Leighton Wilkins cleared his throat before gazing around at everyone gathered at the table, a proud expression on his face. He was dressed in his best clothes: a plum red silk shirt and a pair of well-fitted trousers. Pinned to his breast pocket was a golden brooch, which all the Royal Advisors wore.
Beside him sat his wife, a bright smile on her face. She wore a flowing red gown and her favourite necklace-the one with the rubies-and beamed at no one in particular.
The next three seats were occupied by Alana, Grusha and Imara, all three of them looking tame and well-groomed (Grusha especially had taken a lot of extra effort, having pulled stray twigs out of her hair and brushed all the tangles out of it)
On the opposite side of the table, there was Nan and Barnaby. The latter was playing around with the cutlery nervously, though Nan was doing her best to get him to sit still. She had just smacked a fork out of his hands when the doors swung open; Barnaby panicked and slammed the table, which resulted in said fork flying across the table and landing on the ground.
Everyone stared at him, and he flushed and tried to hide his face. Nan rolled her eyes.
‘Your Highness!’ Leighton said, standing up to greet the two people who had just entered. Everyone else followed suit; Barnaby knocked his knees against the table as he stood, but, mercifully, no one noticed.
After all, the very idea of having dinner with the king and his son was enough to make anyone feel queasy. One wrong move and it could end with his father being demoted. Or fired, even.
This was the first time Barnaby had been invited (it was an Elementalists-only affair) and he rather wished they had just left him be. Now, he took this opportunity to look at the king and price close-up.
The king didn’t look very impressive and was dressed modestly. One wouldn’t have pegged him as a member of royalty if not for the golden crown perched atop his balding head. He walked with a slight limp, favouring his right foot. He had a fixed smile on his face, as though it was required of him to maintain the same expression wherever he went.
His son appeared considerably more excited than him. He was dressed in the same simple attire, but his shining blue eyes and the way he jumped slightly as he walked, as though he couldn’t hold back his excitement, drew Barnaby’s eyes to him. The boy, who couldn’t have been more than fifteen years of age, walked up to the vacant chair next to Barnaby briskly, nodding at everyone at the table before sitting down. The King took his place at the head of the table.
The food was brought in almost immediately after, by several people. There was a separate man to place the dishes on the table; one to pour the wine, and two others to go around serving.
Barnaby nibbled on a slice of bread and sampled the soup, which was rather bland, but said nothing until he felt a light pat on his shoulder.
‘Hullo there!’ he turned to find the prince grinning at him.
Barnaby almost dropped the bread in surprise; he would have preferred to remain invisible for the duration of the meal.
‘Haven’t seen you around here before’ the prince went on when Barnaby said nothing, and Barnaby realized that he may have come off as rude, which was not the kind of impression one wanted to leave on the prince.
So, he cleared his throat and said, ‘Um, well, I didn’t show any signs of having any power until two days ago’
‘Yes, I figured … seems rather unfair though, doesn’t it? That you aren’t allowed to dine with the royal family unless you have powers’
Barnaby only shrugged, not wanting to offer his opinion for fear of unintendedly offending someone (which he did a lot) and his companion nodded, saying ‘I’m Leopold, by the way. But you can call me Leo’
‘Barnaby’ said Barnaby, adding, ‘And may I add that I would prefer you didn’t call me anything other than Barnaby? Mother sometimes calls me her Bar-bear, and it embarrasses me no end’
The prince laughed, and Barnaby wondered if he had said too much. What did one talk about with the prince, anyway? The affairs of state? (which, admittedly, wasn’t a topic Barnaby was too interested in, though he had read several books on the history of the land) The décor? (again, Barnaby felt like he was highly likely to offend someone if he dared offer his opinion on anything, even something as inconsequential as the tablecloth in the room) Or perhaps he should simply nod and let the prince do all the talking (this was certainly what Barnaby preferred, and he planned to go through with it, unless or until the prince actually forced him to answer a question)
‘Barnaby it is’ the prince repeated with a wide smile, ‘So, what’s your element, then?’
‘Water’ Barnaby replied, and then added conversationally, ‘Yours?’
‘Metal’ replied Leo.
‘Don’t you go to the School?’
Maybe if I ask enough mundane questions, I won’t have to answer any, Barnaby thought to himself. Additionally, he was also curious regarding how the prince went about with his schooling.
‘Don’t have to. I’m tutored by the best Elementalists at the palace’ Leo responded with a shrug, as though it was no big deal, which, Barnaby supposed, for him, it wasn’t. ‘Sometimes I think I might be missing out though’
‘How so?’ Barnaby wanted to know.
‘You know; going to school and making friends … it gets lonely all by myself in the palace sometimes’ he revealed.
’Oh. Well, it can’t be all that bad’
It sounded like the ideal life to Barnaby. Maybe not so much all the learning, but at least he would enjoy the solitude. And he was sure there were many books at the palace. He had heard stories about the large library there.
‘I suppose’ Leo cheered up a second later, ‘Sometimes I get to talk to people my age. Like you! I was so excited when father told me you would be joining us for dinner today! I never did get along very well with any of your sisters.’
‘They’re okay …’ Barnaby said defensively.
‘Of course they are’ the prince agreed, nodding, ’But they’re girls’ he said meaningfully.
Having grown up in a household dominated by women, Barnaby didn’t see what his point was, but he went along with it, nodding as though he understood what Leo meant.
‘So, what do you do for fun then?’ Leo went on enthusiastically.
‘Read, I suppose?’ Barnaby said (it wasn’t really a supposition, he added in his head. It was the only thing he ever seemed to do)
The prince looked disappointed. ’Oh, that’s, um,’
‘Stupid?’ Barnaby said.
‘No! All the wise men in the palace always have their nose stuck in some book or the other. Maybe you’ll become like one of them when you grow up’
‘Fat chance. I’m not very powerful’
‘You don’t have to be very powerful for that’ Leo assured him, ‘Just know the basics. It’s more about your mental abilities’
‘You think so?’ Barnaby cheered up considerably at the news; perhaps there was hope for him yet.
’I know so’ the prince said solemnly, ‘And anyway, I’ll be king by then, so I’ll be in charge’ he said proudly, ‘And I wouldn’t deny my friend a position in the palace’
‘Friend?’ Barnaby managed to choke out.
His companion looked alarmed. ’That is, if you want to be friends’ he said.
Want to be friends? With the prince? The obvious answer was yes, but not simply because the boy was royalty, and you did not want to mess with someone who lived in the palace and was the heir to the throne, but because he seemed to Barnaby like a genuinely nice person. And, in Barnaby’s world, there weren’t many of those, leave alone good people who wanted to be friends with him.
So, he nodded, and even managed to muster up a smile, which caused Leo to look both pleased and relieved at the same time.
‘Good’ he said, ‘We can meet during your holidays, I reckon. I’ll ask father.’ Then he leaned back in his chair, a wide grin on his face, ‘We’ll have some fun, won’t we?’
‘If you find reading books to be fun’ Barnaby joked with a neutral expression. The prince stared at him for only a second before they both began to laugh.
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