The guards at the royal palace complex were well-trained – more so than in any other place in the kingdom, and likely more so than anywhere else in the entire continent. They were selected out of all of the kingdom’s troops for their skill, awareness, reflexes and all of the other traits that make the best guards.
Even so, on this night, they didn’t notice the figure that slipped past, into the underground vaults – and that figure didn’t need to turn around and look to make sure of that. From the perspective of someone who has been through a long enough period of training in the arts of stealth, among other things, it’s easy to tell when it’s just not up for question – and when the time it would take to turn and check could later mean the difference between making it out and getting caught.
These were the hidden chambers, deep within the palace, that held the kingdom’s most important treasures. Very few knew about these parts – even though most knew they existed, only a handful, other than the High Sorcerers, knew even generally where they were located within the vast palace complex.
The deep, solid tunnels could carry sound quite a ways. At that moment, had there been anyone else this deep in the tunnel, they might have heard the figure, whose footsteps were lighter than air, pause and take a deep breath that echoed louder than those footsteps, stopping as it did in front of a door.
“Nervous” didn’t even begin to cover it. The Sword of Orowyn, which lay within, was among the greatest of the kingdom’s treasures. To steal it…
It doesn’t matter. A hand extended, holding a piece of metal that glowed softly as it formed itself into the shape of the key to the chamber’s door. What must be done … if I must wound the kingdom in order to protect it… so be it.
The door opened, and the figure slipped inside.
The bath was still warm as Julien woke up. He noticed that before he noticed the tile of the ceiling, and the columns around him, or the smell of something soothing in the air, and all of those things before he noticed the sensation of something soft floating in the bath, brushing against his arms and chest at the level of the water. He moved his head to the side. The soft things moved along with it. Long… brushing against his shoulders, too.
He blinked as he realized… it couldn’t be – it was his hair.
He sat up with a start – and that’s when his mind got around to processing what his senses were telling him. He was in a bath, but it wasn’t the bath he’d gotten into back at the hotel. This room was wide, spacious, every move he made causing an echo throughout the chamber. The walls, floor, and everything were covered with beautiful, glistening tiles – gold, as well as plenty of colors, like jewels. The scent he had noticed before, that he only now realized was incense, wafted through the space. He could see the burners that the incense came from.
It wasn’t until then that he realized there was someone else there – he heard chanting. Julien saw him about as soon as he heard him, a young man with long white hair, wearing a robe that seemed heavy for somewhere this warm. He stood in the center of several incense burners on stands, chanting something.
“H-hey-“ Julien started, then stopped as he heard his voice echo throughout the chamber. He ducked back down into the bath, as if trying to take the sound back – of course, it didn’t work like that.
The chanting boy paused in his words. He took a deep breath before opening his eyes. When he saw Julien, he looked… relieved? He stood up suddenly, and Julien flinched. He slowed, but continued to approach.
“Easy,” he said. “I do not mean to hurt you.”
Trust him? Julien breathed in. Then again, what choice did he have, really?
“Where am I?” Julien asked. He tried to sound firm, but he could hear his voice waver, and it wasn’t just the echo. Even in the warmth of the bath, he shook a little.
“This is Iteion, in northern Thyreia. Just east of Marysos.” He seemed to notice Julien’s confused look. “Right… that would mean nothing to you.” He dropped the robe off of his shoulders as he approached. Underneath it, he was as sweaty as to be expected. He wore nothing but several necklaces and some sort of loincloth. Julien wondered if he should look away, but then again… this was a bath, after all. The other boy sat down on the ledge of the large bathing pool, a few feet away, giving Julien some space.
“I apologize,” he started, “for dragging you away from your world and bringing you here, but… out world is in dire need.”
Julien blinked. The other young man continued, but Julien was still on “world”.
“Wait… ” he asked. This was too fast. “First of all, where – where am I?” he asked. “This is still the hotel, right?”
He remembered now that he was waking up – he had been alone in his hotel room, taking a bath just after checking in. He had arrived earlier that day to an event, and he planned to meet some friends there. “I have to go, they’ll be-“
“I have had notification sent to your friends,” he said. “Do not worry, they will not be disturbed by your absence.”
“Notifi- how?” Julien asked. “What’s going on? What is this?”
“It is as I said,” the other young man said. His white hair was long enough to touch the water behind where he sat – a good foot past his waist. Julien remembered his own suddenly lengthened honey brown hair. Was his also –
Wait. More pressing matters.
“What exactly do you mean by… world?” Julien asked.
“I have no doubt you are familiar with the concept,” he said “I had deduced that the gathering you were attending was with the intention of speculating about such happenings-“
“You’re trying to tell me…” Julien couldn’t believe it. “No. That’s just in fiction-“
“As far as the people of your world are concerned,” he said. “But on rare occasions, dwellers of more… magically-enhanced worlds, shall we say, will find inclination to bridge the divide and-“
“Magically…?” Julien asked. “That chanting you were doing…”
“Yes,” the other young man said. “It was part of the spell to bring you here.”
“Spell,” Julien said, nodding incredulously, speechless. After months of begging from his few online friends, he had agreed to meet them at a fantasy convention, but he didn’t think it would involve anyone trying to use the words “other worlds” and “spells” as if they were completely serious.
He shook his head and blinked. “Send me back,” he said. “Or something. Whatever it is you do…” His attempts to sound firm weren’t working. Part of him was still convinced that this was all some sort of prank, that they were in some part of the hotel set up for role-playing or something. But looking around… not even the most meticulous Hollywood set builders could make a room that looked this authentically… distant. It wasn’t just the size, or the look of the tiles, the smell of the incense – he knew as well as anyone else that he didn’t know enough to tell the difference between “real” incense, whatever that meant, and the cheap stuff from some store in a mall, but it was more than that. There was something he could feel that he knew couldn’t be part of a set in a modern hotel that had air conditioning and things like that.
And that was before he noticed the letters dancing across the walls. They were in some writing system he didn’t recognize… except, he did. He could read them. They were a spell, crafted by this other young man – whose name was Evindr, according to the spell – with directions of some sort – through space, and time, and everything else, dimensions far past that. Invocations to spirits and energies and all sorts of things – recipes for mixing the scents of the incense, and herbs and flowers, with the water from the bath, with the echoes and tones of the sorcerer’s voice as he chanted, sending this fusion into the streams of energy in the world, and asking them in return for a result.
Julien didn’t need to finish reading it – he knew he was that result. And the letters themselves – they weren’t projected on the walls, nor were they LED lights hidden in the walls themselves, under the tile. They weren’t created by the technologies of his world – they were real magic.
He breathed in. The young man – the sorcerer, Evindr – didn’t reply. That was all the answer Julien needed.
“I am… sorry,” he told Julien. His voice wavered. He seemed like he meant it. “My kingdom needs you,” he said.
“For what, exactly?” Julien said. He knew his voice sounded weak. He couldn’t bring himself to worry about that anymore. He remembered another point. “And – why is my hair like this…?”
Evindr smiled a bit as he answered. “It is the custom, here,” he said. “You would not make a very convincing prince with hair as short as you had it,”
“I – wait… prince?”
“Yes,” Evindr said. “Our prince is missing, and he is to come of age within three months. I needed to find a stand-in. You shall play that role, Julien,” he said. Julien wasn’t surprised that Evindr knew his name. The rest of it, though…
He opened his mouth, but he had no idea what to say.
What in the world have I –
No, he realized. Not in “the world”. In “a world” – not his own.
Evindr gave him silence to let it sink in.
The scent of the incense, the feeling of the water, and of his long hair… a minute or so passed in silence, just the sound of the water echoing off of the tiles, and the feeling of the steam in the air.
“If…” Julien started. He couldn’t believe he was saying this. “If I go along with this…” Julien said.
“Then when the true prince returns,” Evindr responded, “you may return to your world.”
Julien nodded. There was likely no way to return without Evindr’s help, and he knew he couldn’t make it in a strange world he’d never even heard of before on his own.
Evindr helped him out of the bath – as he expected, he was a bit wobbly on his feet. Such a journey could do that to you – he understood that even as he still struggled to wrap his head around everything. A large part of him still expected this to be a dream, even as all of his senses told him it was real.
He wavered a bit and began to fall – Evindr caught him. With his hand on Evindr’s shoulder, Julien could tell that that Evindr wasn’t all that steady either – summoning a visitor from another world must take about as much out of a person as the journey does.
Before they left the bath, Evindr put his robe back on, and gave Julien a similar one. Julien took it, grateful, surprised that it hadn’t even occurred to him that he wasn’t wearing anything. He saw Evindr gracefully pull his long hair out from the inside of his robe. Julien considered, but didn’t even attempt it – he would just embarrass himself.
Did he really need to have hair that long for this?
Evindr led him into an adjoining room. “You must be dressed to look the part of a prince,” he told Julien.
The room was moderately sized, and it seemed to be a makeshift dressing room. It was fairly well lit through a high window. From the light, it seemed like it was only shortly after sunrise – the bath might have had a window, too, but there wouldn’t have been any light at that time from outside, just from Evindr’s candles.
In this light, Julien could see a lot better than before. He looked at the clothes laid out in front of him, on a table. He wouldn’t know the first thing about how to put them on. He looked up, about to say so to Evindr, but Evindr had anticipated that.
“I will help you dress,” Evindr said. “There are servants who usually would, but no one can know, other than you and I, that you are not the real prince.”
“R-right…” Julien said. That was the reason for this pit in his stomach. “So… how exactly am I supposed to fill in for this prince?”
Evindr picked up a light piece of fabric, and came towards Julien, gesturing for him to take off the robe. “I will help you, do not worry.” He said. “You will not be in danger.”
“Impersonating a prince,” Julien said, “That sounds pretty dangerous to me,”
He brought Julien a light robe, an inner layer. “The prince has not been seen since he was a small child,” Evindr said. “He was raised away from the palace, for his protection.” He brought a second layer to Julien, an emerald green this time, and helped him put it on. Standing behind Julien, he continued. “The previous king and queen, the prince’s parents, were killed in an incident shortly after the prince was born. The assassins were killed in the struggle, so the issue of whether or not they had other collaborators remains unknown.”
He was tying something – Julien couldn’t see what – on the back of Julien’s robe. Feeling Evindr speaking, standing so close behind him, he was reminded again of his long hair. He tensed.
“In order to protect him, in case it turned out to be true, several of the High Sorcerers came up with a plan to hide him in an undisclosed location until he comes of age.”
“So that’s now?” Julien asked. Evindr stepped around and past him, going to get the next piece of Julien’s outfit.
“His twenty-first birthday is on the fourteenth day of the fifth month,” Evindr said.
“That’s… the same as – wait-“
“It is,” Evindr said. “Our months are the same as yours. It so happened that your birthday is the same as his.”
“Really?” Julien asked. Evindr lifted the new piece and gestured for Julien to lean forward so that he could put it over his head. Julien noticed then that they were about the same height – Julien may have been taller, but only the slightest bit.
“Yes,” Evindr said. “We were lucky to find such an excellent double for the prince when we found you.” He was straightening out the front part of the garment he had pulled over Julien’s head, adjusting some of the decorations. “Not only do you look incredibly close to him, you also have the same birthday.”
“If he’s been gone this whole time, how do you know what he looks like?”
Evindr crossed to get another piece of the outfit. “I was given a portrait by the two High Sorcerers who made this plan, and told to find a stand-in who matched the portrait most closely.” He pulled a belt around Julien’s waist, over the previous part. Julien started to notice how odd the outfit felt. He had never felt fabric like this before – it was softer and silkier than the clothes he knew, but something else, too, another difference that he couldn’t pinpoint. And there were so many layers, all with such intricate embroidery. Julien watched as Evindr fastened the belt with an ornate, jeweled metal clasp, letting the ends of the long piece extend down his front. There were golden decorations and jewels, as well as tassels, at the ends, and the length of the belt was decoratively embroidered.
“So,” Julien asked, trying not to focus on all of that, “If the king and queen died, and the prince has been in hiding, then…”
Evindr stepped back to look at Julien’s outfit on him. “There has been a regent,” he said. “The prince’s uncle, the queen’s brother. He passed away three years ago, and his daughter took over his role as regent at that time.”
“And is she…” he tensed. He’d obviously heard this one before.
“Do not worry,” Evindr said. “Neither she nor her late father would wish to harm the prince.” He turned around and unrolled a piece of fabric that had things pinned inside of it – Julien couldn’t see what from where he stood. “They understand how much doing so would threaten the stability of the realm,” he said. As he did so, he picked things – brooches? – and held them up to see how they would look on Julian.
“Magical kingdoms must be really different from real-world ones, then,” Julien said.
Evindr grimaced. “Firstly, this land is as real as your own – do not refer to it as if it is just a figment of imagination. I presume you feel the weight of those clothes. You know they – and this building, this land, and everything – are not something you can just wish away. Magic does not allow for just anything.”
He seemed to decide on a piece, and brought it over to Julien. “Secondly, it is true that there are benefits of magic, and you are right that this is one of them.” He stood behind Julien and ran his fingers through a bit of Julien’s hair. Julien tensed at his touch. That was a little close. Evindr held a piece of hair for a few seconds, and Julien noticed that it… moved. Evindr was braiding part of his hair?
“Relax,” Evindr said. Julien nodded, but he didn’t relax. Evindr finished the slim braid and proceeded to make another one on the opposite side. He then clipped the pieces of jewelry in his hands to Julien’s hair, on either side of his head, just above his ears.
“As I was saying,” he continued, “Magic use requires a calm mind, and since a world with magic requires leaders to be familiar with those arts, kings in our world have long been disinclined to start wars. That does not mean that conflict has been entirely eliminated – as long as there are human beings, there will always be conflict – but it does mean that our royal courts are not quite so full of dagger-wielding traitors as those in your world.” He attached something, like a chain, to the clips on either side, and then he attached the ends of both braids to a piece in the middle of the chain.
There was silence for a moment. “Are you… finished?” Julien asked.
“Almost,” Evindr said. He stepped to Julien’s front, and raised his hand to about the level of Julien’s cheek. Julien flinched a bit at his touch, as Evindr pushed his hair back. He heard Evindr breathe out. “You do not have your ears pierced,” Evindr said. He turned and went back to the table. “Your world’s standards are rather inconvenient.”
“Wait, you’re not going to – “
“We must,” Evindr said. “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to, but it would be far too peculiar to leave them like that.” He turned. Julien shrank back. Evindr had a needle in his hand.
“Wait, you can’t -“ Julien said. “Is it… Is it sanitary – I mean -“
“Despite how it may appear to you, the medical field of my world understands everything your world does about germs and infection, and all other things, plus more,” Evindr said. He held out the needle as he sent a light flickering over the length of it – a sanitizing spell. “It is quite the inverse, actually – your doctors are still puzzled by the causes of a great many conditions that ours have figured out.”
“You… have?” Julien asked.
Evindr grinned slightly. “Not me, precisely,” he said. “I am not a doctor. Now sit,” he said, gesturing to a chair behind Julien. Julien took a deep breath and did as he was told. Evindr stepped beside him and pushed his hair back.
“W-wait -“ Julien said. “Aren’t you going to give me a numbing spell, or something?”
“I would,” Evindr said, “But with my energy exhausted as it is, I cannot. But it won’t hurt.”
Surprisingly, it actually didn’t hurt.
When he was done, he gave Julien earrings – gold hoops about an inch long. “They are short, for a prince, but it’s best not to give you something too heavy,” Evindr said.
He went to what looked like a cabinet, and pulled the door open. No – behind the door wasn’t a cabinet, but a mirror. He beckoned for Julien to come look at himself.
Julien did – and gasped.
He didn’t recognize himself.
The beautiful silky pieces, in shades of blue and green with intricate gold beading and embroidery, made him look like a different person. His honey brown hair that he had always kept short, no more than a few inches, was now down past his waist, which he had noticed before, but seeing it in the mirror, up close, was something else entirely.
He took good care of his body, his skin, and things like that, but he had never really tried to be beautiful. He had never even imagined himself wearing something like this… but even he couldn’t deny what he was seeing in front of him.
This worked. This fit together – this hair length made his face look better than it ever had, these clothes brought out the green in his eyes the way the muted shirts he usually wore never could. The robes were open a bit in the front, exposing more of his chest than he would usually have, but it looked good.
His hair color looked magnificent with this much gold and jewels – mostly emeralds, he noticed – which brought out glowing tones he’d never realized he had – and he knew Evindr hadn’t dyed it. And he stood taller in this – he noticed his posture had improved, as if he had been intimidated into showing respect for these clothes by standing better. He felt his breath go in and out, every sensation familiar, yet completely new.
Evindr didn’t speak. Julien looked to him for some comment. After a moment, he said, “What do you think?”
Such a simple question, yet… Julien stammered, opening his mouth and trying to say something, but… what? What words were there? Evindr smiled.
“I suppose that means you like it,” he said. Nothing came out when Julien tried to respond, but Evindr seemed to understand.