With my knees tucked up so I can hug them, I sit on the cliff and gaze out to sea. It’s so calm today. So calm I wonder if I can swim home. I’m not supposed to be here, but the bullying has become unbearable so I slipped out of the Order of the Sea. The volcano in my chest wants to blow and beat them all to a pulp. What I want to do is blow the whole Order of the Sea off this damn bloody awful rock. The gentle sound of the sea does nothing to relax me.
Gorse squeals and flies off my shoulder, probably in search of food. The diet the brethren give us doesn’t satisfy his needs, and he’s learning to hunt or mice and rats. I’m always hungry and wish I could do the same.
“Hey, Angus.” Rei, the father-abbot’s daughter, stands over me. She smiles and plays with her hair. “Can I join you?”
“Sure.” It’s not like I can say no to his daughter. Although, I’m pretty sure she’s flirting with me. I’m not sure. I’ve told her I have a girlfriend and I’ve had the same girlfriend since I was about four, but she still won’t leave me alone.
She sits down next to me and coughs. “How are you, Angus?”
“I’d be better if I was back home in the palace in my real life. But I’m alive and that’s a start – right?”
And she responds with a simpering laugh. Why me? Universal Father? Please. She has plenty of other boys to choose from and I’m the only one who isn’t interested. It’s not that she isn’t beautiful, but I’m terrified of Beatrice’s reaction if she ever finds out. And she will find out because Beatrice finds out everything.
“How are you?”
“I am well.”
An awkward silence ensues. I wish she’d leave me alone. I’d wanted time to think but with her here all I can think is how to get rid of her. A dot in the distance. A lot of dots. I stand up and shield my eyes from the sun.
“Rei...” I point. “What’s that?”
Remaining on the ground, she shrugs.
“Boats. Lots of them….” I shout. “Rei, go tell the brethren. We don’t know if they’re going to attack.”
She simpers and stands up. She is so not my type. Not only would I not need to tell Beatrice what to do, she’d be ordering me around. “Go!” To emphasise it I point down the paths.
And thank the Universal Father for that, she obeys me and runs back towards the huge stone walls of The Order. I go down the path. I’m not sure why. Part of me hopes to be able to steal a boat and go home, part of me would like to be a hero and save the day and part of me, the bigger part of me, thinks these people need my help. They’re too small to be warships like the one that fired on me or took Soc and Nate. I sneak down the path to the pebble beach and hide behind a big rock.
The first boat arrives, and a man leaps off into the shallow water. He looks around. “We’re here. Get them off.”
When I see them unloading stretchers and helping sick people down off the boat, I dash to help. I strip off my robe, kick off my boots and run in in just my shorts. It feels great to be bare footed again. The temperature of the water barely registers as freezing as I focus on them.
“Hey, not Prince Angus.”
A second boat, a smaller fishing boat in bad shape arrives and my little blackmailer from Seatown stands on the prow. He’s got his leg up on the rail and is looking out with his hand shielding his eyes. “Hey.” He waves a like a loon. “Come help with my gran.” I stand beneath the boat. They winch down a stretcher and I take one end. Another lad about my age takes the other.
A lady, extreme in old age, lies on the stretcher. Her front is covered with green, foul smelling phlegm. It recalls the alley with Ursula. “What’s wrong with her?”
The man says, “No idea. Many are sick. We escaped the island. Are you really Prince Angus?”
I ignore him and we wade through the water in silence. Others getting off the boat have coughing fits as they wade to the shore. That same hacking cough that Ursula had. I search the faces, but I don’t see her.
We lay her on the beach. I look up the cliffs and see a line of brethren on their way. “Yes. I’m Prince Angus.” It feels good to say it. To be myself and not Novice Angus, bottom of the heap.
“Oh by the Universal Father, please don’t bow. We’ve got work to do. What’s your name?”
“Matt. Matt Godwin.” His legs are trying not to bow. He smiles. “If you’re alive there is hope. Your Majesty, please.”
“Call me Angus. Stop calling me that. My dad’s alive. My brother’s alive.”
He shakes his head. “You don’t know? They’re both missing.”
“Missing doesn’t mean dead.” I turn away so he can’t see my misery. “Please, let’s get the sick to safety.”
There’s a screech and Gorse reappears. He’s checking the people that are wading to beach. One by one. Like me he he’s searching for Ursula.
Infirmier Kim and Shun arrive on the beach. Infirmier Kim kneels next to the woman. He takes a scarf from his pocket and ties it round his head. “We need to quarantine them, Shun. Get Angus up to the infirmary and showered. He can work with me until I say otherwise. Everyone else in masks and gloves. I don’t want any other novices or masters down here.”
“Infirmier? If I have been exposed could I not to continue to work here? There’s many more to come.” My voice drops and I look down at the pebbles beneath my feet. “They’re… well my father would if he was here. Treat me as their prince and not your novice.”
Shun takes a scarf from his pocket and goes behind me and ties it round my nose and mouth. “We will get gloves and a proper mask brought down for yourself and Infirmier.” He reaches down and pulls up his robe from the bottom, stripping it off. He kicks off his boot. “Come on.” He takes off over the beach.
A ball of paper hits the back of my neck. I ignore them. I continue to copy the nonsense from the blackboard. All round me pens scratch. Not modern roller-balls, oh no, the Order of the Sea provides us with quill and ink. Fortunately, my royal princely training involved writing with one. I rub my thumb and forefinger together as the ink dries on my skin.
Master Kim is teaching us about yang-qi a meditative practice which he claims we can use to tap into the planet’s energies and become adept at using something he calls moha. I’d call it magic or perhaps even, for the first time ever, use my grandfather’s term: mumbo jumbo. However, if I don’t work and pretend to understand it I’ll be denied lunch. The breakfast was woeful and I’m already starving.
“Novice Angus, are you paying attention?”
Oh here we go. Master Kim’s method of ensuring discipline seems to be to pick on the new boy and beat him if he doesn’t understand what everyone else has been taught since they were toddlers. Think it pisses him off his threats don’t scare me into submission like they do the other novices.
“Zhan.” he yells.
With little grace, I manage to stand. The tiny desk doesn’t make it easier.
I’m tempted to say woof but decide to get my revenge in other ways. “Hux.” I’ve even had to learn ancient Islander which bears no resemblance to the modern language that we speak on Covesea Island. “Chu. Za.”
His face betrays his disappointment. There’s other things I’d rather spend my time learning but my brain is good and it can keep pace with Novice Nitwit ad Novice Dick.
“Yang?” He smiles.
I taunt him and pretend to think. His unpleasant thoughts are increasing his equally unpleasant smile.
“Nengy. Liu. Luong.” It’s my turn to smile as I know I have the damn ridiculous chants right. “Gu Yuying Qiangdu.” As I say the words I feel the strength and power of the falcon and sea eagle that I called upon. White wings marked with black hover in front of my eyes. I shake myself. The whole thing is nonsense.
Master Kim looks even less pleased than usual. He’s glaring at me. It’s not like he can report me to Father-Abbot for actually learning my lessons. And he’s learned that standing next to me just makes him look like a little cherry-red haired pixie.
One of the other novice’s has farted. Not that I blame him on the seaweed, rice and vegetable diet we’re on. It’s ripe. Smells worse than fermenting kelp. I keep my composure and stand like a prince. It’s what my father would want me to do.
The gong goes.
He’s been saved. He knows it and I know it. It’s my first real moment of satisfaction since I arrived at the Order of the Sea. I throw my books back in my desk and join the others as we file past him. I bow. “Thank you, Master Kim, for the enlightenment.” Load of shite you taught us. I smile at him.
He returns the obeisance. “Thank you, for your dedication as my student.”
I suspect he means that even less than I meant my thank you. We walk down the cloisters. Novice Dick and Novice Nitwitt nudge me and tread on my heels. I refuse to react.
“Novices, if I catch you doing that again I’ll thrash you senseless and petition the Father-Abbot to sack you. Bullying a fellow brethren is disgusting. Bullying your king is treason,” Shun yells from the courtyard. They disappear and he catches up to me. “Hey, Novice Angus. How’s it going?”
I match his long strides. “I can take care of myself. And I’m not the king. Stop calling me king.”
Shun shrugs. “I know you can take care of yourself, but I can do it without being beaten, well I’m less likely to be beaten.” He walks with me to the dining hall. “Take care, Novice Angus. I’ll see you later at recess.”
Yet again he’s called me king and made no apology for it. I’m not a king. My father is still alive and so is my brother. They have to be. I find my place against the wall. Before the novice’s can eat they must serve the brethren. I sniff. Yep it’s seaweed, vegetables and rice again. Delicious but we have it for every meal.
Today, at the top table The Father-Abbot and Shun are joined by a young woman. I’m a teenager in an institution full of men – she could be a badly scarred sea cow and I’d find her beautiful. Her boot polish black hair is streaked with cherry-red and her eyes sparkle like a polished aquamarine, they remind me of Lady Aya and my girlfriend. She gazes right at me and smiles. Oh by the universal father she has the most amazing dimples. My world vanishes and I only want to stare at her.
Novice Nitwitt nudges me in the ribs. “Put your tongue back in king-boy. She’s the Holy Father’s daughter. You stand no chance.”
Over the last three months I’ve moved from the relative comfort of the infirmary to living as a full time member of the Order of the Sea. The bed keeping me prisoner is uncomfortable and the food is delicious but simple and inadequate in portion. This cage is less gilded than the palace, but hard as life is I think of Ursula, and I know I don’t have the ability to look after myself.
A gong echoes through the monastery. The brethren of The Order of the Sea chant. Stupid o’clock – I hate this. It’s still dark. No mortal should be woken before the sun has risen. I roll off my sleeping pallet. Gorse growls a little and crawls into the space I’ve vacated. He goes straight back to sleep.
“Right now I wish I was a wolf-squirrel and not a mortal.”
His only response is a snore.
In a daze, I pull on my white robe. It’s supposed to be floor length but only comes to my calves. My attempts to wash, using the bowl provided in the corner of my room, are frustrated by a layer of ice over the top of the water. Even whacking it with my boot doesn’t work. I hate wearing the boots but the stone floors are too cold to go barefoot. Outside the cell, I join the brethren on their orderly march to the courtyard.
My stomach rumbles but before breakfast there is prayers, religious study and exercise. Wind bites through my thin robe. I've not been warm since I left the infirmary. Permanent ice hangs in the air biting at every bit of my body but snow doesn’t fall. Icicles hang from the arches and the early embers of the rising sun make them sparkle.
My master informs me that the constant freezing of the young is to build their character. Whilst my classmates accept it without question, I’m concerned my heart will stop if the temperature drops much further. Their family wanted them to come here, and for them it’s a great honour. I don’t have a choice. I’ve swapped a gilded cage for a less comfortable option made of ice and stone. We troop into the courtyard and take our designated places in line.
Behind the white-robed novitiates is a sea of blue and green robed older brethren. Scholars, undergraduates, graduates, workers, academics they all have different shades of robe. Among the bright cherry-red heads and the black-boot-polish haired brethren, my ginger is dull. I’m half-a-foot taller than most of them. I’m dressed like them, they call me Novice Angus, but I stick out like a proverbial thumb.
Up on the tower in the corner of the courtyard, stands The Holy Father, Father-Abbot Alexander Brown Kazuto, and behind him is Prior Shun with his head bowed. They are both dressed in dark green velvet robes, trimmed with fur. Clearly they don’t need toughening up or their character improving.
The Holy Father drips with so much bling that even Robbie Albatross, lead singer of the Skuas, would consider it vulgar. His rings and bracelets jingle when he raises his arms to the heavens. “Brethren. We call upon the Universal Father to bring light and energy into our lives and chase away the darkness of the night.”
All around me the others raise their fists and they chant, “May he also be with you, The Holiest of Fathers.”
As they speak the white, sparkling energy streams make their way out of the ground and out through the crystalline dome that encrusts our planet. Every morning at dawn they leave the planet and at dusk orange streams return. They light up the sky like a firework display.
I don’t join in. Sometimes they ignore me and other times I’m beaten for my transgressions. About the only thing my grandfather taught me was how to endure a beating. I’m not sucking up to a god or a priest I don’t believe in.
“That may be the Universal Father’s servants of the sea and work in harmony with the other elements to balance him.” He jangles and raises his eyes to the skies.
They respond with, “May you also be in harmony with the Universal Father and with your brethren, The Holiest of Fathers.”
“As we work to increase his glory may the Universal Father pour his glory upon us.” His voice gets louder.
“May you be glorified, The Holiest of Fathers.” All of them raise their fists again.
“Go about your daily business my brethren with the Universal Father in your heart and a will to better our order.”
They punch the air and this response has a fervour about it, “May Our Holy Father and Our Universal Father be exalted by our actions and watch over us.” They lower themselves to the ground and bow their heads forward.
This I do otherwise I feel like a prick stood there on my own. I’m an expert at obeisance as I had to practice it daily in front of my grandfather. It makes me cry, quietly or I’ll be punished, as I remember Soc. Soc and Dad did this bow with such elegance and perfection that they made the rest of the court look like clowns.
The brethren spend the time in silent prayer. For them it’s a moment to recharge and reconnect with their god, but for myself it’s time to worry about my dad and brother. There are elements of this life that remind me of living with my grandfather, but there is no Soc and no dad to protect me from the worst of it.
A gong sounds and in unison we rise to our feet. I’m cold, sore and stiff but we are required to stand at attention until the holy father has left. He goes back inside and Prior Shun steps forwards. “Brethren dismissed.”
We file out and the cloisters become less orderly as everyone goes about their day.
A shove. A foot catches my ankle at the same moment. A laugh goes up from the other novices. I’m flat on my face – again. The bastards.
Prior Shun appears from nowhere and everyone melts away. He offers me a hand. “Are you all right?”
I’m grazed physically, mentally and emotionally. I respond with a nod.
“Do you know who did this? I will punish them if you wish?”
I shake my head. “It’ll make things worse. Strange how the holy father is never around when I’m being attacked but he shows up with the whip when I fight back. He’s a...” I shake my fist as I search for an adjective strong and vile enough to describe the abbot of the Order of the Sea.
Shun places his hand on my shoulder. “Angus, don’t talk about him. He can hear everything you say. Many of them come from families who were persecuted by your grandfather. They see this as revenge.”
I pull away from his touch and hug myself tight, glaring at him. “And who do you think bore some of his most vicious acts of cruelty? Dad, Soc and me. That’s who.” I’m close to tears and I don’t want him to see that, so I turn away. “We couldn’t hide or escape.”
“I understand. Believe me I understand how difficult it is to be the son of the man in charge. There’s nobody to complain to and nowhere to go. The Holy Father expects more from me than any of the other brethren. I’m never good enough.”
When I first came out of the infirmary he continued to care for me in my cell. I’ve seen the scars on his back when he changed at night, but I’m not ready to trust any of the brethren, especially one who has such hatred for Nate. “I’d better get to class before I’m late again. I’d like to go a day unbeaten.” I attempt to brush away the damp and mud from the fall. It makes it worse and I march down the corridor to get away from him.
“Tell Master Kai I detained you and have dealt with the state of your robe,” Shun states.
His act of kindness causes the tears I’ve been holding back to fall, especially as he could have called me back for my disrespect. By the time I get to the nondescript wooden door of my classroom against the back wall of the cloisters, I’ve found my dignity and determination. When I enter, I will be King Lorenzo II’s son. I will be Prince Angus of Covesea Island, and bear whatever they throw at me.
“Novice Angus. Late again. Your robe is in a mess.” Master Kai stands on the dais behind his raised desk. His hand reaches towards his whip.
I bow my head to him as required. “Prior Shun detained me after the Aurora Call, Master Kai. He says to tell you he’ll be dealing with the state of my robe.” As I say that I look at Novice Rin who I am sure is the one that tripped me. He studies the book in front of him.
“Very well.” Master Kai sounds disappointed that he won’t be beating me today. “Take your seat.”
“Master Kai.” I bow again and comply with his command.
The class snigger as I make my way between the rows of wooden desks to my seat by the window. Master Kai does nothing to stop the bullying. I sit down with difficulty, because the desks are not made for someone of my size. The cold and grey, rough sea stretches to the horizon but I’m too miserable to appreciate it any more. From the desk, I take out the religious text we’re required to study at this time and pretend to read the crap.
The man shouts.
A large engine. A massive black boat.
Lots of shouts.
There is an explosion – a gunshot. Another gunshot.
Pain! In my shoulder.
I let go of the guardrail of Nate’s boat.
I bounce off a rock. It hurts.
Guns flash and bang. A full blown battle.
I can’t breath.
My eyes close and I pray to the universal father in whom I’ve never been allowed to believe in. Arms take hold of me.
The shooting stops. The engine is going away.
I’m lying on stones. Waves crash up the beach but they don’t reach me.
Pain! Pain! Pain! I'm wet, I'm cold and someone is screaming. It sounds like me.
Men with cherry red hair. Men with boot polish black hair. Men in green furred robes.
I'm in so much pain. Is this real? I’m a little dazed. The recent horrors in my life must be a dream.
A robed man picks cold slimy kelp off my face, he smiles at me. Others are manhandling the bottom half of my body.
The one that picked off the kelp kneels down beside me and nods. His face is full of freckles and his aquamarine eyes are kind. His voice is soft. “I'm Prior Shun. Try not to move. We'll take care of you.” He speaks in waves. When he touches my head an unnatural calm upsurges in my head and floods my body.
“I've immobilised his leg and sedated him, Prior.” A man with black hair bows to the prior.
“Infirmier. Is he ready to move?” Prior Shun asks.
“Yes. Ready men. 1… 2… 3…” the infirmier says.
Strong arms lift me onto a stretcher and pick it up.
Noises. People are busy round me. They're whispering.
My eyes are swollen and struggle to open. I detach my fur-lined tongue from the roof of my desiccated mouth. “Water?”
“It's good you are back with us, Child,” The infirmier leans over me. “You gave us cause to be greatly worried about you.” As he speaks he pours water from a pitcher on my bedside table, props me up and helps me drink. His movements are deft, efficient and confident.
The clearest, coldest, cleansing water eases my throat. “Where…” I can't decide which of the many question buzzing round my brain should take priority. Where am I? Is my dad alright? Where is my brother? Who on Litae are you, you black-headed freak? None of them get vocalised.
“Shh… questions can be answered later. Are you in need of sustenance?” He brandishes a syringe and lifts the bed covers to inject me in my thigh.
I shake my head. I'm too sick, too sore and too unsure of everything to want food. Although, if he was going to poison me I’d be dead by now and not lying in a hospital bed. I sink back into the wall of pillows.
The sedative takes effect.
“Infirmier Kim, you need rest. I'll watch over him.” It's the kind voice from the beach. Prior Shun he'd said his name was.
I'm not ready for a conversation so I don't open my eyes.
“When you're ready to talk I'm here, Child.”
Child? Seriously? The freckly face that looked at me on the beach can't be much older than me. Indignation forces my eyes open. “How did you know I was awake?”
“It's a gift. I’m older than I look.” Sat in the chair next to the bed, he taps his nose with his long spindly finger. “Feeling better?”
“Hurts and I'm hungry.”
“You've got two bullet wounds, a broken leg and a head wound – it’s bound to hurt. Do you know who you are?”
I nod. “Angus.”
“I'm Shun.” He stands up and opens a flask on my bedside table, releasing the most amazing smell into the air. “Do you know how you got to our beach?”
I shrug. “No.” There was Big Mac and Soc and Nate and the boat but that was a dream. People don't walk through the air. “I don’t think.”
Shun pours the contents of the flask into a bowl. He moves over to the bed and helps me sit up, fluffing up my cushions as though they are a face he is frustrated with. “Let's get you comfortable. Think you can feed yourself?”
I nod. Talking is still an effort. Not physically but there’s a lump of emotion in my throat and I'm afraid if I speak it'll… well it'll feel real and won't be a dream any more. The sandstone walls look so much like the palace, but the hospital cubicle is so alien.
“You're at The Order of the Sea. We've promised the Dark Earth Abbot that we will care for and protect you.” The tray he places in front of me is laid with a basic brown bowl with clear broth in it.
“My brother and my dad?”
“We only found you and a small boat.”
“This isn't real.” I use the pottery soup spoon to scoop up some of the soup. My mouth zings with vegetable. I’ve tasted nothing like it. Palace food was so cardboard-like and this is so real. It is forcing me to accept I’m conscious and actually in this place. I place the spoon down. “It can't be real...”
Shun sits on the bed, picks up the spoon, and uses it to offer me more broth. “Angus, it's very real and you need to eat.” He smells faintly of salty clean. I don't know how else to describe it.
I turn my head. “No. It can't be real. People can't walk on thin air.”
“Well they can but I can't show you right now. My powers don't work as well in enclosed spaces.” He holds the spoon closer to my mouth. Ifdrt smells so good.
My stomach rumbles.
He smiles and nods. “Take a mouthful.”
I let him feed me. There is the right amount of salt and a herb I don't recognise. When he offers me the spoon I take it off him. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” His pat on my plaster cast is affectionate. He stands up and takes a book off the seat of a comfortable armchair near the bed and sits down. “Would you like me to read to you? Do you like Hound of the Baskervilles?”
I shrug again. “Don't know. Fantasy’s my thing and I like the Earth series but I started Study in Scarlet and thought the Sherlock bloke was a bit of a prick.”
“This one's much better.”
“That's what Nate said.”
“Who is Nate?”
“Sir Nathaniel Smith, my tutor, he… he found my copy of… well once… he didn’t tell anyone though. And now he talks to me about the books. I just think it’s so clever the way all those old authors got together to write about the same place.” The soup is so good it doesn't take me long to finish it. “Grandfather would have had me executed if he’d known I’d been reading banned texts.”
“Yes I know him. Nate not your grandfather.” Shun’s face is a little less friendly as he puts the book down again and removes my tray. “I'll be back in a minute. You should get some sleep. We'll see if you can manage crutches this afternoon.”
He leaves me to stare at the ceiling and wonder where Soc and Nate have gone. Were they taken? I’m not sure how long I can pretend the last few days haven’t happened.
I’m wrapped up in a robe with thick wool blankets round me. There’s snow on the ground. Shun is pushing me in a wheelchair, through the cloisters. My foot is sticking out in front of me. After a disastrous attempt with crutches, Shun decided wheels were a better option, because if Shun hadn’t caught me I’d have ended up flat on my backside.
“I'm sorry about my attitude earlier,” his voice is quiet and calm and steady.
I'm still struggling to talk a great deal. I don't know if I my family is alive or if my home exists. Then there is this place and well I haven't made my mind up about it yet. The food's good but what about the rest well I don’t trust them. If I speak too much I may give them information they don’t need to know. Living in a palace with my grandfather taught me that discretion and keeping my own counsel.
“Nathaniel and I were both fostered by Big Mac. Do you know Big Mac?”
“I think so.” If I say yes I will be forced to admit I walked through the air.
“He trains the children of elemental abbots. Nathaniel and I shared a room. We didn't well… we don't share a sense of humour.” He does that speaking quickly thing people do when they're putting on a false front of cheerfulness. “But that should not result in me to speaking roughly to you. I will report myself to His Holiness for discipline.”
“Not on my account. I've got a brother – I get it. There are times I want to thump him, and I kind of like him.” I close my eyes and remember him telling me to stay on the boat. I’m not there now.
“His Holiness will know anyway.” Shun taps his temple. “He can hear everything we think.”
A night of blood, mayhem and magic thrust Prince Angus, the youngest son of the king, onto the throne of Covesea Island. He's never wanted to be king. Social media calls King Angus a clown. His subjects don't rate his ability to lead them in the trade negotiations with one of the planet's superpowers.