I was doing some work on Tales of the Five #3: The Librarian the other day, and while dealing with some dialogue, was surprised to catch myself causing one of the characters to say something to one of the others that wasn’t true. Not in the sense of committing fiction, nor in the one-layer-down-the-meta sense of having him say it as an unreliable narrator. (For the slightly higher level of unreliability invoked by using the phrase itself. You could make a case that all narrators are inherently unreliable: the only question is how much—)

…Okay, this is wandering further afield than required. Let’s go back to the beginning of the story (in the meta sense).

Once upon a time, a little girl was being read a bedtime story that involved a prince rescuing a princess. When the story was over, the little girl had an idea and asked her mother, “Why couldn’t it be a prince rescuing another prince?” Her mom laughed and said, “When you’re grown up you’ll understand.”

And so the little girl grew up, and did understand, and eventually said to herself—on remembering that long-ago moment—“Well, Mom, you may think you dodged a bullet there, but that was really a crap answer.”

Which may have been a bit harsh, in retrospect, thought the little girl as she looked up from her present labors somewhere in the fourth- or fifth-hundred thousand words of a story that starts with one prince rescuing another.

Except—if you want to be pedantic about it—one of them’s not a prince at all, the way they think of things in the Middle Kingdoms. Not least because only one of them is royal.

Let’s get that person (and issue) out of the way first. Freelorn of Arlen—or as he would have been at the beginning of The Door Into Fire, Freelorn stareiln Ferrant stai-Héalhrästi—was at that point a genuine Prince as most of the Middle Kingdoms would reckon such things. That is to say: he was the child of a ruler and that ruler’s wedded consort, and in Lorn’s case the only or most senior child of the ruler to be formally recognized as such before the Four Hundred met in Colloquium, usually with their agreement or approval. Either status would have made him Throne Prince (-raïd), that being the casual designation for the Arlene next-in-succession.

The above-described conditions of birth and recognition are merely the civil components of potential kingship, and are by themselves insufficient for a King to be considered fully enthroned. The spiritual component is confirmed by successfully completing the Nightwalk through Lionhall—an entirely different business. But in the days before the death of King Ferrant, Freelorn would unquestionably have been considered st-raïd Arléni, the Prince of Arlen.

…Except almost nobody would have called him that.

Generally speaking, the dominant Middle Kingdoms cultures aren’t big on titles at what we’d consider the “upper class” end of the spectrum. They’re much commoner among, well, the commoners. This is because, in a world where in all human cultures the inner Name and its privacy are important, even “outer” names are treated with respect as a gift you’re given and allowed to publicly use. Therefore every region and nation has its own wide range of courtesy titles by which you address someone whose role you may know (more or less precisely) but whose name you may not know, or not have permission to use.

Many of these are words that, lacking close cognates, we’d be forced to translate as “sir” and “madam”. All the Middle Kingdoms cultures have neutral terms that would map closely to these. But there are also endless other forms both far more precise and far more varied. Shopkeepers, barbers, healers, farmers, artists and artisans, and craftspeople of all varieties—all have work-specific titles meant to honor the understanding that without such people doing their work from day to day, even nobles go just as hungry as everyone else. These titles vary widely across regions and cultural boundaries, so that what you call a street-food seller in Darthis will (to the educated ear) immediately identify you as someone from up south by the Highpeaks or down in the North Arlene east-coast country. (Or someone trying to sound like that’s where they come from.)

By contrast, the civil side of Middle Kingdoms rulership is not usually acknowledged by the use of titles like “prince” or “king”—though those are used often enough in the text of the Middle Kingdoms books for brevity’s and clarity’s sake, as if in translation. What’s most commonly used is one of the house-patronymic, house-matronymic or nongendered/nonbinary house-affiliate prefixes,  tai-, stai- or hvai-, taken in company with the personal male-issue, female-issue or nongendered-issue forms datheln (anciently tatheln: right across the Kingdoms, the t and dconsonants changed places fluidly in both spoken and written usage for a couple of centuries early in the millennium), stareiln or hvareiln. All these usages are the same across the Arlene and Darthene languages and in three out of the four Middle Kingdoms: the Steldene language uses different words for all of them.

So Queen Eftgan, for example, when addressing Freelorn as “Prince” over breakfast in The Door Into Shadow, doesn’t actually use a title to do it. She simply says stai-Héalhrästi, directly referencing his present position as the only known descendant in “right line” from the White Lion who is also acknowledged as theoretically eligible to take the Arlene Throne. This usage also has the effect of putting a small sharp pin into Freelorn’s not-presently-all-that-royal butt, in that being so styled is, right then, the only royal thing about him—Lorn having until then neither any army capable of putting him on the Throne, nor any consensus of the Four Hundred to keep him there.

Such a form of address in private also acquires extra edge considering that just the day before, at her re-crowning, and very much in public, Eftgan had addressed Lorn as Arléni—“Arlen” in the personified-nation mode, reminiscent of similar forms of royal address still preserved in Shakespeare, routinely used by kings on other kings. The message is very much “All right, princeling, yesterday you had your day in the sun: time now for some shade. Sit down, shut up and listen.”

At any rate, the house-patronymic stands in for our title “prince” by naming the specific royalty from whom the bearer claims descent. When one hears someone being called tai- or stai-Héalhrästi, this narrows things right down; everybody in the Middle Kingdoms would immediately recognize one of the four royal House-names in the Kingdoms. If for some reason one’s feeling excessively formal (or snotty), one might prefix stai-Héalhrästi with eln sthein mires(s/t/v), “his/her/their noble grace”; a phrase that suggests either a certain courtierly bowing-and-scraping, or else good-natured (or bad-natured) mockery, depending on the context.

As we discover during the series, there can be complications inherent in the way the House-name is used by the offspring of royalty… or isn’t. For the first three books, for example, there’s at least one other son of the last Throned ruler of Arlen running around loose—though for political reasons, or out of some modicum of caution (such as not tempting divine retribution before actually going on the Nightwalk and becoming eligible to hold Throne and Stave), Cillmod stareiln Kavannel never styles himself as a stai-Héalhrästi. (He does call himself sharing-son to one—the Arlene term is esteimhai—and that’s true enough. But the careful distinction between parenthood and implied legitimacy for ascent to the Throne isn’t lost on most people.)

That said, the House-name by itself isn’t always enough to make one’s rank perfectly clear. This is where we get into the case of the Prince who really isn’t one… at least the way we mostly tend to hold the concept.

The guilty party here is “His noble grace…” (and hearing that used to or about Dusty, Freelorn may snort softly) Herewiss stareiln Hearn stai-Eálorsti kyn’Éarnësti. His name indicates that he’s descended from Eálor, the White Eagle’s brother—but also gestures in the direction of House tai-Éarnësti, should there be any confusion; because there were other Eálors around before the Eagle, and have been quite a few since. (Lots of Darthene parents like their sons to be thought of as “brothers of the Eagle”, but people don’t as a rule name their sons Éarn; that’s seen as going a bit too far. The Goddess may be endlessly forgiving, but Éarn was known to have a bit of a temper. There’s no point in riling up an otherwise-kindly demigod over your new baby’s name.)

The text of the novels describes this relationship once or twice as descent through a cadet branch of the Darthene royal house, and this is accurate enough in terms of House stai-Eálorsti having been founded by the brother of someone who would have been the first king of Darthen had he survived. But as for issues of descent among the stai-Eálorsti, if you tried to describe their relationship—or the title of Prince of the Brightwood—to anybody Darthene as anything like “direct,” they’d just laugh at you.

This is because the Principality of the Brightwood is not a principality in the usual medieval-culture sense—i.e. a region given over to a ruler’s child as their responsibility and source of income. The Wood* is in fact a non-representative democracy of a kind that still exists here and there in our own world; one where people meet up once or twice a year in person and vote on local issues and in the election of local officials with a show of hands or by some similar method. Then as now, whoever is chosen as new leader in such an election takes the title of Lord of the Brightwood (raidht enScíorfeghin) in the name of the current ruler of Darthen, swearing fealty to them and the Eagle, ruling the Wood in the royal name, and acting as Head of House for the Second of the Forty Houses.

Eálor and his family settled in the Brightwood region about a millennium and change before the events that occupy the first three Door Into… books, and for the first few generations they won these elections and went on to rule the Wood. Yet though they were perceived as—maybe the clearest term for them would be “community leaders” with a somewhat paranormal mandate, and unquestionably important in the Brightwood’s ongoing history—as decades and centuries went by, despite their close relationship to a semi-divinity, they weren’t always infallibly chosen to run the place. Over time other families’ influence rose and fell in the Wood’s politics, the Brightwood electorate often enough preferring some talented member of an entirely different leading family—or (as the Brightwood saying has it) some “black squirrel” out of nowhere—for the position as better qualified, in a given time or situation, to lead the Wood’s people.

Nonetheless, it’s noticeable how many times over their history the stai-Eálorsti have wound up running the place. There does seem to have been a perception that the family either had an (inborn?) talent for it, or in-family “training traditions” that turned out a superior quality of ruler. The century during which the Tale of the Five series takes place is one of those recurring periods during which the Eálorsti have only rarely not been the regnant Lords of the Wood. Herewiss’s father Hearn (through the main series, and as we head into the “Tales of the Five” sequence that picks up immediately after the end of the Great War) is the seventh Lord in a string of stai-Eálorsti that started in the mid-2800s p.a.d.

So, onward to an outgrowth of this situation. Over time it became customary for a ruler of the Brightwood to formally designate a successor if they so desired—for example, if there were enough children to confuse the succession or cause some other kind of trouble, if the health of the Ruler of the Wood was fragile, or if the period was politically unstable and it seemed as if the Wood might in the short term be called to war. The electorate of the Brightwood would then be asked, at its next time of voting (they normally vote twice each year, in the spring and fall), to confirm the Lady’s or Lord’s choice: sometimes a child of their House (though not necessarily so), sometimes merely someone they felt was well-qualified and a good choice. The person chosen would then wear the title of “Prince-” or “Princess-elect” until the person serving as Lord of the Brightwood died or chose to step down. (The exact title, meraidhet or “soon-ruler”, is uninflected as to gender. It corresponds closely to the similar semi-ungendered use of the term “prince” as a generic term for a ruler of either gender: cf. Elizabeth I’s usage of it in this mode, in Shakespeare, to refer to herself or her peers.)

In Darthen, the mid-decade before the events of the Tale of the Five novels was dominated by the political instability surrounding the deaths of Eftgan’s father King Bort and her brother the Throne Prince from lunglock fever (apparently a variant of diphtheria). Partly in response to this, Lord Hearn originally chose to settle the position of Prince-elect on his eldest son Herelaf. Herelaf’s accidental death, however, meant that at the next election the counsellors to the Lordship were if anything more inclined to keep the position filled. They nominated Hearn’s second son Herewiss as its next holder, regardless of his relative youth. The electorate confirmed him in the position, and Herewiss became the new Prince-elect of the Brightwood, with all the raft of antiquated titles that go with the position.

Yet he’s still not really a prince… a fact that (in teasing mood) Lorn doubtless leads Dusty to recall from time to time. And even when the Prince-elect finally succeeds his father—which he may well do by Hearn’s retirement rather than his death—there will still be people who’ll look just slightly askance at Herewiss for holding such power without what they consider a proper royal heritage.

For there are those in the Kingdoms who get snobby about this kind of thing. Often enough the sentiment flows from a feeling that without clear descent from a semidivine being who has the power to supervise the nobility and keep the souls of their descendants honest, things are far more likely to go wrong. The only real answer to this line of reasoning is that—descent aside—all rulers, like all demigods, answer first and last to the Queen of Queens; and if the watchful eye of the Goddess Herself isn’t enough to keep a ruler honest, nothing will be.

Has Herewiss ever actually said this to someone’s face? Tactful creature that he is, always so strategic in his public speech (and that being one of the ways he earns his name), it’s doubtful. And these days, when anyone tempted to say “Prince” to him with an extra dollop of scorn is likely to have to do so with Khávrinen and the blue Fire in view, maybe it’s less likely to happen than it once might have been when Dusty was merely some runaway prince’s boyfriend.

But as for what the boyfriend says to him, late at night, over snacks before bedtime? It’s anybody’s guess.

*While often referred to casually as hr’Feghin, “the Wood(s)”, the Brightwood is a topographically diverse region that includes hill country, extensive wetlands, and arable plain, as well as (at its core) the dense tracts of old-growth forest that supply almost all the needs of the Four Realms’ shipbuilding industries. The Principality has about the same square mileage as Maine, and a population (in the Tale of the Five period) of about 150,000 people.

(Image below links to a large PDF version.)

A map of the Middle Kingdoms