Chapter 2: Forest and Magic (In Which Nothing Happens But Character Exposition)

That night, Prince Romm did something he did often. Half an hour after nightfall, until everyone assumed him to be sleeping, he slipped quietly through his bedroom window and out of the castle. He had a rear window overlooking the Royal Forest, and had discovered long ago which stones in the castle wall were safe for climbing up and down. Once outside, wearing his dressing gown in the cool night, he ran towards the forest with as much speed as he could muster. The forest wasn’t very large or very wild. Kings had kept it for hunting in, and it was stocked with game, but nothing really dangerous lived in there, and it was small enough that walking in any direction for a couple of hours would get you out. But to a city prince, at night, that wood seemed the perfect seclusive getaway.

Romm reached the edge of the wood and slowed down, more comfortable here. After looking around habitually to make sure he wasn’t seen, he walked a bit farther into the trees, carrying nothing but a pouched belt. The moon was nearly new again, but stars shone on the boy. He found a branch lying on the ground, and lit it with a little burst of flame from his hand.

The fact that Romm could do magic was a secret the 17-year-old was extremely proud of having kept. He knew the Magnolium Order had ways of detecting such things, but he had managed to avoid them, always. Well, not when he was four. By ritual, all children were checked for latent magical ability at the age of four. If such ability were found, the child would be taken away to join the Order, regardless of the child or parents’ wishes. Even the princes had been subjected to the test, but for some reason it hadn’t caught him. Romm accidentally set a low branch on fire, but stifled the flames with a wave of his hand.

This place had nurtured Romm’s power. He came here first when he was 9, when his powers started growing to the point that there was a risk of detection. The magic really started when he was 7 or 8. Little things would happen when he wanted them to, like a cold dinner becoming hot again, books falling open to exactly the right page, super bursts of speed when he wanted to get away from someone he didn’t want to talk to. That was the sort of thing. Then one day, when he was crawling around a dark room and couldn’t find the door to get out, his whole arm had started to glow bright with light. He had started to realize it was magic before that, but that was the moment, he remembered, that he realized he would have to take charge of the situation. It had been a mature thing to do at the age of 10, he thought to himself, as he wandered aimlessly in the dark wood. His arm had glowed, and after a few days of hiding it in a winter coat, he had decided to take charge of the situation.

It was the crawling that brought it on, Romm remembered suddenly. The glowing, it had started when Romm was crawling around. He had forgotten, or at least not thought of that fact for 7 years. And it occurred to him that, as he had always, always hated crawling, he must have been feeling very distressed at the time. It was a very vague memory, but he must have been, and that was why the magic manifested itself then. It was an unusual aversion, he knew, but he hated crawling. It was babyish and uncomfortable. And now that he thought about it, it was also what he was doing that night, when he was 7, when he saw…

He didn’t want to think about that. His father had been insensitive, as usual, to bring up such a topic today, and he had given it more than enough thought already. So he distracted himself by thinking about the forest again. He had eventually decided that, in order to stop the glowing, he would have to master his own magic. And to do that, he went to the forest. He didn’t even consider asking a member of the Magnolium Order for help, no matter how many times Cardinal Alabaster had tried to befriend him, to offer aid and comfort any way he could. He never, ever liked that man, he thought — forgetting how he felt on the matter 10 years ago — there was always something suspicious about how he kept trying to get into the future king’s confidences. No, Romm had no confidences to share in the castle, nobody to share this secret with, except the forest.

After trying everything he could think of, he had managed to get the glow out of his arm and into a rock. Eventually, through much experimentation, Romm learned how to make other things glow, too, and more importantly, how to make them stop glowing. Of course, the forest was his testbed. It was private, and nobody ever came here except his father and his father’s friends, and they had eyes only for their quarries. The forest would keep his secrets: the charred tree trunks from fire spells gone awry, branches struck down by lightning on clear nights, leaves that whistled children’s songs when wind blew by; all were hidden here.

And over the years, the forest became more than a place to practice magic, it became Romm’s sanctuary. There were times he felt more at home amongst the branches, bushes, nocturnal animals and darkness, than with his father and the courtiers of the palace. The forest had been his practice partner for his magical experiments, his sole confident for his darkest secrets. It had comforted him on those nights when he had terrible nightmares, of screaming disembodied heads and his father as a muderous monster. It had comforted him when his mother died.

It had advised him when his father proposed matches between Prince Romm and the daughters of various noblemen, or foreign princesses. Romm talked it out with the silent trees, and always came to a conclusion. He rejected each of them, for one reason or another. Many of them, he rejected from only his father’s description, never actually coming to call and see what they looked like. And the few girls he did decide to court, he quickly abandoned; again, each for her own reason. He was holding out for the perfect woman, he told the trees. The closest thing he had found so far was a foreign princess from Mina, the small kingdom to the southeast. She was beautiful and clever, and most importantly, didn’t hang on the Order’s every word like so many others. King Thobis had disliked her once he met her himself, and tried to dissuade Romm from the match, but the young man’s heart was hers. At least it was until the whole thing had to be scrapped for political reasons, and he never saw her again. He had needed comforting then, too, and the whispering winds through the bushes had, he imagined, reminded him that there was surely someone he would content himself with. If only his father would stop meddling!

His father. What did he know? Romm’s feet started walking more quickly as he thought about his father. They had always had a contentious relationship, as long as Romm could remember, and it had gotten much worse after the Queen died. Their differences were as both political and personal, and no matter what the king had done to try and repair the relationship, Romm had had none of it. Besides being a general fool, nuisance, and busybody, his father was also firmly in the pocket of the Magnolium Order, he thought bitterly. It would be impolitic to say so, but Romm hated the Order as much as he hated his father, if not more so. Were it not for them, Romm wouldn’t have to hide his magic like a dirty secret. And Romm knew deep down that he couldn’t keep it secret forever, not once he finally did get married and have a baby. The baby would be tested for magic, and since he was a wizard, his son also would be, and he couldn’t count on the Order missing it a second time. Perhaps this had something to do with why he was so reluctant to get married, too, but Romm doubted it somehow. That was all his father’s fault.

Romm sighed, and stopped walking. His feet had carried him to a familiar clearing. Formed by a mistaken fireball Romm had once cast, he remembered the spot ever after that day, and used it for practicing his more dangerous magic. He smiled. That was three years ago, and now this place was like a second bedroom to him. Why, he could fall asleep right here…!

He yawned. By habit, he felt around in a pouch of his belt and took out a shiny, golden disc, with arcane markings on both sides and a diamond in the center. He had kept the coin-like disc, like a charm, on his person at literally all times since that night 10 years ago. It was the other secret, besides his magic, that the forest kept for him. This dark place and his bedroom were the only places where he would ever take it out. He knew where it came from, but not what it was. He had been secretly hoping his father would mention it in that story, about the day he hated to think about. No such luck. And his father knew him this well, at least: He hated history. Most of it was probably not even true. This story might have been, or it might not, but it made next to no difference either way. All he knew was that the girl was dead, and The Coin, which was the simple name he had given it, was his now.

If the story was true, possibly it was some weapon she had intended to use against the king. But Romm doubted it was a weapon. Over the years, here in this forest, Romm had tried every trick he knew to “activate” The Coin, if indeed it was the sort of thing that activated. He had no idea. It was obviously magical, it obviously did something, but… what?

The fire on the branch went out. Romm laid down on the ground and held The Coin above his face, looking at the diamond glint in the starlight. What did it do? Might the story provide some clue? Tired, he allowed his arms to sink, placed The Coin on his forehead, and shut his eyes. Something about the curse, maybe, or did it have to do with ancient Amicen? He thought about the matter for five minutes more before drifting off to sleep, the magic Coin still on his face.

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