Prince Jevon grew up on scrolls, ink, and library dust. The older Prince Gerome built forts. Crown Prince Thames read and reenacted sword maneuvers. Jevon secluded himself in a deep corner with a stash of candles and would be interrupted only for dinner. He was the third and youngest, though Annabelle was even younger, but she was also a girl. Her only contribution to the family would be a well-placed marriage and heirs to spare should war take her older brothers. Jevon would be given to a political marriage as well, but this would be in addition to a diplomatic post or counselor position. He’d manage some lands of course, something Annabelle would only ever do should her husband die. While still fairly young, Jevon and Annabelle conspired how they’d carry out the act without their father discovering.
Their maturation changes this. Their mother exchanges Annabelle’s well-fitted undergarments for corsets, and Annabelle complains only for the first few months before she meets Lord Jared of the Northwestern Isles.
“He’s much like you,” she whispers to Jevon on the balcony, the bard trilling out another long note for the feasting nobles behind them. While the bard sings, neither their king nor queen will search for them, and the servants know they will only nod and relocate to another, more secluded location should they be interrupted.
Jevon swallows his gulp of wine. “Much like me. A disappointment?”
Annabelle snorts lightly, her own bad habit when company is familiar. “A scholar, and generally decent.” She lifts her cup, peering at him over the rim of it with a purposeful tilt. “His father is near dead, and Jared’s concerned about taking over the management of the lands. He asked if I had any advice.”
“He asked you?”
Annabelle swats him on the arm with another snort. Eyes glittering, “Exactly. Just like you.” Jevon hums. Annabelle tilts her head again. “You’re not a disappointment.”
Jevon shrugs. “We’ll see.”
With a more prosperous agreement between the families, Annabelle marries and leaves with Lord Jared six months later. Jevon returns to his books, forced out only for councils and balls and the occasional, short diplomatic mission. He enjoys the traveling more than any of the other brothers, enjoys meeting the village children. He teaches them and some parents written numbers and passes on agricultural techniques he’s read. Many turn away or nod their heads as his father always did – condescendingly. Jevon continues anyway, pleased beyond measure when only one – but still one – of the villages implements a few of the techniques, and he sees the results of such on a proceeding journey.
“Princess Ophelia of Helveka arrives tomorrow,” the king reminds him over a steaming venison roast. Jevon picks at his food. Little Helga from a village not too far north of the castle had nearly gotten flogged for snaring a rabbit, a measly creature already too many summers too old and good only for stew. Jevon had laid claim to snaring it, and the other men wasted no time enumerating the old hare’s many faults. It was all right, in the end, for Helga got her hare, and Jevon’s naturally uninclined hunting skills were reaffirmed. “You will be expected to entertain her.”
The king frowns deeper. Jevon wishes Annabelle could see such a face directed at him and still call him a fool. “Yes. The kingdom of Helveka has many riches from their mines, and their army is strong. A marriage alliance would do both kingdoms well.”
Jevon inclines his head slightly. Princess Ophelia arrives as planned, and her father apologizes via letter for the ink staining the tips of her fingers and the unprecedented amount of time he is sure she will spend flipping through pages. Jevon forces himself not to look through the tomes she brought nor disclose his favourite library corner. He asks her horseback riding and hunts boar instead. He lazes around at the archery range, sweat dripping down his back and only a few arrows released. He spills wine and chews loudly and – once she admits to loving dancing – complains of sore feet multiple nights in a row. His father is furious long before the princess leaves, but there is little he can do when his son is so talented at being an ass.
Then she leaves, and Jevon says “Yes, sire” and “I apologize, sire” until his throat closes up, and his chest tightens, and he cannot breathe again until on yet another journey. Crown Prince Thames is married shortly after Jevon’s return. A year later and Prince Gerome is as well, but he leaves for battle less than two months after, and they receive news of his death a mere month before his heir is born. His wife assumes regency over his estates until her son is of age.
Jevon – along with the rest of the palace – congratulates Crown Prince Thames with the successful birth of a daughter. On the heels of the birth, Annabelle writes that she is on her third miscarriage, and Jevon advises a visit. The king sighs, “You must stop this one day.” Jevon inclines his head slightly. He leaves.
They are inebriated, inebriated and standing on Annabelle’s bedroom balcony with the stars shining in blurry streaks. Each one is a falling star, and Jevon wishes he knew what to wish from them all, but his words aren’t enough. Instead, he spends every one on Annabelle. Annabelle listens to him as he does to her as the night lengthens, and sobriety returns with a cruel edge. Jevon has nothing for Annabelle, no advice from his many books that she has not tried nor would be willing to. She does not need advice anyway.
He does, it seems. She thinks he does at the very least, and her sweetly sour breath whispers it into his ear, hiccups and giggles interrupting every other minute or so. He laughs it off that night but takes the full purse she offers several weeks later as he is mounting to leave her once more.
She kisses him on the cheek. “There’s always a choice. Think on my question.”
Jevon agrees, and when the council begins discussing another treaty and another marriage, he meets with his father that night.
“A tutor?” the king asks, though he had heard Jevon clearly. “What is my son doing as a tutor?!”
Jevon explains his position, the help and hope these sparse educations granted to the people. He has villages, he tells the king, that have listened to his advice and have learned from his words, and the children are healthier, the commerce is stronger, the food is more plentiful.
“No.” The king pauses and takes a swig of wine, but his tone was clear. His gaze – his glare – returns to Jevon. “Even if you were to tutor nobility, it would cause such a scandal, but you must choose the worst and go after peasants of all things. How do you not realise your own foolishness? Learning is only wasted on them. Is this childish dream truly what has caused you to act so embarrassingly? . . . Well?”
“I apologise for your distress, Father.”
The king sighs disgustedly, pressing the goblet up to his head for a moment. He speaks with his eyes closed. “No more, Jevon. No more. This marriage is one that will go through.”
The usual jolt of pleasure from having his father be so casual around him never appears. Jevon does not bother nodding. “I do not argue, my lord. May I have the time to visit Annabe-“
“Yes.” The goblet slams down. Wine splatters on the table.
“Thank you, sire.” Jevon bows and leaves, his father’s displeasure burning his back.
He rides out the next day when the sun is just peaking over the easterly turrets. He has fixed the patrol schedule and sent some soldiers home who should not be, inking over certain records to create a false protection around himself. His father will not look for him until perhaps a fortnight has passed, and he receives no letter from Annabelle or one of the soldiers returns from his unprecedented leave. Jevon hides the best he can, moves often, and becomes more adept at weaponry. Still, by his third month on his own, teaching villagers and taking odd jobs and relying on kindness, he knows the rumours of his new trade have reached his father.
The day Crown Prince Thames receives a pair of healthy twin boys, the king disowns Jevon. Jevon claims time for personal study, something he can hardly afford since he is living off the remnants of his sister’s generosity and the scraps others give. He claims the time anyway and retreats into the woods for a week. He appears at the next village over a fortnight later, and nobody has the chance to notice he’s been gone.
His back perpetually aches from sleeping on the ground. The skin on his shoulders feels like it should be rubbed raw from the weight of his bag and books. When collecting wood, he lifts the bundles easier than ever even as his arms and middle grow thinner and thinner until stabilizing at last. He trades his time as tutor for lessons in arrow and bow-crafting. He hides when men of a king traipse past – or upon – his snares or bounty. He hurts. He aches. He recognizes children from years before now learning to be physicians, now acting as messengers, now organizing village trade routes and bartering with merchants. They are good aches. He knows this. They are still aches. Months turn into years, and his feet grow into weary callouses, his bones into aching supports. A village offers him an empty hut for the night – the entire family killed by bandits – and he wonders how quickly it will take the years to turn into decades.
A polite knock sounds at the door. “Come in!” Jevon calls out. He blinks several times after she enters, fingers paused upon pages. For a brief moment, he wonders how he was found, but dismisses the thought as irrelevant. Instead, he scratches his beard and wonders why he put off washing for so long.
Ophelia, for Jevon knew a princess was not such without her fine clothes, smiles without the timidity she bore so many years before. She is a woman proper now, not the sprig from before that would have required a years-long betrothal period. With a grace betraying her courtly manners, she sways to him, gently removing his hands and leaning over the book herself. After a moment, she looks up at him, and Jevon carefully extracts himself by a few feet. In peasant’s clothes, yes, but the princess is still clean. Her smile returns.
“Princess Annabelle says you are much like her husband.”
Jevon folds his hands in front of himself, to hide his chipped fingernails as much as anything else. “She has said much of the same to me.”
Ophelia’s eyes wander to the book, her stance sure. It is rumored she took up the bow since their disastrous and short courtship. She takes a near indiscernible breath. “My brothers are dead, and my father ailing. I have been assured, though perhaps warned is a better word, that there is no reasonable hope for another heir to be made.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, your highness.”
She raises her head like the queen she will be, hair gently shaken back from her face. Her clear eyes challenge. “You are a man.”
“. . . Yes.”
“You are one man,” she gestures around the hut, “in a land of many villages and many kingdoms with many villages. How do expect to educate them all?”
Jevon inclines his own chin up. His own respect was never for others to take. “I do not, of course, but to not teach one more child is to condemn him.”
The corners of her mouth gradually lift. “It is better then, to teach as many as possible?”
“Yes, your highness.”
Her fingers drift over the book, almost absentmindedly, and she rests her hand on the table. It’s a distinctly familiar pose, her own bad habit perhaps. “Then would it not be more practical for you to educate many at once and send them out to educate others?”
Embers reheat in the depths of Jevon’s stomach, his uncertainty keeping them in check. “The pay is not enough for an educated man, your highness, and I cannot supplement it.”
“Ophelia. My name is Ophelia, Prince Jevon.”
“I believe my father disowned me, your- Ophelia. It is merely Jevon.”
She leans forward. “You are still a prince in the eyes of many. A warrior, if not a good one.” Jevon unintentionally barks out a laugh. Ophelia smiles slightly. “Most importantly, you are a man.”
Jevon brings his hands out, fingers stretching so just the tips brush the vellum. She follows the movement, eyes darting towards the book itself several times. He beats down a flare of excitement. “I am a man like my sister’s husband.”
Ophelia’s eyes jump to his. She sees his smile and returns it. He sees her raised chin and meets it. His own respect had never been for others to take. He can tell she knows this about herself already.
“Yes,” she agrees at last. Amusement alights in her eyes, and Jevon wonders suddenly if this was how she was so many years ago. “Do you understand my proposal, Jevon?”
He barks out another laugh. “I do, my queen.”
The candles in her eyes burn brighter, and she straightens even more. “And do you accept?”
Jevon places his own hand on the table, meeting her more than halfway. She stands still as if a force is holding her there, and Jevon feels it as well. He smiles more.
“Let’s discuss the terms.”