“What will you do?” I said to him. That I never thought to question his claim strikes me now as wondrous. Children require proof before they believe something as simple as the daily passage of the sun. And as loath as I am to admit it, as extraordinary of a child I may have been, a child’s notions still I held on many things.
Arden turned serious at the question. “I shall cleanse the Gorgos Pass of pirates.” He stood up as he spoke, slashing the air with a pantomimed sword. “Slay the four-eyed tiger that prowls the jungles of Icthar. Trek through the Forever Desert and find again the lost city of Al-Fasaan. Restore the fallen king of the Mintauk people, with whose suffering he remains enslaved in the shadow of their holy mountain. I shall birth a kingdom and become a king myself, mightier than my father or his father before him. All this will I do.” Sweat’s sheen sat his brows like a crown as he finished.
“And if you cannot?”
“Then I shall die,” he said simply. “And you, what will you do?”
By this time we had moved from the chairs of the dining table to the steps of the dais. All about us spun an indifferent world to music’s melody: a group of ladies laughing at a jester’s perverse prose; two gentlemen holding hands and exchanging lovenotes, their faces hidden by corner’s shadow; a daring boy, hoping to catch the attention of his desire, inching step-by-step closer to mighty Crick, from whose mouth erupted phlegethons colored corbeau and lovat. My family—or Arden’s—were nowhere to be seen.
“I do not know. Perhaps stay here, look after the family’s affairs.” I shook my head at the answer. How craven it must sound to him!
Arden frowned. “A king has advisors for such a thing. And besides, your brother shall rule after your father. Will he name you to his council?”
“Your place belongs by my side then. A life of adventure and daring conquest! What say you?” He held out his hand in solemn oath.
How I longed to join my hand with his in that moment, the impossibility of such a dream be damned! “I do not think I would be of much use to you.”
“Nonsense. Have you begun your lessons in swordplay?”
“No matter. Can you ride a horse?”
“Father says I am too young for such a thing. Besides, he thinks it a foolish waste of time.”
“A foolish waste of time! Perhaps you are right to fear such a man. No matter, it can be taught,” he said with a wave of his arm—a gesture he would often later use to dismiss the most pressing of problems.
I could not help but find his energy infectious. “Perhaps you are right,” I said, a smile forming upon my lips.
“Of course I am. Father says we are to go on a hunt during the midsummer solstice. Would you like to come?”
The smile became complete. “Yes.”
“It’s settled then. I shall have him arrange the matter with your family and you shall accompany my house.” With a glance around us he moved closer, until I could feel the warmth of his breath on my ear. He smelled like autumn wind. “We will chase wild boar in the hills of Vale,” he whispered.
“Vale?” I did not know the city.
He stepped back and looked at me with a curious expression. “A region in the north of Lissenburg. It borders your kingdom’s southern holdings.”
“My father’s kingdom,” I corrected him. “It shall never be mine.”
“You cannot know such things.”
I shook my head. “I would reject the crown if it came to me.”
I saw surprise upon his face for the first time—surprise and the first hint of respect, now that the laughter had disappeared from his eyes. “And I think myself courageous! We should be friends.”
“Are we not already?”
“Perhaps but how can we know with any certainty?” For the second time that day, he held out his hand. “Friends?”
This time I did not refuse and took his hands into mine. “Friends,” I said.
And so in conversation we spent the remaining hours of the day together. As is often the case with merriment made early, the festivities (and the ability of its guests to sustain them) died a young death. A few of the youngest—boys just discovering their manhood—lay sprawled across the great hall in fantastical repose, liquor’s stench thick upon their clothes. Other lords and ladies, more accustomed to the effects of drink, had stumbled to (one hopes) the proper chambers prepared for their stay.
A crescent moon, its eye as heavy-lidded as my own, sat on night’s throne when Luthor came to fetch me. On most days I would have resisted his call, but the pleasant exhaustion which coursed through me rendered me unable to mount any defense.
“Little master. Firstprince Alexander,” Luthor said with a bow. Under ordinary circumstances he would have chastised me for the dirt on my clothes: with Arden I lay on the hall’s floor which, though cleaned before the feast’s start, had become begrimed by its end. Perhaps he did not wish to embarrass me in front of Arden. I think it more likely he noticed the happiness upon my face and did not wish to erase it.
“How are you, Luthor?” I asked with a lazy grin, sitting up in his presence. All throughout my body a drowsy contentment reigned but my mind could not allow itself to be led so easily to rest. New thoughts, ideas lacking in all meaningful import, bounced about my skull, and unlike the sage who knows to find absolution within bottle’s bottom or madak’s maze, I opened myself to them. A feeling of stupefaction washed over me; and as I sat on the floor, I felt that I sat on a stage created by another, who allowed me just for that moment to glimpse the materials of his illusion. I observed Luthor—of spotless dress, on whom creases could be found only in the lines of his face—and for the first time in my life, I observed a man not just as the consequence of my own existence (a prince needs a tutor and so Luthor came to be) but as a being with purpose greater than the satisfaction of my needs. In the mind of a child, this realization raised interesting questions. If not my own, whose world did I live in? Luthor’s? No, that couldn’t be. I did not know why I knew this answer with such conviction but that I knew it—and was right in thinking so—could not be argued.
All-seeing Luthor must have noted this turmoil writ upon my face. “Are you all right, little master? You seem unwell,” he said.
“I’m fine, Luthor. Just a little tired,” I said, feigning a yawn before finding the real thing escape my lips.
He tutted in disapproval. “As you should be, I expect. I would see you to your chambers but your father wishes to speak to you before bed. As for Master Alexander here,” he said, turning to Arden, “the Lady DuBois gave me specific instructions to see you to your room. Come along.” He held out his hand, which Arden grasped, and the pair, looking very much like father and son from the back, left the great hall in silence.
I was alone.