Chapter One: In Which A Quest Is Required

Chapter One: In Which A Quest Is Required

Fairy-companions weren’t unheard-of. Unusual, but not unheard-of. Rare. Legendary, even.

Oliver couldn’t remember a time without his.

To be fair, technically he could; he’d been about thirteen when Tirian had turned up at the palace for the afternoon open session, looking like any other finely-dressed twelve-year-old boy, walking in wide-eyed alongside every petitioner new to court. The difference, of course, had been that for those huge storm-grey eyes everything human was new.

The difference had been that Tir wasn’t and never would be human.

Oliver stood next to his mother on the dais. Waved at assembled barons and village representatives and small children. Aimed for royal dignity; as usual missed it by a mile and a half. He never quite knew what to do with his hands, with his feet, with himself. Big and clumsy in green velvet. Crown Prince’s coronet heavy on his hair. He didn’t mind being outside amid gilded sun and autumn grass for the announcements and honors, but he’d rather have a sketchbook and a pencil and a spot from which to document the scene, as opposed to being part of it.

Tir, who could probably read those thoughts—Oliver’d worked hard to keep anxiety and stress out of the Crown Prince’s expression, but his fairy knew him too well—shifted weight imperceptibly closer. Their shoulders nearly brushed. Support, as much as possible. Tir hadn’t bothered declining his own spot on the dais; Queen Eleuthenia’d made his position as another family member entirely clear over a decade before, and none of her children would disappoint her. In any case he wouldn’t leave Oliver alone for a public audience. That much was also entirely clear.

Tirian occasionally worried too much, Oliver thought; but then again he couldn’t imagine life without that sword-slim shadow at his side, the dark elegant contrast to Ollie’s own rumpled-sunbeam height. The Crown Prince generally looked as if he’d been made by someone who’d heard about blond-haired muscular heroes but hadn’t got all the rough-hewn edges smoothed out; Tir somehow had managed to appear polished and put-together even the morning after the last Spring Festival and all the honeyed mead. Tir could show up at a formal audience barefoot and yawning, black hair falling out of a tangled knot and into sleepy smoke-and-silver eyes, and would still make everyone else feel instantly overdressed, Ollie concluded.

He wasn’t jealous, though. Tir was his best friend. His anchor, especially in moments like this. Besides, he’d once seen his fairy purchase what’d looked like the entire contents of a bookshop, scoop them all into adoring arms, and proceed to drop every single volume on his own feet.

The last prince with a fairy-companion had lived just over three hundred years ago, outside anyone’s lifetime but recent enough to be well-documented in Bellemare’s history books, and they’d fought as brothers-in-arms to hold the country together during the Great Civil War. They’d been heroes; statues sit atop civic monuments and observe the horizon benevolently. Oliver had always liked that story. About heroes. About heroes together.

Their kingdom hovered right at the edge of the Northern Wild; beyond the border lay Fairyland and magic and perilous enchantment. Occasionally periwinkle-furred foxes or small swooping firebirds flitted over; crops grew permanently green and lush, and trade with more southern realms reflected both the wealth and the indefinable glinting ethereal edge to homespun lace and shawls and sugar-berries. In general the people of the kingdom regarded magic with a sort of grimly resigned humor: power might level mountains, which could be good or bad. Most villages had at least one wise man or a woman who could suggest where to best dig that new well or a smith with a surprisingly delicate hand; tales of fighters with an extra sixth sense, or trackers who could follow the wind, or someone’s great-great-aunt once-removed being able to make roses bloom mid-winter, grew as common as grass but less believable. Most people’d never seen a proper fairy.

Or they hadn’t. Until Tirian.

Everyone in the kingdom knew Tir was a fairy. Oliver glanced sideways at him, hopefully unnoticed. His feet were getting tired.

His mother was busy bestowing land-gifts upon a new baron, who beamed. Cedric, on her other side, seemed to be trying to flirt with half the crowd. The crowd did not mind, and adored the youngest prince with vast adoration, quite often physical. Cedric hopped in and out of beds without discrimination and with good humor, and knew perfectly well that he would be too impatient and easily distracted to make a good king; he’d said as much, laughing, content with a spot on the Small Council and the ability to read the gossiping pulse of the kingdom. When they’d been growing up Ollie’d vaguely liked and mostly tolerated his youngest sibling with the distant fondness of the eight years between them; he’d been somewhat surprised to discover that they were friends these days.

This accounted for three-fifths of the royal horde, including Tir. Princess Eleanora Margretta, happily married to the second son of the King and Queen of Statsburg-to-the-East, was making herself generally indispensable and beloved in terms of civic improvements and enlargement of grammar-schools and ladies’ rights; Em was a year younger than Oliver, and he missed her, but she wouldn’t bother to come back for a simple seasonal address. Both Em and Lou—Princess Louisa Georgiana, who’d cheerfully rejected the idea of any court betrothal whatsoever and was studying under one of the great physicians of Al-Shirah, far down South—would be back for Midwinter, anyway, he thought, and this thought cheered him up until he remembered that he was still standing on a dais in front of the castle with hundreds of eyes evaluating his fitness to be Crown Prince.

Bellemare wasn’t a large kingdom, mostly just the last hop of an outpost before the chilly sorcerous North. Small enough to ride across in a week or so. A skip and a jump, a puddle on a map between the Western Ocean and the Lower Countries, and without any standing militia except the cheerful Home Guard.

But nobody dared invade a land that shared uneasy borders with magic.

He glanced at Tir again. Tir stood perfectly straight and sweet-faced and calm in blue silk and brocade, more composed in the face of crowds than Oliver would ever be. Tir should’ve been the Crown Prince. He wriggled toes surreptitiously. His shoes pinched.

Everyone did know Tir was a fairy, but for a fairy he didn’t do anything much. Finding a lost kitten or two, healing Oliver’s little brother’s broken arm, somehow always in the kitchen when blueberry pie appeared. Barely magical, as far as anyone could tell; it was mildly reassuring that he could get lost in a book or trip over a stairstep like the rest of them, and it was a good omen, rumors suggested, to have a fairy around. Good luck. A blessing, even if he was practically not a fairy at all; and the village baker, laughing, had thrown a cinnamon roll out to Tir from the window as she’d said it. He’d caught it adroitly and grinned.

He was Oliver’s loyal shadow. He had been for fifteen years.

His mother finished her ceremonial rewarding of barons and proclamations regarding the state of the land and the opening of the Historical Society Museum, took off her crown, and announced, “All right, now we’re having the party,” and invited all assembled subjects, poor and rich and middle-class, to the feast spread out on the castle’s great lawn.

Tir leaned in toward him. “Strawberry wine and impromptu musical performances at the tavern?”

“Absolutely yes,” Oliver concurred. Tir liked to sing, a fairy-stereotype truth about which the family teased him mercilessly; but then they all performed, song and harp and lute, a musical royal horde, so that was just one more voice in the melodious din. “Just let me change shoes.”

“Already arranged. There’s a spare pair just inside the east door.”

Ollie grinned. “What would I do without you?”

“You’d be a human disaster,” Tir said very seriously, eyes dancing. “You’d—”

“Oliver?” His mother’s voice snagged their attention immediately. “I do need to talk to you.”

“Of course.” He made an apologetic face at his fairy, who shrugged. “About what?”

“Oh…Tir, sweetheart, you can come too.” Ellie smiled up at him: shorter, rounder, and wiser than both of them, every inch a Queen down to the dust on her boots from walking through a local turnip field to see about leaf-rot for herself. She’d begun her rule with her beloved King-Consort at her side; he’d died young and unexpectedly, the victim of the brutal summer fever when Ollie’d been fifteen. At twenty-eight, the loss was no longer an open wound but an indelible scar; Cedric, eight years younger, barely had memories of their father. Eleuthenia had held them all together and raised four—five, counting Tirian—children and mothered a kingdom; she opened the castle’s doors to anyone in need, and Oliver only hoped to be half the ruler she was. He was in no hurry to take over.

Tir had been living at the castle for two years at that point. He hadn’t known King-Consort Henry as well as the rest of them, but they’d been equally fond of books and antique ballads, and Henry’d made a point of asking very seriously their youthful fairy-visitor’s opinion on human verse and prose. Tir, who’d been more shy—or at least more reserved—back then, had always willingly answered. Ollie remembered that.

He also remembered the grief. The time they’d been guests at the first Royal Theatre opening night without their father, a production of Dall’s wonderful irreverent Witches, and he’d had to get up and leave and duck into an alley because he’d thought of his father laughing at a line—

Tir had followed, and had sat with him, arm around him on the dirty boot-trodden paving-stones, while he cried his heart out. He’d realized upon finally looking up that Tir, holding out a handkerchief to him, had been crying too.

They trailed after Ellie: up stone stairs, down a tapestried hallway, into her curved buttonhole of an office. She could’ve had a bigger space; she always said that the tiny tower room kept her organized. Ollie, capable of setting down a sketchbook and not finding it two minutes later, considered this ruthless maternal tidiness to be mildly terrifying.

He liked his current life, in a vague unexamined way. He liked gradually assuming more responsibility: meetings with the Small Council and the larger Parliament of Lords and Representatives, state visits to the new wing of the University, a few more open court sessions every month. He liked being able to forget the crown and go mingle with potters and off-duty Home Guard and philosophers in pubs, Tir in tow like a long-legged quietly amused panther with literary tendencies.

He’d heard approving murmurs about his lack of ceremony and willingness to jump in and play pub drinking games with or sketch swift charcoal portraits of his future subjects. He knew without bragging that he was a decent artist, enough so that if he weren’t the Heir he could make a moderate-to-good living at it; as it was, he took the odd commission if he found the requester or topic intriguing, and captured family moments in spare evenings, and otherwise gave away stray pencil-scenes to, say, tavern-owners or the mother of the little girl with the fluffy dog he’d done a series of. The kingdom was small enough that most everyone’d run into at least one member of the royal family at least once in a lifetime, more for those living in the village clustered in the palace’s rambling stone skirts.

The appreciative murmurers hadn’t quite figured out that the Crown Prince in particular preferred being informal because formality was difficult. He did end up sweaty and fretful when all eyes were on him and aggressively deferential.

And his formal audience shoes continued to pinch. He’d forgotten to change. He shuffled feet on the carpet of his mother’s office while she took a seat behind her spotless desk. Sounds and scents of the festival drifted up from outside: roasted meat, cinnamon and spice, laughter and wild ale.

No, he wasn’t ready to run the kingdom. Maybe someday—not for a long time, he hoped—but not yet. He knew as much. He knew he was in no hurry at all.

Tir, of course, wasn’t the Crown Prince, nor even in line for the throne. But he might as well be: Ollie ran drafted speeches and petition-replies by him, and they were always better for it; Oliver drew him when he was reading, when his mouth quirked up at an entertaining line, and Tir tolerated multiple studies of elegant fingers and curved lips and artistically interesting features with patient good humor. He’d even let Oliver employ him as a model when needed. He’d put up with this for years.

“You might want to take a seat,” Ellie said calmly, steel under her tone, while tipsy tatterdemalion mingling continued on the lawn.

Two minutes later, Oliver protested loudly, “You want me to what?”

“You’re nearly thirty, and—”

“I’m twenty-eight!”

“—nearly thirty, and it’s time you went on your Vision Quest.” His mother crossed her arms. “You can’t put it off forever.”

“But,” he tried. “I don’t want to.” He didn’t. He didn’t want to think about that. Had successfully not been thinking about that for twenty-eight years. He did like his life. He liked it the way it was.

“Every Crown Prince or Princess for the last thousand years has gone on a Vision Quest to the Seeing Pool in the Northern—”

“—in the Northern Territories, where they’ve battled fearsome dangers and glimpsed the faces of their respective True Loves,” Oliver grumbled. Tradition: important. He knew that. “I just…I don’t know, can’t I…not? Not yet? I mean, I’m happy.”

Tir, perched on the arm of his chair like a gracefully sarcastic lynx, noted, “You might also be happy with True Love, you know.”

“You’re not helping!”

“Oliver,” his mother said. She was giving him the patented hopeful maternal gaze. She could inspire martyrs. Summon armies. Conquer the sun. “I don’t want you to be alone.”

“I’m not alone!” He waved an arm vaguely. “I’ve got…y’know, I’ve got Tir! Right, Tir?”

Tir made a small movement, almost infinitesimal, almost a flinch; but in the next eyeblink he was lazily smiling, head tipped to one side, legs stretched out to let the floor prop them up, so much so that Oliver doubted his own perception of a second before. “Oh, of course. Inarguably.”

“See?” But his mother wasn’t looking at him. He followed her sightline; discovered her looking at Tirian. “Mother,” Ollie attempted plaintively.

“You know I love you,” Ellie told them, a queen and a mother, gazing at her eldest boys. “Both of you, very much.”

“Of course we know,” Oliver said, baffled. “Is…oh sweet blue stars, is everything okay?”

“Of course we know,” Tir said after him, more softly and more heartfelt than Ollie might’ve expected. He had a feeling there was something else he couldn’t hear being said, but they weren’t saying it to him.

“And, Oliver, everything’s fine,” his mother added, tone the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head. “It’s time, that’s all. You’ll leave next week. I’ve made arrangements for your brother to handle your administrative duties here. It’ll be good for him. For you both.”

“I’m coming with you,” Tir said. No: not said. Stated. Fact.

“Well, sure,” Oliver sighed, “you’re here to be my companion, aren’t you? I guess we’re going North,” and resigned himself to a Vision Quest, responsibility, and quite possibly True Love.

Next Chapter: Chapter Two: In Which A Quest Begins