere else.”
“I think I would have hated to have been king,” yawned Hjalmar. “All that responsibility. Where shall we meet tonight?”
“The King Absalon statue on the south side?” suggested Lina. “That should be quite out of the way, I don’t think we’ll be seen. Then we can talk the Vargarnaroad, and be well away before anyone notices you’re gone.”
“Sounds perfect.” Hjalmar paused, and studied Lina for several moments, before speaking again. “Are you absolutely sure you want to do this, Lina?”
“More than anything,” she said immediately, slightly annoyed that he had brought that question up. However, there was a tone to her voice that betrayed the hint of remorse. Lina had family and friends here; a cousin she was quite fond of, and close companions in the guild. Hjalmar knew Lina would find it hard to give them up, but she insisted she wanted only Hjalmar.
She is leaving them behind, as I my family, he thought. It’s a hard thing to do. “Once we’re gone, we’re gone,” he said. “We would never be able to return to Snöstad. I fear my father would either execute you, or erase me from the bloodlines. He might even send sellswords after us.”
“Luckily I’ve dealt with my fair share of fights,” laughed Lina. “And you’re a prince. You should’ve had the finest arms training money can buy. I reckon we’ll be fine.”
“I hope so,” said Hjalmar, who had never taken his arms training seriously. “Now, come here,” he continued, and drew Lina into an embrace.
They sat cuddled in the snow for ten minutes, enjoying the warmth of their bodies. Their lips brushing against each other blocked out the sounds around them.
Including the sound of a servant girl who had overheard them, before quickly fleeing out of the thicket.