2872 words (11 minute read)

Chapter 1

It was a bright and bustling day in Alpenwhist. The pastel blue sky stretched toward the horizon. The warmth of the hidden sun lingered on his skin. And the babel of voices rose past the kingdom’s auburn rooftops. Not a soul remained indoors with such fine weather—the cobbled streets were crowded with the working class, and the sidewalks overflowed with playful children. As the kingdom brimmed with life, it was the perfect day for mischief—or so Thom thought.

That afternoon, he hid under a hooded brown cloak—for which he had overpaid a beggar—and headed to the marketplace. He was a professional at sneaking out of the palace, but his wardrobe never had anything suitable for his favorite hobby. Thom’s princely marble white, high-collared vest was a terrible disguise. And that afternoon, it left him no choice but the stinking cloak that itched his skin.

On most days, Thom would visit a friend and change into more suitable attire. Unfortunately, as timely as it was, his dear old friend Bryt wasn’t allowed visitors for misbehaving. Bryt was as mischievous as Thom. In fact, the troublesome duo was often mistaken for brothers for their dark brown curls, black eyes, and tan skin from their many hours of tomfoolery. But Thom didn’t hold an ounce of grudge at Bryt—for the lack of clean clothes—and was oddly more forgiving toward him than his real brother. Granted, Thom’s current resentment toward Dedric was called for.

The moment they’d hooded themselves, Dedric had slipped off without a word. He was in such a hurry to meet his lover he abandoned Thom the first chance he got. Yes, his brother, the crown prince of Alpenwhist, had fallen in love. But the girl who’d stolen his heart was a commoner, clearly unbefitting for a queen. Thom was in disbelief when he uncovered Dedric’s secret. He couldn’t imagine what his parents would do if they found out. The king would certainly show his wrath, being a man who never bottled his anger.

Scanning the dense crowd, Thom knew it was rather impossible to find the guilty couple. So, he decided to leave them be. He had better things to do, like ruining the old painter’s gallery or accidentally sending a barrel of wine rolling down the street. Climbing onto the roof of an antiques shop, Thom had a full view of the marketplace. A single row of white brick shops formed an extensive circle around the area, leaving alleys for entry and exit. Vendors clocked in before the break of dawn to set up their stalls. And at the stroke of midnight, they tore them down. Every day, there were fresh fruits and vegetables, meat of all kinds ready to be butchered, a new display of clothing and jewelry, and paintings for sale. Looking for a victim in the sea of people, Thom debated which unexpected vendor he should strike at for a good laugh.

“Hmm, Lady Plump wouldn’t mind an overturned table. How about Old Fishman?” Thom paused and chuckled as he imagined people slipping and sliding over flopping fishes. “Decisions, decisions,” Thom muttered to himself. Lowering his hood, he scratched his head. It was then that he decided to go with the overly accessorized, bullnecked woman he’d nicknamed Lady Plump.

Thom descended from his vantage point, ignoring the shopkeeper’s glare, and maneuvered through the crowd and stalls. He kept his head low, and the cloak tightly wrapped around his body. If anyone saw what he wore beneath the tattered disguise, they would recognize him. And that would put him in a lot of trouble. Not only would his father see to it he received severe punishment, but the citizens would crown him the troublemaking prince. Even though such a coronation would make him smile, Thom didn’t want to step out of line. He’d seen his father’s wrath on display. And once, it had ended with the death of two unfaithful servants.

When Thom finally stood before the display of gaudy-colored jewelry, he heard a voice that was all too familiar.

“Pick whichever you want,” the voice said.

Thom turned in its direction and saw Dedric—glimpsing the gold hair, striking blue eyes, and pale complexion—in a brown hooded cloak like his. Dedric held the hand of the girl in between them, and a childish grin swept across Thom’s face.

“This one would suit a lovely young lady,” Thom said. He picked the simplest looking necklace on the table, and presented it to the shy, fragile-framed girl.

The girl returned his hospitality with a pleasant smile, as she took the necklace from him. Dedric, who didn’t fail to discern his brother’s voice, snapped in Thom’s direction and frowned.

“How about this one? Your lover must agree this matches your eyes,” Thom continued, snatching a bracelet made from opaque blue stones.

Failing to hide her blush, the girl looked away.

“Are you planning on buying anything?” Lady Plump was watching them, and she had little patience for boys like him. If only she knew who he really was beneath the beggar’s uniform, she would’ve bit her tongue.

“Why, I’m helping you sell. Is that how you treat a friendly gesture?” Thom asked.

“I don’t need your help. If you do not wish to buy anything, I suggest you run along and leave this nice couple alone,” Lady Plump snapped.

“I’m buying something,” Thom insisted, as he examined a ring. After a few seconds, he turned to the girl and asked, “Do you think my mother will like this?”

“It’s a beautiful ring. I’m sure she will,” the girl replied with a giggle.

“Hmm,” Thom thought loud and long.

“Stop fooling around!” Lady Plump was at the brink of losing her patience—the veins around her thick neck darkening. Just before Thom could reply, she clumsily grabbed the ring from him.

Folding his arms, Thom tsked. “Your service is horrid. And has anyone ever told you? You’re not a very good jewelry-maker either.”

Without waiting for her to register his insult, Thom turned on his heel. But before he stalked off, he forcefully kicked the leg of the display table. As he’d intended, it broke with a crack, sending the table crashing. Rings, bracelets, and necklaces scattered onto the ground. Lady Plump shrieked. In accusation, she pointed her finger at Thom. But when she tried to reach for him, Thom pushed her hands aside. Losing her balance, Lady Plump tripped over a pail of ice next to the neighboring stall. And as she landed hard on her back, Thom burst into a guffaw.

Two brawny guards, in the Alpenwhist silver and blue armor, saw the commotion and hurried to aid Lady Plump. Naturally, people tried to get out of the way. In an attempt to do the same, Dedric’s lover slipped on the wet, ice-strewn pavement. Instinctively, Dedric reached for her. But instead of pulling her up, he went down with her. It was a tickling sight, and Thom clutched his stomach in aching humor. But what happened next robbed all hilarity from the scene.

Thom slowly backed into the crowd as the guards arrived. One tried to help Lady Plump—her weight adding to the challenge—while the other assisted the girl, before tugging Dedric to his feet. It was at that moment one guard caught sight of the cuff around Dedric’s wrist.

The gold cuffs, engraved with the royal family’s crest—an eagle perched on a mountain’s peak—were worn exclusively by royalty. Spotting it, the guard asked, “Where did you get this—did you steal it?”

Dedric yanked his hand free, and gestured the girl to leave with him. But before he could take a step, the guard reached for his shoulder and pulled him back.

“Stealing from royalty is a crime punishable by death,” the guard threatened, as his partner stood in Dedric’s way.

“I didn’t steal it,” Dedric replied.

“Liars will have their tongues cut out,” the other guard added, reaching for Dedric’s hood in an attempt to pull it down.

Dedric managed to dodge the act, while grabbing the hand on his shoulder and shoving it away.

“Don’t—touch—me,” Dedric said, without raising his voice. In a quick and forceful motion, he tugged his hood revealing his face and identity. Thom held his breath, as he retreated further into the crowd.

There was a brief moment of silence—not even the distant waves or the squawking seagulls could be heard. When the revelation snapped the guards free from their temporary confusion, they apologized profusely. They fell on one knee and the onlookers followed suit. Thom towered above the people for a moment before he too joined in.

No longer needing his disguise, Dedric threw his cloak to the ground. He then reached for the girl and stalked off without a word. The crowd waited for him to disappear, before they rose and started their daily gossip. Surely, they were pleased—they didn’t have to whisper about the baker’s thieving son when they had the tale of the prince and his common lady fresh from the oven.

Deciding it was best to leave, Thom exited the marketplace. He managed to dodge out of Lady Plump’s sight and headed straight home. Dedric would soon be home too and when he did return, their father would’ve heard of the embarrassing public display. Thom hoped to help cushion the blow. He felt rather guilty. After all, Dedric’s predicament was his fault to begin with.

When Thom arrived on palace grounds, of smooth cobblestoned walkways, lush, flowering greens, and intricately carved balustrades, he retreated to the princes’ palace. The princes had their own abode, separated from the king and queen. It was built behind the royal palace, parted by a garden of exotic flowers and stone fountains. Though not as grand as his parents’ dwelling, it was still built for royal blood. The marble hallways were heavily decorated with portraits of allied kingdoms, the many rooms adorned with crystal chandeliers, and the servants were bountiful. The princes’ palace was also higher up a cliff, overlooking the prodigious navy blue sea. When Dedric and Thom wanted to escape from the confining walls, the hazardous cliff was their bone-chilling route.

Thom had returned to the palace earlier than Dedric, which sent him pacing up and down the balcony of their reading chamber. Hours later, a young servant—in a royal blue tunic too large for his small frame—came with news of his brother.

“Prince Dedric has returned, your highness. He was summoned to the great hall immediately.”

It seems Dedric didn’t bother with sneaking in, since he was spotted in the marketplace. Still, it was a bold move to use the palace’s golden gates. Wasting no time, Thom hurried to the great hall adjacent to the royal palace.

The royal palace was a larger structure than the princes’ palace. Tall marble pillars with gold streaks supported the glistening, milky-white roof tiles. The pavements were made of smooth, off-white stones, and the walls from sparkling rocks found at the bottom of the sea.

As Thom rushed to the great hall, the servants bowed their heads lower than they were trained to. They jumped out of his way—clearly aware of what was happening. When Thom finally stood before the intimidating, gold-coated oak doors, he pressed his ear against the gap and listened.

“You are a disgrace to our family. What did you hope to accomplish—running around with a commoner?” his father demanded.

Though his voice was muffled, Thom knew the tone all too well—he could sense the outrage. Should he enter? Thom subconsciously bit his lower lip. He didn’t want to add fuel to the fire, nor did he want to let his brother take the fall.

Palms already wet with sweat, he decided to give it a try. Wiping them dry on his pants, he reached for the eagle carved handles and gave a brave push. When the doors opened, Thom found his father, mother, and brother—none enthusiastic to see him.

“W-what may I ask . . . is going on?” Thom said, as the servants hastily closed the doors behind him.

His father looked away. With the king’s blue eyes hidden from view, Thom could only imagine an infuriated mien—brows furrowed with high cheekbones rising further in disgust. That evening, the king donned a crimson robe, draped over a high-collared golden vest. Beneath its eagle crest, his chest puffed in a show of unrepressed anger. Thom gulped—perhaps it had been a mistake to intrude. Turning to the queen, as pale as her white corset and long flowing dress, Thom saw that his mother didn’t mask her worry. Her dark eyes, like Thom’s own, often held a welcoming gaze. Unfortunately, absent was her unspoken comfort. If Thom dared say, she was afraid.

Thom cautiously strode to his family at the front of the hall. The high ceiling and empty rows of chairs echoed his footsteps in the disquieting silence.

“What’s . . . what’s the matter?” Thom repeated in a whisper.

There was heavy tension in the air, almost suffocating in the unusually warm chamber.

“Thom, dear, why don’t you return to your palace? You need not be involved in this,” his mother gently replied.

“Yes, Thom. Why don’t you stay out of people’s business for once,” Dedric added, as he turned to face him.

Thom took another dry gulp, and thought of what to say. But before he could even mutter an apology, his father beat him to it.

“Your brother has the courage to come to your aid, and that is what you say to him?”

“Father, I—”

“Was it his fault you’ve shamed us all?” his father demanded. “Tell me, Dedric—was it your brother’s fault?”

Thom wanted to admit his crime, but fear of being chastised had him tongue-tied—Thom wasn’t as brave as he thought he was.

“Tell me, Dedric,” the king repeated, almost threateningly.

“No,” Dedric replied.

“I cannot believe I made you my heir. It’s a good thing I have two sons.”

His father’s proclamation was a dagger to the heart. Thom knew the king had officially made it worse for him. Apologizing for toying with Dedric was one thing, but fixing his pride was another. Thom glanced over at Dedric, whose blank eyes remained fixated on the polished floor.

“You do not mean that. Dedric made a childish mistake, that is all,” his mother said, hoping to smoothen the sharp emotions.

“Alpenwhist cannot have a king making childish mistakes.” Glaring at Dedric, his father warned, “You are not to see that girl again. If you know what is good for you, you will not see her and you will not speak to her. If you remain defiant, Dedric, there will be consequences. Consequences you will regret.”

“Surely, Dedric knows to act wisely,” his mother promptly replied, before waving for Dedric to take leave.

Turning, Dedric stormed out of the hall, shouldering Thom as he walked past. The throbbing ache made it harder for Thom to face his brother, but he knew he couldn’t hide forever.

“Rotten, disgraceful blood. Is this the kind of heir I have? Is this the kind of blood we carry?” his father muttered.

Thom knew his father was a hard man who valued a flawless repute over gold. The purity and righteousness of their family’s bloodline were more important than his own life. And in such a situation, his father would take quite some time before he forgave Dedric.

For a while, Thom stood in the midst of his father’s livid mutters and his mother’s consoling words. When the situation grew too uncomfortable to bear, Thom cautiously backed away, hoping to leave without being noticed. But of course, that was wishful thinking.

“Don’t go running to your brother. Don’t try to make him feel any better. I warn you, Thom. Leave him be. He deserves no company,” his father said.

“Yes, father,” Thom replied with a bow, before he shuffled to the exit. He didn’t turn back to see if his parents had disappeared—he was afraid he would be given a lecture instead.

Finally out of the great hall, relief swept over him. The air was fresher, cooler, and far from stifling. But the worst had yet to come. Despite the princes’ palace being long and wide, seeing his brother was inevitable. Thom couldn’t wait to get over the confrontation. The guilt within nibbled at his soul like a parasite, and the thought of Dedric hating him was unbearable.

Thom decided that if his only brother wanted to punish him, starve him, or even report him to their father, he would gladly allow him to do so. Then, they could forget about the day’s event and have a good laugh about it later. After all, they were brothers. And brothers always—eventually—forgave each other . . . or so Thom thought.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2