“This isn’t the life I want”
There was something about the way the sun shone on the waters of the fountains and waterfalls of the Palace Gardens that took Allam’s breath away.
He had seen it before, many times – he had grown up with the spectacle – but every morning, and especially in the summer when the sun shone at its brightest, he still paused on the way to his studies, or to riding practice, and marvelled at how wonderful the gardens looked, how beautifully the rich light split the droplets of water into myriad colours, creating mini rainbows and throwing glistening reflections here and there until the onlooker was quite dazzled by light and colour.
Those who had created the Palace, some three hundred years ago, had chosen its location beside these natural waterfalls quite deliberately and over the centuries, the gardens and waterfalls surrounding it had been developed into the most stupendous surroundings imaginable. As was only fitting for the family of great rulers into which Allam had been born. Yes, the day would come – and maybe quite soon, now that his father was away at the border wars – when all these marvels and many more would belong to him. For Allam was a Prince; the oldest of four brothers, and destined for kingship and civic duty – although not, as his tutor had often confided to his parents, seemingly in a hurry to assume his responsibilities.
A bit of a dreamer, was how he had sometimes been described, by various less than indulgent relatives. A bit too much of an artist at heart, when a shrewd politician was what the country really needed.
But Allam knew that when the day came, he would be more than capable of assuming his role, and that he would become a good – maybe even a great – King. He didn’t see, however, why that meant he couldn’t appreciate the good things in life, and enjoy the aesthetic beauty of the world around him.
This morning, he was in a particularly profound mood, because of something that had happened the previous evening, and after lingering by the side of the lily ponds and staring a little longer into one of his favourite fountains, he set off suddenly across the outer lawn towards the hillside, his stride purposeful.
He glanced back at the inner wall around the Palace and saw his two guards standing side by side, looking towards him. Usually, they followed him everywhere, but because the Palace and its grounds were so heavily fortified at the perimeter, he was generally reckoned to be safe within its confines, so they were not particularly concerned to see him striding off towards the undergrowth without them. For his part, he wanted particularly to be alone today, as he needed to do some serious thinking.
Alone that is, except for his best friend, who went with him everywhere.
“Cheena!” he called, as he passed the vine terraces and the rose garden. “Cheena, where are you?”
Suddenly, a streak of golden fur darted out from behind a hedge and swept in front of his feet, almost tripping him up.
“Be careful, you dratted creature,” he shouted, good-naturedly. “Where have you been? I’m going up to the viewpoint – coming with me?”
Cheena ran round him in smaller and smaller circles, slowing down eventually to pace at his side. Her flanks heaved, her patterned hide rippled. He admired her as always, his hand touching her proud head in gentle greeting.
“It’s the primeval-throwback side of you, I suppose,” he teased her as he often did. “Can’t sit still for a minute, rushing around all the time.”
Cheena growled a little, and snapped at the air with her tremendous teeth. A huge blue butterfly stumbled into their path, and she bounded after it playfully for a moment, before returning once more to the Prince’s side.
“Oh Cheena, what am I going to do?” he complained, as they progressed along the edge of the lake to the base of the biggest waterfall, and then into the greenery beside it. “I spent half the night with those dreadful men – emissaries and lawyers and who knows what – and there’s no escaping it, there’s absolutely nothing I can do!”
The land began suddenly to slope seriously upwards, and Allam began to climb, following a path he had known since childhood. Cheena bounded ahead of him, leading the way.
“They’re going to make me marry her! It’s outrageous!”
The vegetation that grew by the side of the waterfall was particularly spectacular. Trees with foliage of all colours had been specially selected to enhance the view from the Palace. All manner of climbing plants and attractive flowers turned the woodland into a convincing, if artificial, jungle. As he followed the twists of the narrow pathway that led towards the rockface, Allam had to brush vines and creepers out of his way, and push aside the huge purple blooms of the tree-lily, which had become so prevalent throughout the gardens.
“She’s dull and boring,” he called after Cheena, who was now out of sight. “And way too old for me! I mean, they could at least have tried to find someone compatible, who I might actually like!”
An orange coloured bird broke cover from amidst the branches, and flitted in front of him, screeching loudly.
He reached the base of the cliff down which the waters plunged, and looked up along the craggy path that now zig-zagged even more steeply up over the rocks. Cheena was clearly way ahead of him – he thought he could hear the scrabbling of her paws higher up – so he gave up on his complaining and concentrated on the task in hand.
It was a good while before he emerged onto the plateau, somewhat out of breath, and saw the big golden creature sitting waiting for him on a conveniently flat stone, the sunshine making her sleek fur glisten and sparkle, much as it had done the water in the fountains.
He joined her on the rock, and looked out at the view of the Palace, the grounds, and – in the distance – the city, with its familiar skyline of turrets and towers, its varied architecture reflecting the mix of the people who lived within it.
“I know I have to do my duty,” he resumed his complaint, after a few quiet moments of contemplation. “But it’s so restricting! It’s not so much that I don’t love her – I suppose I can live with that, and who knows, at some point I might still find someone else I do care for, and it could all be taken care of in my favour.” He reached over to fondle Cheena’s ears, and she pressed her head against his hand out of long habit. “It’s just so annoying, all the time that’s taken up with these ceremonial and political matters! There’s so much else I want to do, so much that’s more important! These are modern times – have you seen what the scientists are saying? That we’re not alone in the universe! That there are other worlds out there with civilisations on them! They’ve virtually proved it, with all that radiation-pattern evidence. It’s only the old school – like my father – who won’t believe it.”
Allam stood up suddenly, and flung his arms wide, like a child.
“I want to be an astronaut and an explorer, Cheena! I want to understand the truth about things, be at the forefront of knowledge! But look at me, having to spend all my days in dusty rooms, discussing what I should wear to meet some pathetic girl who’s only being foisted on me for the country’s financial gain!”
Cheena regarded him, her eyes deep and steely. Eventually she pulled herself up and leapt down from the rock, circling so that she stood in front of Allam, then dropping her haunches again to sit right before him.
“It’s alright for you,” Allam admonished her, leaning back against the rock. “You don’t have these concerns.” He thumped his forehead suddenly with a fist. “It’s just so frustrating! This isn’t the life I want!”
His huge companion yawned in his face, flashing a jaw full of sharp white teeth and a deep pink tongue.
“I have to say,” said Cheena pointedly. “I’m getting rather tired of listening to you moan.” She raised a paw and began to lick at it nonchalantly. “I thought you’d grown up, but you’re behaving like a spoilt child.”
Allam turned his back on her, resting his hands on the surface of the flat rock, feeling the sun’s heat in it.
“You are a Prince, remember,” Cheena continued. “And one day, all that politics which you complain about so much, is going to work in your favour, and enable you to do what you want, and to influence the world in the way you want.”
Seeing the droop of Allam’s shoulders, Cheena suddenly felt sympathy for him, and paced to his side, rubbing her head against his thigh.
“Don’t you see?” she said. “You’re young, and the future is yours, so just stay calm and bide your time. Maybe, by the time you are our King, we will indeed be talking to people on other planets, and you can be at the forefront of discovery and progress! I agree, it all sounds very fascinating – I read an article about it just the other day.” She butted his leg gently again. “But you can’t behave like a child – you have to take your destiny, and your duties, seriously.”
“And marry that boring woman?” Allam threw over his shoulder.
“I found her quite charming,” said Cheena, turning to look again at the view from the plateau, and yawning once more. “I don’t know what your problem is with her.”
Allam spun round, but his annoyances had abated at the reasonableness of his companion’s words.
He sighed. “You are a wise tutor, Cheena. Though I’m not sure you can really understand my dislike for that silly Princess. I mean, she has the most unattractive nose!”
Cheena resisted an urge to swat Allam with a paw, as she had done many times when he was younger. “Maybe on other planets young men are not so fussy about perfectly presentable young women!”
“And maybe on other planets,” Allam retorted playfully, “there’s only one species that can talk – that would be nice!”
“Don’t be rude,” Cheena commented, before turning round a few times on the spot and curling herself up comfortably on the ground. “If we’re staying here to see the moons rise, I think I’ll have a nap first.”
Allam threw himself down next to her, an arm resting across her flank, the gesture so familiar and comforting that she knew all was well between them.
The young Prince did indeed sit and watch over his soon-to-be Kingdom, while the evening light faded, the distant city lights came on, and the three moons inched slowly higher into the night sky.
He eventually fell asleep thinking not of his future or the distasteful Princess, but of radiation patterns and other civilisations, and how those civilisations might or might not be different from his own.