Now that I’m watching, I realize that Faladel doesn’t break that character after we arrive back at the castle. If anything, he gets even more aloof and formal than he regularly is. It’s worrying that he spends so much of his time in his office doing paperwork and studying. I can’t even get him to come out to help me look for Albert, who escaped when Zydon was looking after him. Apparently, Zydon had let him out of his cage for a bit of exercise after closing the office door, and Albert lost him in all the paperwork. Zydon had planned to find him in the morning, when he could use daylight, instead of burning oil lamps that an excitable mongoose could knock over. But a new maid who hadn’t been told to ignore the mess in my office yet came in in the middle of the night… and, well, the rest is history.
Technically, it’s not Zydon’s fault. Technically.
At least he volunteered to help me find Albert. But my hopes sink with every passing day. I think my mongoose might be gone for good.
I sigh, running my rough hands through my curls. Nothing seems to be going right. Faladel’s ‘break’ only made him more stressed, Adamar isn’t sure his parents will let him come to the seventh peace anniversary festival because politics, Albert is missing, and I still haven’t forgotten about that dratted pile of books full of nonsense.
I try to concentrate on paperwork for a while, but have no patience for it. I’m supposed to be out in the field, collecting information, spying, carrying out undercover missions of utmost importance! Not filling out endless forms and reviewing agreements! But since there is no war– which is objectively good– there are also much fewer missions of utmost importance, certainly not enough to be shared between all the King’s Archers. Which means I’m stuck on paperwork duty for an indefinite time. I groan loudly, but nobody is here to listen to my complaint. Not even a mischievous mongoose.
After reading the same paragraph three times, and understanding less of it each time– something about an avalanche in the mountains?– I give up and wander off to the stables to find Myrddin. He nuzzles me sympathetically as I plop down next to him and tell him all my problems. When I get to the part about Albert his big brown eyes look a little too pleased by my problems with the mongoose, so I just skim over them. Best not to make the horse jealous.
“All in all, everything seems to have hit a dead end, everybody is too stressed out, it’s all so boring, and this hay is too itchy.” I finish, as he snuffles my hair in a moist, comforting way. “You wish we were back on adventures too don’t you buddy?” I ask, craning my head backwards to stare up at him. His whinny of agreement makes me smile and snort through my nose. “You always have perfect timing don’t you?” Myrddin tosses his head.
“Well, thanks for listening to me ramble. Want a sugar cube?” After Myrddin confirms that he does indeed want all the sugar cubes, I feed him a few and then get started grooming him while continuing my diatribe.
“Really, I should talk with His highness– The king, not Faladel– and see what he thinks of all this. I mean, he and the queen should have noticed that something is off with their son, right? They might have some ideas of how to help him. And if they don’t, my ideas will certainly take their approval before I’m allowed to put them to use. Do you think I should put in an official request for a meeting?” I pause. “No, Faladel might attend that, and that would be awkward. ‘Your Highnesses, have you noticed something is off about His Highness Faladel? Yes, the one who is sitting over there?’” I gesture over to an empty pile of hay, imagining the wooden stables as the courtroom. “Yes,” I continue the pantomime, “he’s been too perfect of a prince and that’s quite disturbing. Even he’s not normally that perfect. Nobody should be that perfect. Should be expected to be that perfect.”
Myrddin licks his teeth, savoring the last bits of sugar.
“You’re right.” I sigh, “It sounds completely ridiculous when I put it like that. Definitely a closed audience then.”
The days pass by slowly, and as happens with these sorts of unpleasant tasks with no due date, I end up procrastinating quite a bit. Two weeks of pudding making and paperwork pass by before I even start thinking about how to go about requesting a private audience. I barely see Faladel that entire time. Court functions, most meetings, some public events, once when he was grabbing lunch. He’s there for those things, but he’s not really himself. He’s Prince Faladel Mithrandir, not my friend Faladel. It’s like he’s expecting a body blow, and is using the formality as his armor. Every time I see him, the bags under his eyes and his impersonal smile grate on my mind. Even my new spinach and apricot pudding can’t make him chuckle. Comment on how I should have made a salad with those flavors instead of a pudding? Yes. Chuckle? No.
One of the endless meetings though catches me off guard. I’m stuck on note-taking duty for the King, a complete waste of my infiltration talents, but my doodling skills are quite handy when I need to lambast a particularly dumb comment. I am paying only slightly more attention to the meeting than I normally would, sitting at a desk far enough away to make it clear I’m not an official attendee while the councilors and court officials chatter away at the large ovular table nearby, when I spot the Queen clicking her fingernails against her throne in an interesting pattern.
Two taps, a small scratch, three quick taps. Then it repeats. She looks just as bored with the meeting as I feel, but is managing to keep a smile on her face while her fingers do their dance against the lower left side of her throne. Suddenly, out of the shadows behind me I hear a few soft clicks. Not the click of a door unlocking, not a returning code, but something else… My brain races to identify the sound, and then a soft chirup and squeak identify it for me as Albert scampers towards the throne, his claws making a little click click sound on the wooden floor. He clambers up her throne, hops onto the queens lap, circles for a bit, and then sits down and releases a soft chitter of delight as she begins stroking him absentmindedly. I knock over my inkpot in shock, and am barely able to save my clothes, much less the notes. The little traitor is completely hidden from the council by the big oaken table and is cuddling– cuddling!– with the queen. Here I’ve been wracking my brains and worrying my heart out trying to find him, and he’s spent all this time evolving from mongoose to momgoose?!
I’m too distressed by this betrayal to take notes. I’m too distressed to even think properly. That’s it. That’s the last straw. I’m not going to delay this meeting any longer! I’ll do the difficult conversation, find someway to get Faladel out of his rut, and then politely request that Faladel’s mom give me back the momgoo– mongoose. He’s a mongoose. He doesn’t belong to a mom yet. I can still contest the ownership rights!
When the meeting is over, Albert jumps down from the queen’s lap and scurries off again. The other attendees mutter to each other incomprehensibly as they leave and I bring my destroyed notes over to the King.
“Sorry about these, Your Highness.” I say, handing him the notes. “The ink jar fell onto them. If you want, I can try and write up a summary by memory.”
He waves me off. “No need, no need Briareth. I’ll remember it well enough. It’s not like anything important happened today anyways.” The queen chuckles in quiet agreement.
I hesitate. “Is there something else?” He asks, noticing.
“Yes, is it possible for us to meet in private sometime soon? I would like to discuss something rather sensitive.”
His golden eyes– the exact same shade of Faladel’s– regard me curiously as he asks with an easy smile. “On a scale of one to ten, how sensitive?”
I wrinkle my nose in thought. “Seven?” I guess, and then realize that Faladel really really wouldn’t want this discussion getting out, even though he won’t be involved. “No, better make that 8.” Best to go by his wishes since it is his personal life we’ll be discussing.
“An eight? Well then, why don’t we just sit right on down.” The King says with a completely straight face, beginning to pull out a chair for me. I snort at his nonchalance. The Queen however, doesn’t seem to think it’s as funny, and elbows him discreetly. He coughs before continuing. “How long will it take?”
“Hopefully not more than fifteen minutes, and it would be best if Her Highness will join us.” I say, not even trying to suppress my smile.
After thinking for a few seconds, and some silent eye contact with his wife, the King turns to me and says “Alright, Briareth, meet me here after sunset. I’ll take care of any magical evesdroppers.”
I walk through the empty hallways, carrying my supper and trying to get back to my rooms without too much notice. Ever since Briareth’s Birthday party earlier this month I’ve been walking on eggshells, waiting for– I don’t really know what– Something to happen. The rude drunkard probably did just forget all about it, like Briareth said. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve done something wrong, and soon everyone will know.
His words resonated inside me, and somewhere they struck a chord. As a prince, I’m not really supposed to have breaks, to have time away from the hustle and bustle of court life. It’s the whole point of the constant surveillance thing, so that people– if they wish– can know me at my worst and best and every moment of my day. I’ve always been fine with that. It makes sense that they would have that right. But after the treaty was struck, after Briareth and I were integral in making peace with the dwarves, expectations for me went through the roof. I could feel people watching and judging and hear them whispering that I didn’t live up to expectations.
That I wasn’t good enough.
So I’ve been trying to be good enough.
And it’s been difficult. Even now, just walking down this corridor, I can count two ‘watchers’ as I call them. The watchers used to be literally people who would watch me and record my everyday affairs in small notepads. But in recent years, they’ve been more and more replaced with small, floating golden balls with a glass lens. Adamar’s parents, the Erhorns invented them. I did some research on them when they first came out. They record up to twelve hours of images and sound that one can play back with a spell, and save those images for up to twenty four hours. They are notoriously difficult to fix, and the enchantments on them are quite finicky, but they’re still a massive leap forward in technology. And in stress.
Human watchers I know have to take breaks. They make noises, alert me that they’re there, get bored and sometimes go find more interesting things to do or people to watch. When I leave Heronmal, I leave almost all of them behind. Mechanical watchers don’t do any of that. They can go anywhere and never miss anything. It’s easy to forget about them. And thus are they dangerous.
I take a left, trying to ignore the ones behind me. I had forgotten about them when I went to Briareth’s party. I was stupid. I let my guard down since we were outside the city. But it wasn’t too far away for them to watch and report back. For people to judge and whisper. Not good enough.
I feel myself start to walk faster, and forcibly slow down. Slow. Quiet. Steady. I concentrate on my breathing. Nothing happened. Nothing will happen. They might not have been there. Maybe they didn’t care that I went to a party for a friend. Maybe the people behind the enchanted balls don’t think people should know the details of a private citizen’s party, even if the prince was in attendance. Maybe they think he doesn’t deserve the same scrutiny.
He doesn’t deserve any of their scrutiny. I think protectively, and then smile ironically, considering those words in a different light. He might be a good friend, but everyone who knows him knows he’d make a terrible king. That alone exempts his actions and his questionable pudding ingredients from any watcher’s gaze.
Although his life would probably be a lot more interesting than my own.
As I turn another corner, going past one of the many meeting rooms in this part of the palace, I hear a sharp ZZXT! from behind me. Glancing back, I see not two, but three golden balls lying inert in the middle of the hallway.
Something just happened. I don’t know what, but it was important. The watchers can be stopped. I feel invisible tension inside me release at the sight of their fallen forms. My shoulders drop, and my breath comes easier. Just in case though, I go back to check them out, bending over and touching them softly, one at a time. All lifeless. All broken. The signature light in the center of the lens is out.
But before I can stand up, before it even fully processes in my brain, I hear my name in a familiar voice on the other side of the door closest to me. I approach quietly, curious.
“Faladel’s been off recently, don’t you think?” I begin, turning to the queen as her husband quietly casts the spell that will protect us from any magical interference.
“Yes, and it’s been worse since you arrived back with him from your day off. What did you do to him, Briareth?” She asks, a cold glint in her eye.
“Nothing!” I protest. When she gets all serious like this, she scares me somewhat.
“You know how close they are dear, I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose.” The King breaks in.
“But I didn’t do anything, well, except escort the drunk dude home, but that didn’t cause this!”
“He got drunk?!” The queen exclaimed, obviously worried. “No wonder he’s been so stressed, what were the both of you thinking–!” I flinch, suddenly understanding her confusion. Whoopsies! Bad word choice.
“Wait.” The King puts a steadying hand on her shoulder. “Faladel knows better than to get drunk. Also, I’ve never heard Briareth call him ‘dude’ before.” The queen calms down slightly but is still staring at me suspiciously.
“His majesty is right,” I assure her, “neither of us got drunk, it was one of my neighbors. He’s an idiot who said some… rather cruel things. I think Faladel took them to heart. Which is why he’s currently like this. But he’s been off since before that. It’s like something in him changed after we got back from making peace. I think you might be putting too much pressure on him.”
The king sighs and the queen shakes her head. “We’ve not been putting the pressure on him nearly as much as he puts it on himself.” The King explains. “The recent test? He asked for it. It hadn’t originally been in his curriculum. He had us make it, and then studied for it relentlessly. As if it was a way to prove himself.”
“We’ve talked with him about it, but nothing seems to get through. I’ve told him book learning isn’t going to help him learn to rule better at this point, but that just meant he tried to do the same amount of book work as well as sit in on all the meetings and take notes.” The Queen elaborates quietly. “He knows we worry, but he says he can handle it. And so we just been left watching as he struggles to find his own way.” She stops, and I realize that the shine in her eyes has changed from wrath to unshed tears. Her husband puts a comforting arm around her.
“Why don’t you just talk to him again?” I ask, “Tell him he’s doing too much, or that it’s fine if he lets go of a few things, or even just that he doesn’t have to take over after you.” I pause, surprised by my own brilliance. “Yeah, if he doesn’t feel the pressure from that area, then it truly does become his own will driving him so he might feel like he’s letting less people down who he cares about. That one might actually work!”
“You think we haven’t tried?!” The King retorts, and quiets down as his wife puts a hand on his arm. “We’ve made it known to him that it doesn’t matter to us. Of course, we’d love it if someone as responsible and level headed as Faladel took over after we’re gone. But he’s not the only person in the world suited to such a role. In fact, I’m afraid he’s particularly unsuited. He’ll drown in it.” As he continues, almost all of his earlier vehemence fades. “The only reason I survived after I took control is because of my beloved Eliyen here. She told me she’d be the serious one, and I could be as silly as I like, as long as I never did anything too flippant during the council meetings. Without her, I would have cracked under all my duties. However, Faladel doesn’t have a personality that would allow him to hide behind ridiculousness when things get too stifling, much less a partner to help him handle everything.
“He has me.”
The Queen blinks silently, and the King studies me closely. “As far as I am aware Briareth Herbalar, you and my son don’t share that sort of relationship.” He says in a slightly chilling tone. “Have the two of you been keeping things from us?”
“Faladel and I?! What? NO! We’re not in that sort of relationship.” Somehow, I manage to blanch and blush furiously at the same time. It makes me feel vaguely light headed. “I just meant I’d be there for him when he takes over, you know? Through thick and thin.”
“Well that’s a relief.” The King mutters, and I’m not sure which part he’s replying to.
“He does seem less scripted when you’re around.” The Queen says softly. “I think the two of you are good for each other.”
I blink in confusion. Faladel is good for me? Where did that come from?
The King nods in agreement. “He seems… lighter when you are around. And you seem more steady.” I mentally shrug. However they got to that conclusion, I have no clue, but it makes my next request much easier.
“I’ve noticed that when he’s traveling on adventures with me, he’s more carefree. More himself. More person, and less wooden responses.” I begin slowly, trying to find the right words. “A long journey, an adventure with low stress that will give him time to figure things out, might be just what he needs. He’s smart, smarter than me for sure. If we can give him a space with no judgment, surely he’ll realize that his current workload, his current–” I hesitate, workload wasn’t right, not really. “–actions” I finally settle on “are unsustainable. He’ll make a change, adjust his style. He’ll figure it out, if we can give him the time and space to do so.”
“Alright, Briareth, what do you have in mind?” The King asks with a knowing smile.
“I’m so glad you asked.” I say, snagging my satchel which stores all the paperwork I brought with me from a table. Quickly I lay out my maps and notes. Outside of the dwarven and elvish territories, I’ve left plenty of room, with only a giant question mark. I gesture towards the open space. “I want to go here.”
“Off the edge of the world?” The king seems vaguely amused. “I fear that is impossible even for you Briareth, you know as well as I do, previous exploration has confirmed that there is only an endless void out there. No land, no sky, no sea. The mountains just end. Everyone who has tried to go further has fallen off the edge and never returned.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong.” I say, tapping at my notes on our conversation with the Librarian. “My source tells me that there is a path to an outside world, and that he has guided people there before.”
“Your source?” The King asks, searching my face steadily with his golden eyes.
“The librarian who keeps a record of all history. You sent us to meet him to find out what started the war. He had mentioned it in passing, and if you allow us to return, I bet I could get him to tell us where it is.”
“Let me get this straight.” The queen breaks in. “Your source is an ancient, insane elf, with a twisted sense of humor that causes him to set deadly traps for all his visitors, who mentioned this in passing over seven years ago.”
“When you put it like that…” I hesitate. It really doesn’t sound great and Faladel’s parents look at each other.
The Queen nods, and the King says. “Alright Briareth, you have our permission. Plan your trip. We’ll find a way to make Faladel go with you. Even if your source was just rambling nonsense, at least it will give Faladel some time to think about his future away from prying eyes.”
I can’t hear everything of course. Most of it is muffled in fact. But I can hear enough to distinguish three very separate voices. Two are my parents, and the other is Briareth. They are talking about me. Having a private meeting about me. Without telling me. My first instinct is to walk on in and ask them about it, but… I can’t. Something inside me says they won’t tell me. There was a reason I wasn’t invited.
I instinctively quell my hurt and indignation. There will be time for that later. Now however… I press my ear to the door silently, surprised that none of them thought to put up anti-eavesdropping spells. Those don’t work on the new watchers that lie broken behind me of course, but they are still standard for any secret meetings between the Royals and their vassals. Perhaps this is an informal meeting and they forgot? Or perhaps since the enchanted watchers came out there has not been as much need for that sort of spell.
Either way, a mistake on their part and one I’m going to take full advantage of.
“He’s been off since before… too much pressure.” Briareth says. It doesn’t take much brainwork to figure out who they’re talking about.
“He puts it on himself.” Father retorts. “…He asked for it… had us make it… a way to prove himself.” I strain to hear more, going so far as to holding my breath, but I’m still missing too much. Were they talking about my recent test? Is it just my imagination, or was there some disdain in those words? Did they disapprove of my initiative? Or was it the results that were unsatisfactory?
I knew I got number seven wrong. But surely that isn’t the point of this conversation.
“We’ve talked with him about it, but nothing seems… I’ve told him… going to help him…. rule better at this point…” My mouth drops open. More is said after that, but I can’t hear it over my shock. Mother sounds like she’s trying to explain it to Briareth, but what I really need is for her to explain it to me. Nothing can help me at this point? I don’t remember any conversations like that. Surely I missed something important here, or perhaps it is just that my memory has grown very selective of late. “He says he can handle it…he struggles to find his own way.” She stops. And all the sound disappears for a bit into senseless murmuring.
“…just talk to him again?” Briareth asks, of course he’s the first one to be loud enough to understand. I roll my eyes gently and smile. “Tell him…” He fades out and I can’t hear him until he shouts triumphantly, “That one might actually work!” I frown slightly, staring into the dark woodgrains of the door. Work how exactly?
“You think we haven’t tried?!” Father shouts back. “We’ve made it known to him…doesn’t matter to us.” I flinch away from the door at the vehemence in those words. What doesn’t matter? I don’t matter? I return to my former position as quickly as possible, but I’ve already missed something. “…we’d love it if someone… responsible and levelheaded… took over after we’re gone…. Not the only person… I’m afraid he’s particularly unsuited. He’ll drown in it.” His voice drops lower and there is a long pause. I think I’m holding my breath. I can’t make heads or tails of the first bit, but the ending was rather obvious. They don’t think I’m good enough? Even my parents don’t want me taking the throne? Something inside me cracks slightly.
I thought they had my back.
Slowly, carefully, I pull away from the door. I don’t want to hear anything more. I don’t think I’d be able to accept it. I need to take some time. Process all that I’ve heard, not jump to any conclusions. Although, I can’t help some that have already formed.
I pad silently away, not back the way I came, but onwards, towards my rooms. The last thing I need is to be around people right now. I might not be able to control my face.
Although a moreose thought creeps in, is there really a point anymore? If those closest to me don’t think I’m good enough, why would anyone else? Maybe I should just give up and let everyone see what a disappointment I am. How flawed. How unreliable. How unsuitable.
No! I shake my head in a silent denial. My parents and Briareth might have confirmed my worst fears about myself. But that doesn’t mean everybody has realized it yet.
A board creaks beneath my feet, and I resist the urge to run away. I’m scared of being seen when I’m vulnerable like this, but running would just make more noise. If I’m lucky, they won’t have noticed yet. I don’t want to alert them. I’m only a few feet away from the nearest turn. So, instead of running, I just keep walking. Steadily and silently padding forwards, paying less attention to my scattered thoughts and more to the floor in front of me, on the lookout for creaky boards. As if nothing happened. As if I’m perfectly fine. The only change is my extra caution. I won’t let myself be found out.
There is a soft creaking noise from the hallway outside. It isn’t like the normal creak of tree branches, or settling wood. No, it’s a footsteps on floorboards creak, and we all freeze for a few seconds. I can hear only my breath and my heartbeat. Did someone overhear us? Is someone listening in now? After a few seconds of nothing, the king silently goes over and checks the doorway. He opens it quickly, but there is no one out there. The hallway is deserted.
I turn to the queen, almost ready to be done with this meeting, “One last thing, I believe you have my mongoose.”
“Your mongoose?” She raises her eyebrow. “I thought Albreth went where he wished. I certainly haven’t been holding him captive. If he hasn’t returned to you, perhaps you weren’t treating him right.”
I gape at her. Convincing her to give back my mongoose was supposed to be the easy part after a difficult conversation about Faladel, however, it looks like the two have swapped places, and we are going to be here a lot longer than I originally estimated.