“Wellll…” I hedge, “I wouldn’t call it a failure exactly.” I mean, both I and the room are now covered with purple foam that tastes vaguely of– I lick some off my upper lip– pineapple? Unexpected. The last batch had been grapefruit. Then again, the last batch had also been neon pink. And hadn’t exploded. Both of which had been perfectly acceptable reasons to toss it in my opinion.
“What in both territories would you call a failure then? An explosion that destroyed the hallway instead of just my kitchen?”
“Sure.” I say, trying to be agreeable. The cook frowns, unappeased. I try a different negotiation tactic. “Besides Ms Rothgar, I promised to clean this kitchen better than you’d ever see it before after I was done. However, I’m not done yet. The faster you let me finish, the faster this mess will all be cleaned up, and you can have your kitchen back then, spick and span.”
“That ceiling had better be shining.” Ms. Rothgar mutters, staring around at the mess, still grumpy. However, my promise must have satisfied her, because she turns on her heel and walks out. I lick another bit of the purple foam off my finger.
Now… if only I can make the explosion of flavor happen inside the mouth, instead of outside, I’ll have this baking thing down pat.
Three hours and a few cleaning spells later, I proudly walk down one of the long bridges spanning the tree buildings of Heronmal. Of course, I could have been in the higher branches leaping from tree to tree like some sort of squirrel, and normally I would be, but I wanted to show off these macarons that took so long to make. And the only way to properly show a thing off, is to do it around people.
Eventually I get bored with showing off though, so I turn around to go back to the castle to deliver the treat to Faladel. He’s been down recently. No clue what is on his mind. Now that we’re back at the castle, he’s been as mum as ever about his problems. If anything he’s been even more mum than usual. I think to myself as I pop a macron in my mouth. Green, yet lemon flavored. No, perhaps it’s lime? Back to Faladel though… something’s been off with him, and I can’t figure it out. But I think macarons might help. Especially ones made by his best friend that will literally explode in his mouth. That should help cheer anyone up, right?
I pop another macaron in my mouth as I step back up into the castle. Grinning through a mouthful of pastry, I wave at the guard on duty and toss him a macaron, eager to share my bounty. He catches it and devours it without a second thought. Only after I walk through the doors, do I realize that one was from the third batch. Whoops. He’ll likely be puking rainbows in five minutes.
Not my problem though. Well, unless he associates the puking with my fabulous macarons. Which he shouldn’t, but just in case…
I turn and head to my office instead of to Faladel’s rooms. I’m not quite sure why I was given an office, I fell asleep in the meeting that had discussed it, but now I have one, so I’ve been making good use of it. And, since it’s such a mess, it should be easy to hide a meter high mountain of macarons in there.
Opening the door, I knock over a pile of research from last week. The-mongoose-that-will-soon-be-mine, or Albert, as I’ve been calling him, chitters and squawks in protest. I politely offer him a macaron, but he doesn’t seem interested, so I put it next to his food bowl for later.
My office is equipped for anything I might need to deal with. Paper, pens, seals and sandwiches, a hammock, a desk, my extra quiver of arrows and a proper lockpicking kit, 50ft of hemp rope, a bunch of old research I shredded to make bedding for Albert, and of course the unsent letters on my desk.
Wait, I really should send those letters soon shouldn’t I?
After trying and failing to consult with Albert– he got rather nippy– I dispense the macarons in various hidden and not so hidden drawers in my desk. “See if I give you another one.” I mutter, grabbing some clean cloth to wipe the tiny bites and scratches on my fingers. Sitting down at my desk I review the letters.
One to Balderk discussing trade, the student exchange programs, and of course the seventh peace anniversary party that’s happening in a few months. We’re planning a train of signal lights that go from Abahak all the way across the mountains and light up the center of Heronmal. The dwarven magic students will then create a great pillar of light that will be able to be seen all the way back in Abahak. Apparently it will be super spectacular, HeadMaster Morthose Haulding himself will be helping out with the spellwork to make the pillar of light tall enough. To be honest though, at this point it’s just more boring paperwork, but someone has to do it.
Now, my letter to Folas on the same matter is much more interesting. He and his lovely twin Valkalyn and our friend Adamar are finally nearing graduation. The whole school will be in Heronmal for the peace anniversary festivities. One of the few policies I remember from my time at Mossblossom Central, was that if the HeadMaster gets a day off, everyone gets a day off. Of course, it never happened in my year there, I’m told it rarely ever happens, but I’m happy they get to take advantage of it. And I’m even happier that it means we can all hang out.
After reviewing both letters, I carefully fold them up and seal their envelopes. Pushing back my chair, I get up and immediately nearly trip on a small pile of books from some research I’ve been doing that for some dumb reason is sitting on the floor right next to the desk.
Albert chitters again. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was laughing at me.
“You wouldn’t think it nearly as funny if it happened to you.” I complain to him, and, shaking my head at his bad attitude, lean over to pick up the books. I catch a glimpse of one of the titles– The Forgotten Spells and Customs of Meyan– and groan realizing that it is part of a research project that I’d conveniently forgotten about. Since it was self assigned, it technically has no due date, but now I’ll feel guilty about it until I can’t put it off any longer, and am stuck reading more nonsense for months on end.
I plop the book on the desk and glare at its offending dark grey cover and silver lettering. I had been hoping for simple answers to many of my remaining questions from our talk with that crazy librarian, but none of these books agree with his description of the former capital. In fact, none of these books, few as they are, even agree with each other. And none of them– not even one! –mentions a world outside our own. But my memories are clear. The librarian had definitely claimed it exists, and said both he and his companions, who I’ve now deduced were probably HeadMaster Morthose Haulding and Smayhellionthostvalleysonknoll, have been there.
And I want to go there too! No matter what the Librarian had said about bad luck! A whole new world to explore is simply too good of an adventure to let go by without at least questioning it. Thus my endless research.
I groan, and pretend I didn’t see the book, only pausing to grab the letters I need to send before leaving the room. I had questioned the pet store owner a while back about what mongooses eat, and although I’ve been feeding him a steady diet of bugs and eggs the past few days, maybe it’s time to upgrade. Albert is growing bigger quickly, perhaps I should get him a snake. As a little treat. Maybe then he’ll like me.
So I head on down to the Postmasters, send my letters and grab one from my mum, and then head out to hunt a snake. It’s late by the time I get back, finding a snake small enough for Albert was difficult, but if he’ll accept me after this, it will all be worth it.
When I get back to my office, I notice the macaron is still next to Albert’s food bowl. Fair, maybe Albert is saving it for desert. Shoving some papers out of the way, I go over to his cage, which is a decently large construction I made myself, that takes up a good corner of the room and has its own climbing area, a ground thick enough for him to tunnel in and more than a few rocks for cover. He scampers behind one of the rocks as I change out his water bowl, clean up his feces, and then, finally, pull the snake out of my pack and leave it next to his food bowl. Then I turn around to give him some privacy as I read the letter from my mum.
Most of it is pretty banal stuff. How the siblings are doing, how excited she is that my little sister Arcanst got into a good school, well wishes for my birthday last week, along with a promise that my present is coming, although it’s taking a bit longer than she had originally thought. She actually suggests that I take a few of my friends down and visit so we can see each other, and I can pick up my present then. Apparently the difficulty lies in the transport of it.
I put the letter on my desk and slump into my chair, frowning slightly. I pick up the letter again and turn it over in my fingers, desperately ignoring the books on the desk and the piles of paperwork everywhere.
I would enjoy a trip home, but who would watch over Albert? I shoot a quick glance at the mongoose in question, who seems to be enjoying his snake whole-heartedly. I could ask one of the guards to drop by, make sure he’s okay, although convincing them to catch bugs and snakes for him every day might be difficult. It could be just a short trip… so they’d only have to do it once. Still, convincing someone would be tricky. Maybe I can ask Zydon? I did get him a job here after all, even if that was nine years ago now. I can say watching over Albert is payback. And if I offer him some macarons to sweeten the deal…
Yeah, that will probably work! I grin and tell Albert “Be good for the babysitter would you? It sounds like Faladel and I have a trip to make.” Because of course I’m taking Faladel with me. He would be a terrible Mongoose babysitter, and mum did say to bring a friend or two.
I quickly scribble out a reply to the letter, and run it down to the Postmaster’s before they close for the evening and then bring Faladel a few macarons. I don’t bother knocking as I enter his suite of rooms. He is busy studying. His own office is a lot bigger and more neat than my own, bookshelves hug every wall, and there are certainly no piles of paperwork crowding the floorspace, but his desk is just as full as mine, if not more so. A candle drips down to its base as he stares at his notes, and scribbles a few more words down. His kingship classes sound so boring, but no one can deny his dedication. I would have given up long ago, and yet here he is, still working.
“Have you even had supper yet?” I question him, trying to read his neatly written notes upside down. I have no luck.
“Oh, hello Briareth.” Faladel says, glancing up at me quickly before going back to his notes. “I didn’t hear you come in. I might have forgotten to eat anything, yes.” His affirmation, although it takes a few seconds for me to realize what it is, makes me frown. “Mother and Father are getting serious about these Kingship classes,” He continues, sighing as he makes another note. “I think they might tell me they’re going to retire soon.”
“Really?” I ask, wondering how he reached that conclusion. I dismiss it though, he’s better at guessing these things than I am. “Well, you’ll do great! Everybody loves you, except the haters, but they don’t like anybody. Being the Prince makes you the obvious choice, no one else has nearly enough name recognition. You’ll win the elections by a landslide.”
Faladel shoots me his usual grin as he looks up from his notes, and pushes his golden hair away from his eyes. A scripted smile that looks less and less real nowadays. I smile back at him and offer to bring him food. Something is definitely wrong here. Taking him to meet my family will at least lower the stress for a bit.
The next day, I get up and go about my business. I told mum I’d visit in three days with Faladel, so today I should definitely make sure he’s coming. I got distracted by bringing him food and talking about my adventures with Albert and macarons yesterday, and he has his test this morning, so better to visit after lunch.
I spend the early hours meandering around the castle, petting Myrddin, getting kicked out of two meeting halls and a library for 3 separate incidents that weren’t technically my fault, and catching a live snake for Albert. My plan was to make a snake toy out of it. Since he seemed to enjoy the last snake I got him, I thought we might be able to bond over a game of catch the snake. Like cats with feathers on the end of strings, but with live snakes.
It doesn’t quite work out as well as I hope. I get the snake attached to the string and string onto the stick easy enough. And Albert does jump and chase for a while, but suddenly I see a gleam in his eyes, as his gaze follows the squirming snake to the string, the string to the stick, and then the stick to my hand. The jig is up.
I snatch my hand away from the opening in the roof of his cage, but I’m too slow. Albert jumps and sinks his tiny sharp claws into the snakes still wriggling body, and then scrambles up the rope, and nips my fingers. We struggle for a bit– me not wanting to relinquish my toy and bonding opportunity, and him eager to get to the snack without my inane interference. In the end, he walks away with the snake clenched firmly in his jaws, and I ended up with both snake and mongoose bites to disinfect. But I’m not upset with him, quite the opposite in fact. He’s such a clever mongoose! I only want to tame him more now.
“Just think of all the mischief we could get up to together!” I announce to him, grinning. “With your brains and my expertise, we could–” I try to think of a suitable offer for a mongoose “wreck all sorts of havoc in the kitchen, and ransom the cutlery for all the snakes in Heronmal!”
Albert lets out what I’m pretty sure is the mongoose equivalent of a harumph. He doesn’t appear impressed by my offer, instead settling down with his snake in his cage.
I sigh, and start working on stuff that actually does have a timeline and stakes attached. I hate paperwork. Thankfully enough, I don’t have to do it for long before my stomach is gurgling and complaining, and when I go to the dining hall to sate it, I spot Faladel building himself a sandwich. Excellent! Not just a distraction, a productive distraction! Exactly what I need!
“Faladel!” I exclaim as I bounce over to him, “Just the Prince I was looking for! My mum said to bring a friend over for dinner in three days, and I was wondering if you wanted to get out of here for a bit, now that you’re done with that test of yours and all. Think of it as a way to celebrate!”
Faladel jolts upright, nearly dropping his glass place onto the wooden floor beneath us. That would have been a very sad waste of a perfectly good sandwich, luckily he caught himself. But seeing the poor sandwich get bounced around like that reminds me of how hungry I am, and grabbing a plate I start making my own sandwich.
“Well, what do you think?” I ask as I pile my plate high with mushrooms, pickles, slices of two different cheeses, and quite a few other things that definitely are good separately, but I haven’t tried all together yet.
Faladel takes a second to consider it, and I consider my sandwich in the meantime, eventually adding a good slathering of horseradish before calling it done.
“Technically,” he smiles at me, “I’m not sure I should be celebrating, but I’ll happily join you. Is this a belated-birthday party? Should I prepare another present?”
I stare at him in surprise. I hadn’t thought of that. A surprise birthday party does seem like just the thing mum would do though… but is the surprise technically ruined now? Can it still count as a surprise if Faladel and I guessed it? Maybe we can pretend to be surprised?
It does indeed turn out to be a surprise party, and although I pretend to be surprised, (as per Faladel’s and my plan) I’m actually slightly disappointed. I would have enjoyed being surprised with a party so much! It’s not Faladel’s fault for seeing through it though, he didn’t even know my family, and to anyone other than my distracted brain, a party would have probably been rather obvious. No presents even a week later, an invitation to come home and bring a friend… two plus two does equal four. Still, I privately requested that in the future, he not point out any possible surprise parties, so they can still have the maximum desired effect.
Although the surprise part was gone, the rest of the party was excellent! The presents are fabulous, homemade mittens from mom, a new bow from dad, various small gifts from the siblings, a saddle from Faladel with hand carved runes for help with Myrddin’s speed and maneuverability. He couldn’t actually add any magic to them, due to the whole ‘no magical aptitude’ thing, but it’s easy enough to hire someone to do that, or even to do it myself if I study up for a bit. The hard part is making the runes right, and ensuring that they won’t get damaged or stretched easily. It really doesn’t strike me as something that he could have gotten done in a few days, but that’s probably just my work ethic talking.
Supper was also delicious, and the blueberry cheesecake was to die for.
Luckily enough, nobody did die, but Faladel and I did have to go for a walk to let it all settle before bed.
My family’s house is pretty far from Heronmal, a good day’s ride on horseback, so I don’t visit often, but the tall trees rising out of the ground around us, and the tiny treetop village nearby spark delightful memories of a childhood spent climbing and pranking the neighbors, and I grin as I stare through the countless branches up above, knowing the stars are twinkling somewhere up there. Only after I’ve gone a few paces, do I realize Faladel has stopped, and turning to look at him, I realize he’s staring back at my house, an unreadable expression on his smooth features.
I turn back to get him and try and see the house from his point of view. A tiny home on the ground, nothing like all the fancy tree homes in the village or in Heronmal, my father’s legs wouldn’t allow it. But it is a sweet home, filled with laughter and joy, and even now, bathing the night with the warm welcoming glow from its tiny square windows.
“What do you think of my family?” I ask him. “No worries, you can tell me the kids are brats, it’s nothing I haven’t told them myself.”
“No–no,” Faladel says, shaking his head and smiling at me.
I widen my brown eyes in mock astonishment and interrupt him, “Don’t tell me you actually like them?”
He bursts into a brief spurt of laughter, the first real one I’ve gotten from him in ages. “I do! I mean, I’ve only seen them at the party, so I have no clue how they actually act, but–”
“–But they seem nice enough, until they’ve gotten used to you and the girls try to convince you to play dress up with them twelve times a day.” I finish for him. “And make no mistake, with your long blond locks, they will definitely be attempting to braid it. They tried to braid mine until I started cutting it just above my shoulders.”
“Oh, is that why you wear yours short? Little sisters?” Faladel’s eyes dance with amusement.
“That and the fact that it wouldn’t stop getting tangled in everything. Shorter is more manageable for me.” I shrug, sending the brown curls in question bouncing. “Seriously though, what do you think of my family, I’m curious?”
“They’re very open with their affection, like my father.” Faladel says, giving the question due consideration. “If he hadn’t been elected, I imagine our family would have been something akin to yours, maybe with fewer children though. It’s just so strange to see what might have been.”
Privately, I doubt that Faladel would ever resemble me or my siblings, he’s far too mature and responsible, but I don’t tell him that.
“It’s so nice.” He continues, “That none of them questioned how we knew each other, or even asked for my last name. The fact that there were no formalities…” He trails off. “It was just nice.” He eventually finishes quietly, also staring at the branches above us and the lights of the town up there. And I think I get it.
Formalities have always seemed stifling to me, which is why I only bother in a few rather important cases– like medaling ceremonies, or direct reports to the council after a vital bit of espionage, stuff that hasn’t mattered since peace has been made. I haven’t been properly formal in around seven years, and my life has been better ever since.
“These bits of everyday life are valuable to you aren’t they?” I ask, mentally making a few adjustments to certain plans.
“Yes.” Faladel says and sighs, closing his bright green eyes. “It feels like I can finally put down a weight that I’ve been carrying almost all my life. Like I can finally relax, and just be, without anyone crit–”
“Well if it isn’t Briareth Herbalar!” A familiar voice calls out “Happy belated birthday you wild brat!” Out of the shadows of one of the great trees surrounding us staggers, Tannyl Luevon, looking more than a little drunk. He is known as both the best and worst gambler in the town, depending on who you talk to, and– based off the stench of the alcohol that hits me– it looks like he was thrown out of the tavern on a losing streak tonight. I can’t imagine what he’s doing outside of the safety of the tree-town.
“Who’s your friend?” He asks, stumbling towards us. I wince at the smog of drink that follows his question as he peers at Faladel, who shies away and ducks his head, trying to avoid the stare, “No way–” Recognition dawns in the sot’s eyes “Faladel Mithrandir?!” Faladel flinches slightly and then straightens his whole posture and shuts his face down completely from the thoughtful friend who was talking to me earlier to the cold, formal face of an utter stranger in less than a second.
Prince mode is on. And it disturbs me how different he seems.
Tannyl seems startled as well. “Well now that’s rude.” He blusters. “A prince visiting, Briareth, and you didn’t even bother to take him though our delightful town? So many people would want to talk to him. To ask questions, make suggestions, you know?”
I try to sooth him, so we can make our escape, remembering that he can get pretty pissed when kicked out of the tavern and drunk, and making a mental note to tell his husband to keep better track of him after a gambling night.
“It wasn’t supposed to be an official visit, my mum just said I should invite over a friend so–” It’s too late, I realize, as Tannyl opens his fat mouth, eyes glinting with sudden anger. Nothing would have stopped him. He wanted a reason to explode at someone, to throw his anger at someone else. Faladel is just a convenient excuse.
“Nothing’s ever not official! A prince should be available to all his people at any time, day or night! You can’t just invite him over, like his workday ends at dusk! Any visits should make him available to everyone, you can’t hog him all for yourself just because you got some upstart job at the castle running messages for the council!”
My lips twist into a downwards slant. I know I gave everyone that excuse when I started working for the King’s Archers, but dragging Faladel through this is unnecessary. He’s a person too, and shouldn’t have to–
“That’s going a bit far.” Faladel says, stopping my run-away thoughts in their tracks. His voice is ice cold, and there is a hint of anger in it. Just a hint though, and as I stare at him in shock– I’ve never seen him snap at anyone in prince mode before– he seems to realize his mistake and takes a deep breath before continuing. “I apologize that you feel that way. We had arrived late, and didn’t want to make a stir in the town, not when everyone was settling in for the night. I had adjusted my plans to visit come morning. It hurts me that you would jump to the worst conclusions automatically. And the fact that you would shame my dear friend’s job doing important work for the council?” He shakes his head in obvious disappointment and sighs slightly.
We have, in fact, made no such plans, and I stutter, my angry protests for Faladel’s rights dying on my lips. His act, though, does nothing to appease Tannyl. It takes only a few seconds for the fool to find something else to nitpick.
“Going too far? Ha! Having friends, paying them special visits? Ha!” He spits at our feet, and Faladel’s jaw muscles twitch and strain as his smile continues. “I wonder what all those news-folk would think about all this nonsense. All your precious voters! You’re supposed to be the public’s number one servant! The least you can do is behave properly and not hang around with vagabonds like this one’s ilk!” He jerks his finger at me waveringly. I clench my fists and resist the urge to slug Tannyl. I’m definitely having a talk with his husband about this first thing tomorrow. This man is a menace when he loses, even if he remembers none of it the morning after.
“Let’s just go Faladel,” I tell him. “He means none of it. He won’t even remember it in the morning.”
Faladel turns, and looks at me, eyes cold and bland. “Shouldn’t we bring him to his family? Does he have any? I don’t think he’s in any state to get anywhere on his own.” The question makes no sense, not even Faladel would normally want to accompany this man home, not with all the toxic nonsense he’s been spewing and the fuss he’ll kick up. We would never make it through all those brightly lit bridges unnoticed, unrecognized. A more Faladel suggestion would have involved something along the lines of finding a different townsfolk to bring him home.
“He has a husband.” I say, giving Faladel a strange look. “I can take him home myself, why don’t you head back to my place? It’s getting late.” In the background Tannyl starts yelling about how he doesn’t need a babysitter, and can get home perfectly fine on his own.
Faladel stares at me steadily. “If you insist.” He says quietly, a completely flat tone making his words sound strange. He turns, and disappears into the shadows as I stare after him and Tannyl yells more meaningless words about revenge and spreading the word.
Only after Tannyl passes out on my back halfway to his place, do I realize that Faladel had been acting as if we had been on a busy street already, not at the bottom of an empty forest. As if everyone was already judging him with a harsh eye. As if his actions might mean something in the grand scheme of things. “If you insist” had been the only words he could say to escape from this man’s wrath without breaking character.