Yesterday, the drunkard from the tavern stumbled in and trampled over the tulip of the first prince. It was late at night when he climbed over the wall. Nobody noticed until it was too late. The tulip was dead and the guards who hauled the drunkard out were in a frenzy because the tulip was the first prince’s favorite. The fifth prince had no business being up so late but he was, and he walked into the guards pitifully standing in a circle around the tulip with the snapped stem.
“Matt.” One of the guards waved him over. “The tulip died.”
The fifth prince bent down. He lifted up the flower and then let go. Limply, it dropped back onto the grass. He glanced up at the small circle of guards fearfully watching him and told them that the first prince would most likely murder them at the very least. Matt kept his tone light but, judging by the exchanged glances, his attempt at humor had missed.
“Some drunkard came into the courtyard. Must’ve been from the lower west wall again,” another tried to explain. “We didn’t stop him in time. Is there anything you can help with? What should we do?”
The tulip had bloomed just a few days ago and the first prince Arthur was absolutely elated to see his favorite flower in the garden thriving well. Not because he enjoyed nature, of course, but because Matt had commented on his brother’s inability to keep even a plant alive. Being the first prince he was, Arthur had a sense of pride that he had to preserve.
Matt stood up and brushed off the few small twigs of grass. He turned to the guards and let them know he would deal with it no worries. The words came out a little too happily but here was another bet Arthur had lost; Matt had no reason to be sad. In fact, he deserved to rub it in Arthur’s face.
The guards hurried back to their post after Matt reassured them again. To them, Arthur wasn’t Arthur but the first prince. Arthur was the immediate heir to the kingdom that controlled this city and the surrounding. Matt, however, as the fifth prince, was pretty much powerless. The family already had a son and, being the youngest of the fifth, he could proudly call himself nothing more than a waste of space. Daughters could be married off. Therefore, even if they were the seventh daughter, they were still the family’s treasure. Although now that Matt had the time to brood, if he were intelligent and confident like Arthur was, he could be important as well. Lucky for him because he certainly was neither intelligent or confident. Slow and steady wins the race.
The next morning, he joined Father, Mother and Arthur for breakfast at the large dining hall. Arthur, seated next to him, had clearly seen the tulip because the moment he sat down he was ready to spill. Courteously as it was demanded of him, Arthur cleared his throat and wiped his mouth on the serviette.
“I woke up to the most upsetting scene this morning,” the first prince said, gaining the attention of the whole table. “The tulip I planted in the garden was trampled over during the night. Absolutely horrific.”
Matt could hear his brother’s mock dramatics. He wryly pointed out that it was just a tulip.
Arthur turned to him, a frown on his face. “Just a tulip? It’s not just a tulip, Matt…Oh, you did it, didn’t you? You do not want me to win so you got up last night and walked all over it.”
“I did no such thing.”
“Matt’s afraid to hurt a fly,” Mother said, chuckling as her table knife dug into the meat and slit it into pieces. A fork found footing in the small piece and transported it to her mouth. Dabbing her lips on a napkin, she continued. “If anything, I bet it’s one of the clumsy guards. Anyway, Arthur, it’s just a bet. No need to be over your head about it. I’m sure Matt isn’t keeping score.”
Father, who had been silently eating his meal at the head of the table, commented. “Weren’t you down by the courtyard late last night, Matthew? Near the tulips with a few guards nonetheless.”
“What?” Arthur looked surprised.
“What were you doing out there so late?”
Matt shrugged. He couldn’t sleep. The nights were long and he felt that he was coming down with something because he had a very hard time getting out of bed this morning. Today was Saturday, which meant Father would be taking him to the smiths. Undoubtedly, he would be chewed out again regarding how utterly mediocre he was at every profession he tried. Matt sighed. No wonder he didn’t want to get out of bed.
“And you had nothing to do with Arthur’s tulip?”
Feeling a little irritated by Father’s accusation, Matt set down his fork and turned to face the man. He started explaining about the drunkard, almost wanting to add in the part about the short west wall. Father needed to fix that wall before more drunkards could come stumbling in. However, Matt kept it to himself in fear that Father would berate the guards instead.
“You shouldn’t be out there at night,” Father interrupted as if he hadn’t spoken. “First, it’s dangerous. Second, it disrupts your sleep. If you can’t get enough good sleep, you will not perform well.”
“Whether or not you had something to do with Arthur’s tulip or not, I am warning you now. I want the truth from you every time you speak to me. Do you understand?”
Matt opened his mouth. Then he shut it with a muted agreement.
“Good, now finish your breakfast.”
As if he was doing exactly that before Father voiced his gratuitous opinions. His discontent came out in a mumbled form loud enough for Father to hear, earning a warning kick from Arthur underneath the table.
“What was that?” Father set down his fork. “You dare to disrespect me in my house? Matthew, you have grown more insolent over the years.”
Mother settled a hand on Father’s arm. “It’s still morning. Let him eat, alright? Let him eat. Whatever you want to say, you can say it after. Okay? And Matthew, don’t talk back to your father like that again.”
Matt mumbled his agreement, picking up his fork again.
“Good.” She smiled and turned to Arthur, pulling a plate closer. “More fish, Arthur? Fish is good for your health.”
Briskly, Matt finished his breakfast and stood up. The servant, Casey, moved to clear his plate as he left for his room. Father’s gaze followed the fifth prince until Matt was beyond the corner. As Matt’ feet carried him out of the door, he heard a conversation striking up behind him. Arthur chimed in. It had to be politics—perhaps even the heritage Father would hand down. That was right. His father was growing old right before his eyes even though his steel resolve and demeanor hadn’t changed since the day Matt was old enough to recognize the man as his father. One day, he realized, his father would pass away. Then, undoubtedly, Arthur would be in charge. Matt hoped by then he would have made a name for himself.
Matt went over to the window. The servants had tied up the curtain in his bedroom and had deposited a short stack of books Father wanted him to read. Sitting down, Matt pushed aside the books to access the papers whose edge was pinned under. Pulling them out, he smoothed down the ugly wrinkle the books had made on the paper.
The papers needed to be submitted to the tavern today. Matt glanced at the clock on the wall. Lights bounced off the golden rim into eyes. He blinked, shaking them away. It was almost nine; there was enough time to make last minute adjustments. Matt picked up the papers again and read over his story. It was most likely his fifteenth time reading over the same sequences of words and the more he read the more flaws he seemed to have picked out. Here and there, some words would pop out and he would stumble over them.
“The snow flutters down like millions of tiny runaway hares…” He read the line out loud, a hand worrying his hair. Millions of tiny runaway hares? That sounded horrifying. Matt did not want to be pelted by millions of hares and he was sure nobody wanted to either, no matter how ‘romantic’ or ‘refreshing’ it was.
“I wouldn’t be out there if it’s snowing like that,” said Casey. “Perhaps you are thinking of dry snow?”
Matt set down the paper, turned, and took the plate of sweets from Casey with a small smile. “Dry snow?”
“You’ve never seen snow before?”
Matt shook his head. “It’s not cold enough here.”
“Dry snow feels the nicest,” said Casey. “I would describe it as very soft, fine sand, powder almost. Wet snow is heavier; you might be buried alive.”
Matt glanced at his paper. “Oh, so…So you wouldn’t want to be buried alive.”
Casey gave a small chuckle. Then, leaving, he gave a small bow. It was when he was by the hallway outside the door that the servant gave another polite greeting. “Your Majesty.”
Alarmed, Matt hurriedly slid the parchment into his drawer just as his father’s footsteps stopped near the door. Father’s heavy but sturdy footsteps crossed the wooden floor, creaking, stopped a short distance behind his chair and demanded Matt’s attention.
“What are you up to?” Father asked, glancing at empty space atop his desk.
Matt shook his head and told him nothing, so the man waited but Father was not good at playing the waiting game. A few days ago, Arthur had sat Matt down and had a long serious talk with him.
“Father’s health was deteriorating”, Arthur had begun. “Even if you don’t necessarily like Father, you should make things easier for the man.”
Arthur had been trying to explain that everybody deserved a peaceful goodbye but the barking of a black dog outside the window had prevented Matt from catching the entirety of what Arthur was saying. Arthur seemed to have gotten something fundamentally wrong: Matt didn’t dislike Father. There was this disconnection between his father and him that neither of them really could explain.
“Listen to me when I’m talking to you.” Father’s voice rose in volume. “This afternoon, I expect you to be downstairs by the gate at three sharp. We will go speak with the professors and see if you can find a profession to stay in. Do you hear me?”
Matt nodded and made a noise of agreement. Satisfied, Father left the room no doubt to attend to the official businesses. The officials Father was meeting were already arriving and their carriages were, one by one, unblocking the main gate as they pulled away to the stable. From the window where Matt sat watching, the figures walked through the courtyard in pairs and occasionally in half a dozen. Their heads bent over pieces of paper and their murmurs traveled. Matt moved away. It was way too early for this; he would rather be asleep.
The hand figure on the clock ticked; Matt watched it go, wondering if he actually had heard the ticking or if he had imagined it all in his head; he thought he heard it but the busy rumbling from outside the window had stopped him from hearing even his own heart beating. He hesitated, turned toward the door, moved, heading downstairs before remembering again that today was indeed a Saturday. Hurriedly, he rushed back into his room and grabbed the manuscripts he had tried to hide from Father.
On the way outside, he clashed into Arthur at the corner. The first prince frowned and grabbed him by his collar as Matt stumbled back. “Hey, watch your steps! Where you off to? Running from Father again?” Arthur paused, glancing at the paper rolled up in his hands. “What’s the paper for?“
Matt cleared his throat and brushed away the hand. He told Arthur that he was heading to the post office and asked if the first prince needed anything mailed. Usually, Matt left for the post office on Friday evenings right after dinner and would come back before the hour was done. However, last evening saw a mild conflict between him and his father. He didn’t find time after that. Matt frowned, a little anxious by the turn of events. They were probably waiting for his paper already. Still, one day late wouldn’t be much of a hassle, would it? He had been a week late before.
“Mail?” Arthur sounded surprised. “We have errand runners. Ask one of them to do it; I’m sure they’re all just idling around, waiting for work.”
That was true. There were people hired to do that but Matt would rather stretch his leg and escape the house for a few moments. Besides, the weather was moderately nice, minus the cold breeze and the sun hiding behind the clouds
He wondered if it was going to snow.
Arthur arched an eyebrow at his response. Then he sighed. “You know, Matt, Father only wants the best for you. We all do.”
Matt knew but something about Father instilled more anxiety than comfort in him. And that wasn’t something Matt was proud to admit. Brushing past Arthur, Matt hurried to the gate. Behind him, Arthur’s coat gently swished as he turned to watch Matt go. Matt wondered if he had hurt his brother; he’d just treat Arthur to some cake once he was back.
The post office was exploding with excess life when Matt entered. It had been so ever since the war in the West had taken a turn and the high king had drafted more soldiers. Mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers were waiting in line in agitation, letters and parcels in their grip. Matt found their efforts a little amusing because most of the letters would not make it to their intended receivers. Commanders at the front were too afraid of the soldiers missing home and deserting their position. That, and that spying was a thing now. They could potentially check every single letter for espionage but once the papers arrived in bucket loads, there was no way to ensure they had everything. Better safety at the price of dissatisfaction was their logic.
Matt paused. No wonder the roaring bonfire down by the square burned like parchment and ink during the days of deployment. But then, with the war constantly on and off in the west, every other week was deployment week. Just next Saturday was another tentative deployment date. They would be having a bonfire on Friday to send the sons and daughters off to war. With a weary sigh, Matt pushed the thin package in his hand down the chute. It landed lightly atop a basket of others that would be delivered later in the day. The tavern, truth be told, wasn’t all that far from here but Matt would rather not drop it off by himself. There was something thrilling and powerful about anonymity.
When Matt came back, Father was still shut in the dining room with the officials. Although the doors were locked, their voices still traveled as Matt walked past it. He hesitated, stopped, and listened by the door. Voices faintly came through the door like the quiet breath of wind. They were talking about the war again. By the sound of it, Father didn’t like the notion at all.
A slam of the table. Father’s voice rose. “We’re all but sending our children into coffins.”
The voice objected. Matt leaned in closer, trying to hear the softer tones. A hand settled on his shoulder. The owner roughly spun him around. “Eavesdropping?” Arthur didn’t look disappointed; he looked proud.
Matt huffed. He was curious. He was, after all, the son of a king. Therefore, he had to at least have some concern for the welfare of the kingdom. It made him a little prouder of himself.
“What are you smiling for?” Arthur looked a little confused.
“Oh, nothing,” replied Matt. “I’d be in my room if Father asks.”
Before Matt could hightail out, Arthur stopped him. “Speaking of Father, he instructed that you go down to the barrack and help out with the soldiers. New recruits. Seeing that you have nothing better to do—his words, not mine—you should go do whatever you can to ensure that the soldiers settle in nicely. Can’t send them off to war with sore bodies, can we now?”
“...That’s awfully suggestive of you.” Matt wrinkled his nose.
“Wasn’t asking for your opinion.” Arthur rolled his eyes. “Go before Father comes out. When you get to the barrack, go find Clay. He’s the instructor. ”
Begrudgingly, Matt nodded. Inside the room, his father’s voice crackled like thunder, trying to devise a plan to end all war. Arthur sighed, shook his head, and clapped Matt on the should as he walked away without another word. Matt wondered if Arthur was feeling sad for the soldiers.
The barrack was only a short distance walk away from the city’s buzzing tavern. The old lady, Cardinal, who founded the tavern, certainly had thought of the soldiers when she built the tavern. After all, what did a soldier want more than a cold beer at the end of a long day? If Matt had time, he decided he would stop by the tavern on the way back. That place was a breeding ground for gossips. If Arthur ever wanted to know how much fur George’s pregnant dog Candy had shed, the tavern was the place to go.
But amid everything else, Matt was really interested in only two things: news from the front and Raven, the pseudonym Matt had adopted as a writer. The old lady at the tavern had been kind enough to accept his stories and granted him a place in the tavern newspaper. People liked his story, she had told him once after he had sent her the sixth chapter. He should keep writing. However, she wasn’t as smitten with him the first time they met. In fact, she had been like a block of ice slapped in his face.
“What was a prince like you doing writing stories?” she had asked. “Is this the king’s way of integrating his sons into society? Trying to be like us? No, he doesn’t care about our children at all. Sending them all off to war while his sons stay home safe, talk politics and write stories. Ha. Imagine that.” She had gone off muttering her grievances, all the while glowering bitterly at him.
“I’m not my father,” Matt had replied, cutting her off. “He doesn’t know I’m doing this.”
She had glanced at him for a long minute before snatching the parchment off the table, glanced at it, pursed her lips and said, “Fine. I’ll take it. See if the customers like it. If not, I’ll burn it.”
“Just ‘thanks’? Should I at least get a ‘thank you, ma’am’?”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
She crossed her arms. “’Ma’am’? You think it’s okay to call me ‘ma’am’ just because I’m old? No, that sound way too old. I don’t like it.”
“Thank you, miss.”
Her eyes had narrowed. “Call me Cardinal. If you call me anything else, I’ll burn your paper then make you drink it.”
Now that Matt thought about it, that was a little disturbing. But that was Cardinal. Cardinal was her own person with her own sense of humor—or what Matt hoped was humor—developed through years of solitude. Her husband and son had served and died on the front. The front eats people, she’d said. The front was a monster itself, swallowing both sides in a merciless gulp like patrons downing their mugs of ale without pausing to savor the taste. She blamed Matt’s father for the death of her family. She used to blame Matt but not anymore; she’d told him that he wasn’t like his father and he, therefore, should not bear the sins. Matt wasn’t sure if he should feel relieved.
The carriage took him right outside the barrack. He paid the man and stepped out. The man bid him a polite farewell before gathering the reins again and clopped off. The two soldiers at the gate of the barrack recognized him and so made no move to stop him as he crossed the threshold. The weather was warmer than he had expected. A bead of sweat made its way down his face and he wiped it away. In the near distance, he heard the shouts of the soldiers as they made their way through their drills. A group of scandalously-clad soldiers that would make his sisters gush jogged past. Matt wondered if he should stop them and ask for Clay’s whereabouts.
In the end, Matt headed deeper to the training ground. Perhaps he could find some helpful souls there. No doubt everybody here knew who Clay was. Eventually, he would find Clay. Matt glanced up. It was noon. He had a while before he was to return home. Three hours should be enough to find a man.
Clay found him. Actually, it was Clay’s dog who found him. Matt had taken only one step forward before the four-legged creature ripped across the grass field in a black blur and rushed toward him with an eagerness Matt did not like. Instinctively, Matt sidestepped. The creature slowed to a stop and turned back with a disgusted look.
“Well, excuse you,” said Matt.
“Don’t mind him. He’s just spoiled,” a man said loudly, walking in from the direction of the barracks.
“Oh, no worries—”
“I was talking to Barron, actually.” The man jerked his head at the black dog coming back their way in a slow run. “And you must be…Mikhail the fifth prince.”
“Actually, it’s Matt.”
The man squinted. “Not Mikhail?”
Matt shook his head. “Not Mikhail.”
“Oh.” The man paused, a little crestfallen, then extended a hand. “I’m Clay. I’m the instructor.”
Matt took the hand and shook it. The shake was firm, although a little calloused. Tiny scars marred the man’s hands and his thumb was crooked. It looked as if a bone had been broken and then reset the wrong way.
Clay pulled away his hand and whistled for Barron. The dog came to him obediently, sitting down by Clay’s boot-clad feet. The man glanced at Matt and said, “So, the king sent you?”
“Yes.” Matt tilted his head, unsure of Clay’s tone.
Matt thought he heard a touch of bitterness in the five simple words. It wasn’t strange for people to harbor hatred against Father for deciding to take a side in the war. His father’s signing of the alliance had to have put hundreds and thousands of lives into coffins; Father had no choice. No, hate wasn’t a strange concept. The admiration beneath Clay’s words, however, was.
“What can I help with?” asked Matt.
“I had something in mind, but now that we talked, I have other ideas.” Clay jerked his head toward the training grounds. “Say, do you know how to shoot a gun, son?”
“I did,” Matt told him.
“You did?” Clay looked skeptical, glancing over his shoulder as they trudged along. “Past tense? Once you learn how to fire a gun, it doesn’t go away. Rusty, maybe, but not gone. Never gone.”
Clay sounded a little threatening. It was as if forgetting how to shoot a gun was a shameful thing to admit to. Matt disagreed. “I’d rather not fire one again.”
Matt cocked his head slightly to the side. “I think I killed somebody.” He wondered if he was right.
Clay looked at him. “Why do you think that?”
Matt told him he didn’t know. It could’ve all been a dream but every time his finger closed around the trigger of a gun, he saw Father and Arthur’s face in a flash. There was something horrible and sad about it that Matt didn’t like. He felt as if he was missing something important. He probably was. He felt as if he’d killed somebody important to his father.