“Well,” Crown Prince Thomas (known to friends and family as Tommy) said, turning to his younger brother Kay, “this is it.”
“It is!” Kay replied, gawking at the interior of the down-at-heel tavern with undisguised glee. “I never thought I’d actually get to come here …”
“Shh,” Tommy replied, elbowing Kay — but not too hard, for fear that his elbow might accidentally poke through the fabric. Kay had filched the clothes — “disguises” he had optimistically called them — from their mother’s charity clothing bin. Tommy had told him to pick clothes that weren’t likely to be missed for a while, and Kay in his enthusiasm had probably done too well. Tommy had a feeling that these outfits were only one critical look away from being cut up for patches.
“Why?” Kay replied.
“Because you’re acting like you’ve never seen a place like this before,” Tommy hissed. Before Kay could remark that he had, in fact, never seen such a place as this, Tommy added, “And you’re drawing attention to us.”
“Oh,” Kay replied. “Right.”
“Are you two done blocking the door?” came a snarl from behind them. A quick glance confirmed to Tommy that this was not someone he wanted to mess with.
Kay’s expression was pure affronted royalty, but Tommy hustled him out of the way before he could say anything. “Yes, sir. Sorry about that, sir.”
The man sniffed. “See that it doesn’t happen again.”
Tommy didn’t bother to answer as he dragged Kay out of the man’s earshot. As soon as he let go of Kay’s arm, Kay wheeled on him. “What was that about?”
“Us–peasants,” Tommy answered, pointing to Kay’s clothes and the dirt he had smudged on his face. “Him–merchant, at least. Do you understand?”
“We could still take him,” Kay grumbled to his feet.
Tommy laughed. “Of course we could. We could take him in our sleep.” Kay looked up with a smile. “But would it be worth having to deal with Dad’s wrath when he had to bail us out of gaol?”
Kay’s face fell. “He wouldn’t bail us out … he’d send for the headsman.”
“Exactly. Now–we came here to have some fun–what do you say we start?” Kay nodded eagerly and Tommy grinned back.
“Oh my plumbob,” Kay said, point to the bar. “That’s–that’s Marigold Thatcher!”
Tommy turned around and, sure enough, there was the famous brothel madam. At least Tommy assumed it was her — but it probably was a safe assumption. There was only one other person with green skin and leaves for hair in Albion, and that was Marigold’s brother.
“And there’s Wei Li!” Kay called out, his jaw dropping. “Wow … she’s gorgeous …”
Tommy turned again to see an exotic-looking woman with midnight black hair, dressed in one of the most outlandish outfits he had ever seen. “Who?”
“Wei Li … they say she learned all sorts of things in Smina … ways to please men that no one west of Smarabia has ever heard of …”
Tommy shot his little brother a quizzical look. “And who exactly has been telling you all this?”
“Aglovale Gwynedd,” Kay replied without hesitation. “How much do you think it would take to have a go with her?”
“Wei Li?” Tommy pretended to size the lady of the night up. “Honestly?”
“Of course! I need to know if I have enough!”
“More than you can afford.”
“Hey!” Kay tried to punch Tommy’s arm, but it was an easy blow to dodge. “Well, I’m going to try anyway.”
“You have fun with that,” Tommy replied with a slight smirk as he watched Kay walk over to make a fool of himself.
Tommy went instead to the bar, signaling to the bartender as he found himself a stool. He heard a suppressed chuckle from his right and turned to look. “What?”
Marigold Thatcher surveyed him sidelong, a twinkle in her golden eyes. “You might want to go rescue your friend.”
“From what?” he asked, trying very hard not to turn around too quickly.
The madam chuckled. “He’s about to get himself told off by Wei Li.” Taking an appreciative draught of her bitter (Tommy, upon tasting the contents of his tankard, could be nowhere near as appreciative), she added, “It’s our night off. Last thing Wei Li wants — last thing any of us wants — is a customer.”
“Figures. Our night out is the — er — working girls’ night off,” Tommy replied, though without much feeling — somehow the thought of relieving his urges with a prostitute didn’t appeal to him. Maybe it was because he knew exactly who he wanted. Everyone else seemed somehow … lacking in comparison.
Thinking of his Lynn — her sweet smile, shy air, common sense and those lovely curves that she never seemed to appreciate — brought a smile to his face not even the bitter could wipe away.
“Do I know you?” Marigold asked suddenly, jolting Tommy from his reverie and almost making him spit his bitter out. He checked his hat quickly to make sure none of his distinct red hair was spilling out.
“N-no–I don’t think so.”
“You sure? Never tried to sneak into the cathouse?” Marigold asked with a definite twinkle in her eye.
“Hmmm …” Marigold leaned back, observing him more narrowly. “Got brothers?” she asked.
“Just the one, and he’s …” Tommy looked around, trying to find Kay in the crowd. “Oh, bloody hell.”
“How dare you?” Kay was shouting at Black-tunic. “Do you have any idea who I am? My father could–”
“Like I’d be afraid of whatever the man who sired you on your whore of a mother could do to me,” Black-tunic scoffed. “Does he even know you exist?”
Kay’s eyes went wide and his already-pale complexion went even whiter with rage. “You–you–” His hand went out–
Tommy grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back. “Sorry about that, sir–”
Kay’s hand knocked into a tankard left half-full on the bar. It fell forward, splashing onto Black-tunic.
He jumped back, looking onto his splattered tunic and hose in horror. “You–you clumsy oaf! You ruined my hose! And my boots!”
“Sorry, sir!” Tommy repeated, ignoring Kay’s death glares as he fished in his purse for the couple of silvers he’d brought for an emergency such as this. “Here,” he said, flipping one to the man. “This should cover it–now come on, Kay, apologize to the man.”
The question of whether Kay’s royal pride could have ever allowed an apology to a man who was so obviously beneath him was swiftly rendered moot. Black-tunic stared at the coin Tommy had flipped to him. Then he looked at Tommy and Kay’s outfits more closely.
Damn it! Tommy grabbed Kay’s tunic and tried to pull him away–
But not quickly enough. “GUARDS! THIEVES!” Black-tunic shouted, rousing the whole tavern.
“Well,” Kay said about an hour later, as they finally mounted the moon-drenched steps of the palace, “that could have been worse.”
“We could have gotten caught!”
Tommy barely suppressed a shudder. The only things that had saved them were sheer adolescent speed and the fact that, once they drew the chase into the better parts of the capitol, they knew the streets better than their pursuers. If any actual guards had gotten caught up in the chase while it was still in its early stages, well, right now they would have been sitting in a jail cell, probably, and begging the guards the guards to believe that really, they were princes, and to please, please notify the king that they were here. Tommy didn’t even want to imagine how that would have gone.
“But as it is … what an adventure!” Kay continued as they neared the door, his eyes shining. “Just wait until I tell Aglovale about it … oh, he’ll be so jealous …”
“Kay, no!” Tommy hissed, grabbing his brother’s shoulder. “You can’t tell anyone about this!”
“Because the minute you open your mouth, rumors will be flying all over the kingdom, and sooner or later they will reach Dad’s ears, and when they do–you’ll wish the guards had gotten us.”
Maybe it was the moonlight, but Kay seemed rather pale. “Oh … right.”
“Damn straight I’m right,” Tommy replied, opening up the door. “Now as long as Dad doesn’t find out–”
“As long as I don’t find out what?”
Tommy and Kay froze, gulped in unison, and turned to face what was at that moment their worst nightmare.
King Arthur stood at the foot of the stairs, tapping his foot impatiently, his arms crossed over his chest.
“F-Father,” Tommy stammered.
“Thomas,” Arthur replied, his voice like a cold yard of steel straight to the gut. Tommy gulped again.
“Well?” Arthur asked. “As long as I don’t find out what?”
“That Tommy and I went out on a pub-crawl and got taken for thieves and almost got arrested,” Kay said all in a rush. Tommy winced.
“Thieves?” Arthur inquired of Thomas.
“A misunderstanding.” One of Arthur’s eyebrows went up. Tommy tried not to wince. “Kay accidentally spilled a drink on a man’s tunic and I tossed him a silver to pay for it.”
“I see.” Arthur’s voice was perfectly, completely neutral. Somehow this was worse than any mere yelling could have been. “Thomas–Kay. My study.”
“But Father, we have–”
Arthur turned a withering look on his younger son and Kay swallowed whatever protest he was about to make. “Now,” was all he needed to say before he began to walk down the corridor. “And Thomas?” he added over his shoulder.
“Take off that stupid hat.”
After the longest walk in Tommy and Kay’s short lives, or so it felt, Arthur was seated behind the desk in his study and Tommy and Kay stood before him. His gaze was cold, the kind of gaze he gave to convicted felons who had used up their last chance at mercy. It was only through willpower alone that Tommy was able to keep from twisting his hat in his hands. Kay evidently did not have that kind of willpower, for the chattering of his teeth echoed through the room.
Arthur heaved an explosive sigh, and with it most of the tension fled the room. Instead of a stern king handing out punishment to traitors, he was merely an exasperated father dealing with two recalcitrant teenage boys. “What the hell am I going to do with you two?”
Kay and Tommy prudently did not answer that.
“Thomas,” Arthur started, making Tommy grit his teeth, “what were you thinking? Wandering into the most dangerous parts of town after dark–you are going to be king when I’m gone–”
“And maybe I wanted to have some fun before I get chained to a desk and have the whole bloody kingdom’s problems on my shoulders!” Tommy shouted before quite realizing that he had done so. “For heaven’s sake, Dad! We went into a bar, not a battlefield!”
Arthur did not yell, merely staring hard at Tommy. “Do you not realize,” he said slowly, “that there are men who would kill to be in your position?”
There was some sort of weird import to those words, but Tommy brushed it aside. “Then they’re fools! They don’t see the palace for what it is–a bloody gilded prison!”
“Tom–” Kay began, putting a hand on Tommy’s shoulder.
Tommy shook it off and glared at his father. Arthur glared just as hard at his son. Kay looked between the both of them with panic rising in his eyes.
“A prison,” Arthur repeated. “Is that how you see this place?”
“Any place is a prison if they won’t let you out,” Tommy answered, trying not to gulp.
“Is that what you want? More excursions? You know you have only to ask and you’ll have an escort–”
“No, Dad, that’s not what I want and you bloody well know it!” Tommy shouted. “It doesn’t count as getting out of prison if your gaoler comes with you!”
“Guards are a non-negotiable, Thomas–”
“It’s not about the guards and you–”
Three sets of guilty eyes turned to see the Queen standing at the doorway to the study, a dressing gown thrown over her night rail. “Allie,” Arthur gulped.
“Mum,” Tommy and Kay said in unison.
“Is there a reason why you’re waking the castle at an hour past midnight?” she asked, raising one eyebrow.
“The boys–” Arthur started.
“Should be in bed, they have school in the morning.” Arthur’s mouth opened to protest, but Queen Alison shook her head. “Don’t push this, Arthur — it’s late, none of you are thinking clearly, and if this continues all of you are going to say something you’ll only regret come morning. So. Boys, to bed.”
They glanced over their shoulders to Arthur, who sighed but nodded his leave. The boys shuffled past their mother, only stopped by Alison’s voice. “And Kay?”
“Wash your face. It’s filthy.”
Kay almost smiled. “Yes, Mum.” Then he gratefully made his escape.
King and Queen stared at each other as the door shut behind their two most troublesome offspring. Arthur was the first to give up. He sighed. “I just don’t know what to do with him.”
“Come now, Arthur,” Alison said, knowing without being told which son “him” was. “Were you any different at his age?”
“I knew what my responsibilities were–”
“So does Tommy. Why do you think he wants so badly to escape from them, if only for the length of an evening?”
Arthur winced. “I just don’t know what to do,” he repeated.
“You can start by getting up,” Alison replied, almost pulling him out of the chair to make him comply.
“Just hold still,” she murmured. Then her hands started to work on his back. “You’re in knots,” she remarked.
“Do you wonder why?”
“No,” she admitted. As she slowly worked the tension from Arthur’s shoulders, she ventured, “You ought to give him a bit more freedom, Arthur.”
“Impossible. I can’t–”
“I’m not talking about now–you have to protect him while he’s still under this roof,” Alison easily agreed. “But when he goes to university … try loosening the chains a little.”
“Yes, you can,” Alison murmured. “Or at least you can make him think you are.”
He looked over his shoulder and raised an enquiring eyebrow at her.
“Think about it,” she replied. “He can’t exactly bring a whole troop of guards with him to university — the authorities won’t allow it. But who’s to say that you can’t find a few of your loyalest young guardsmen, pay their tuition, and have them watch over him?”
“Befriend him, too?” Arthur asked.
“Mmm–I wouldn’t do that. Tommy would be furious if he found out — as you would be, if you thought your father had been ‘buying’ you friends.”
Arthur grunted. Then he said. “Tom will probably win them into his posse anyway … our boy is like that.”
“Indeed he is,” Alison replied with a mother’s warmth. “I’m almost surprised Tommy went on this excursion with just Kay … and didn’t ask young Will or Lamorak to come along.”
“Hmm … I expect it was too hard to work out, logistically … besides, the more people who know, the more likely it is that it’ll reach ears it wasn’t meant to … no, I think our boy weighed the options and thought it was better just to trust Kay … that’s what I would have done,” Arthur admitted.
“I know,” Alison replied. She finished her massage and stepped back. “Better?”
“Much.” Arthur straightened and stretched. Then he looked at his paper-ridden desk and sighed. “I should–”
“Oh, no you don’t.” Alison grabbed his hand and began to pull him away. “It can wait until morning.”
“MORNING.” She cast a quizzical glance at him. “Besides … by the time you finished it all, it would be morning anyway.”
Arthur sighed. “I suppose you could be right.”
“Of course I’m right. I’m your wife, I’m always right …” She drew close and kissed him. “Now come on. To bed.”
“I’ll ignore that.” She kissed him again. “Now, my king–to bed.”