by Renaissance Makoto J
“It’s a silly tradition, don’t you think?” asked Brighton. Unlike his brothers — who were both blond and solid — he was thin and pale with ink-black hair that fell around his ears. He would be eighteen in six months and that was causing him problems.
“And why me? Malcolm didn’t go on this quest.”
“We couldn’t very well send your brother after an enchanted princess when Billarbold the Turquoise predicted that he’d be the greatest wizard of any age. We can’t argue with prophecies,” said his mother, the queen, in her perpetually sleepy tone.
Brighton pinched the bridge of his nose. “Billarbold has gone dotty. He thinks my horse runs the kingdom and that his bathtub is the ocean.”
“He’s a great magician! He’s a great man!” protested his father, the king.
“He was a great man. Now he’s what’s left of one. He holds debates for his shoes and throws the losers out the window!”
His mother sniffed delicately. “Nevertheless, a prophesy is a prophesy.” And it was said with such queenly authority that Brighton knew there would be no swaying her on the subject. He decided to change tactics.
He took a deep breath. “But Gilbert didn’t go on this quest either,” he tried. Playing the Gilbert card was risky, but he was desperate.
But: “Oh, yes he did,” boomed his father.
“He’s right dear,” said his mother softly. “He set out the week of his birthday, all packed and ready for adventure. But halfway there he came across an orphanage on fire and he stopped to rescue all of the children. Then the visiting master painter, Francisco De Leon, painted him to commemorate his deed.”
His father said, “He named the finished masterpiece ‘On the Perfection of Man.’ Quite nice, really. It’s a little awkward with only that tiny wisp of fabric covering the family jewels and all.”
His mother put a thin finger on her chin. “Well, De Leon…was…ahem…very fond of you brother. He painted a copy of ‘On the Perfection of Man’ for himself. Without the wisp of fabric. He refuses to sell it and keeps it with him at all times.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” sniffed the king in a booming way. “But Gilbert was delayed for about a year with having to pose for both paintings and all. Though why De Leon couldn’t paint the second one from the first I’ll never know. And why the devil did it take him so long if he’s such a master? It’s like he wanted to keep Gilbert around, standing on that seashell with nothing on, covered in gold dust and surrounded by velvet and ermine.”
The Queen coughed a gentle cough into her hand. This roused the king enough to get him back on track.
“Well, anyway, after all that, there was that ravenous pack of ogres he slayed. And the trolls who had been tormenting virginal soothsayers.” said the king.
“Those too,” his mother said and nodded sagely. “He did slay quite a few ogres on the way to slaying the trolls.”
His father seemed to get louder. “Then there was the rainbow bridge that appeared to him over a shimmering lake.”
His mother said, “Oh, yes. It took him to a fairy kingdom ruled by a beautiful Fairy Queen. These things sometimes happen.”
“I only think they let him leave because he begged the Fairy Queen to let him continue his quest. I think she agreed on the condition that he would return one day as her king. Something like that.
“Then, by the time he got home, well, we figured going after some ancient, enchanted princess seemed a bit silly. After all the ogres and Fairy Queens and orphans and such. You understand, Brighton, dear?”
Brighton gave them the pained grimace they thought was his smile.
“Of course, Mother. Of course, Father,” he said. “Ogres, you say? Well, that explains it all. I suppose this is your way of telling me that I have no choice?”
“They don’t call you ‘Wise’ for nothing! Har, har!” boomed his father. Brighton’s back stiffened and his eye twitched. He grimaced again, bowed to each of them in turn, then went to his chambers where he promptly punched a hole through a window.
He stared at the blood on his hand and thought.
In fact, they called him ‘Wise’ because he had rescued an entire kingdom from a terrible Sphinx by solving its riddle when he was only ten. The greatest minds in the world had been unable to solve the riddle and the kingdom had suffered under the evil creature’s curse. But Brighton had solved the riddle, saved the kingdom, and even had a ballad written about him.
They called him ‘Wise’ because he had written a book on ancient languages when he was only twelve. But, no, that wasn’t good enough. He’d never slain an ogre. He’d never had a great prophesy made about him.
His talents weren’t flashy or showy; they were subtle and refined. His parents didn’t exactly get subtle and refined.
Malcolm drifted in a bit later and silently healed the cuts on Brighton’s hand — as he had many times before. He fixed the window with a flick of his wand, and then patted Brighton’s shoulder affectionately. As always, he headed for the door as if nothing was amiss. Only, for some reason — perhaps because he knew how Brighton was dreading his birthday — he paused at the door.
“You are wise, Brighton,” he said simply. “You’re the wisest of us all.”
“It doesn’t mean much, does it?” Brighton asked.
Malcolm shook his head. “It should mean more,” was all he said. And then Brighton was alone again. His birthday seemed like a terrible, unavoidable disaster. It seemed designed to remind Brighton that nothing he ever did would be good enough. His father would always treat him like a disappointment.
And Brighton was even disappointed in himself. He sometimes wondered exactly who he had to be in order to earn some respect.
He’d seen the children in the town below the castle playing at being Gilbert. He’d seen them wave sticks in the air and proclaim themselves to be Malcolm. He’d never seen one say, “I’m Brighton the Wise!” He knew he never would.
After all, he was wise. He knew lots of things.
By virtue of being perceived as good at everything, Gilbert was in charge of planning said birthday celebration. This meant that Brighton was to be entertained by all the greatest performers from near and far, including a jester because, as Gilbert said, “Bri loves jesters!”
Brighton, in truth, loathed jesters.
“I loathe jesters,” Brighton said to Gilbert every day until the jester actually came and it made no difference.
“And don’t call me ‘Bri,'” he added, but that was just habit. Gilbert, as a rule, did whatever he wanted.
The loathsome jester arrived the morning of the party along with all the other performers. And because Gilbert was actually rubbish at planning anything, all of the performers arrived in a great swarm at once. No one was there to see to them as all the servants were tied up getting rooms ready for visiting royals from adjoining kingdoms. They were all run so ragged that none of them could come to help sort out the confusion in the courtyard at all.
The jugglers got in a row with the sword swallower. A fearsome lion snapped its big teeth at a magician who was so upset that he turned the lion into a mouse and then set his big dog after it. This angered the lion tamer who got the magician in a headlock. That scuffle tripped up the strongman who fell atop a family of tumblers. A whole troupe of dancers stumbled over a pile of shoes that no one seemed able to explain.
It was bedlam. The performers made such a ruckus that even the king couldn’t be heard above it. He ordered Stewart the Steward down to the courtyard to deal with all the performers at once. Brighton, Malcolm and Gilbert were all sent along as well to meet visiting royals and shuffle them to safety as quickly as possible.
Stewart was such a stern, serious man that he soon had the gaggle of jugglers, acrobats, singers, and fire eaters lined up, checked in, sorted, and very quiet indeed.
“Next!” shouted Stewart and the lion tamer stepped forward with his once again lion-shaped lion.
“Here, sir,” he said to Stewart.
“Bornin the Brave! This is Swift the Lion!”
And he was followed by the magician and his menagerie (“Chester the Illusionist and his Fantastic Furry Friends!”), who was in front of “Lolitta the Limber” and her whole family. And so on and on it went until the jester was next in line. That was when the whole operation hit a snag.
When the jester stepped forward, he went red in the face upon finding himself greeted by three princes, two of whom, at least, seemed more than happy to meet him.
“Well!” he said. “What a great surprise, your majesties! I am delighted to meet you all! And a very happy birthday to you, Prince Brighton!”
Brighton glared at him.
“I am Wendell,” proclaimed the jester, “and I am honored to be invited to share my humble craft with your great kingdom!” Wendell had bells on his wrists and at his feet. The top of his jester’s cap was riddled with them. He gave a graceful bow and they jingled alarmingly.
Gilbert beamed at Wendell and even clapped his big hands together a few times. “Well met! Oh, how exciting!”
“Ah, yes. Nice to meet you, Wendell,” said Stewart with a worrisome look on his austere face. He cleared his throat and checked his list once. Then twice. He checked it a third time, then gave a pointed look to Wendell.
Stewart sniffed, “I have you down here as Wendell. May I ask, Wendell the what?”
“What do you mean, sir?” asked Wendell. He jingled confusedly at the steward.
“Well, there’s a naming convention among the kingdoms of this land, you see,” explained Stewart. “The princes before you are Malcolm the Great and Powerful, Sir Gilbert the Alarmingly Perfect, and Brighton the Wise respectively.” He gestured grandly at each prince in turn.
“The king, of course is King Finlay the Loud and Somewhat Off-putting. The queen is Queen Lucy the Drowsy. There are rules to all this, you know. We can’t very well have a jester named Wendell!”
“But, sir! That’s my name!”
“But just Wendell?”
The jester bit his lip. “Not exactly.”
“Then what?” asked Stewart and crossed his arms.
“Wendell the Johnson?”
“No, no. Just Wendell Johnson.”
“Oh, bother,” said Stewart. “That is unacceptable.”
Gilbert shook his head. His mouth was turned down in a serious frown. “I hate to say it, but I never would have hired you had I known you were merely ‘Wendell,'” he said. “There’s time enough, I believe, to find a jester with a proper name…”
The jester’s eyes went wide with worry so that Brighton actually felt sorry for him. He did want the little man to pack up and go back to wherever jesters came from, but he also couldn’t stand to see a grown man cry.
“But surely you are forgetting what they call you in the great Kingdom of Figueroa,” said Brighton easily. Stewart turned to him with a thin eyebrow high on his aristocratic face.
“Your highness?” he inquired. “He is?”
“I am?” asked Wendell.
“You are,” said Brighton. “I am very well read, as you might expect. It comes with being wise. And I have read again and again of the…” He grasped for the right word. “…wonders one can expect from Wendell the Wondrous.”
Brighton was impressed by Wendell’s recovery time. Only a tiny flicker of confusion showed on his face. Then he was smiling hugely and giving another grand bow.
“Modesty prevents me from boasting,” he said. His little bells jingled in agreement. Gilbert clapped his hands together again.
“Oh! Wondrous!” he said, smiling what Brighton considered his stupid smile.
“If you’re certain, your highness?” asked Stewart.
“Quite,” said Brighton.
“Then…Wendell the Wondrous, welcome to the Kingdom of La Cienega!”
And that settled it neatly. As usual, Brighton was gloomy and Gilbert was ecstatic. Wendell moved away, followed closely by Malcolm and Gilbert, each trying to help, for Wendell’s cart was so large he couldn’t easily get it up the stairs. Gilbert was certain he could lift the whole thing, while Malcolm protested that he could just use magic. So, between the two of them, the cart was half-hefted, half-floated up the stairs. Brighton wondered idly if he should have told them about the elevator around the back, but it was too late now.
The jester was so joyful for his new name and the help of the princes that he did little flips into the castle, which made Brighton instantly regret his display of kindness. He turned away from the sight and jerked a little in surprise.
A tall, broad-shouldered man with blond hair tumbling around his face was staring at him. He had bright green eyes, a generous mouth, and a nose sharp enough to cut glass. He looked like the cover of a romance novel brought to life. This unreal man had obviously watched the entire exchange with the jester and had this little smile on his face that suggested he found it very funny.
Brighton bristled a little at being caught in such a ridiculous situation — Wendell the Wondrous, indeed! — and decided to flee as soon as possible. But before he could take two steps, the man was in front of him, having moved faster than Brighton thought should be possible.
“That was very kind of you,” the man said. He had a smooth, clean voice, educated and deep.
Brighton increased the intensity of his glare. The man’s kind expression faltered a little.
“I’m Archibald,” said the man after a moment. “Of La Brea,” he added.
Brighton felt his eye twitch, just once. Oh, of course. That kingdom. That blasted, unlucky kingdom. And here was their prince, Brighton’s own age if he remembered correctly.
He hated him on sight.
He looked him up and down. Prince Archibald was…ridiculous, Brighton settled on. Yes. Ridiculous.
No, Archibald didn’t look anything like Gilbert, but they had obviously been cut from the same brain-dead cloth. The prince of La Brea had the look of someone Brave and Noble and all the other things that came with it. He probably rescued damsels just for kicks. In between meals, like brushing your teeth.
Oh, he was horrible.
“Hmm? Oh, yes. Kind, you say? Well, as my brother will tell you, I do adore jesters,” Brighton spat. “Couldn’t have Dear Wendell traipsing back off to wherever jesters come from without giving us a show first! One must have juggling, mustn’t one? One simply must have juggling.”
Sarcasm was practically pooling on the floor, which wasn’t princely, Brighton knew, but he didn’t care at all. When had he ever been princely?
Archibald lifted a brow, obviously confused by the discrepancy between the gloomy look on Brighton’s face and the very friendly things he was saying.
“Uh, well. Um. I was told we would be greeted by you and your noble brothers and we were all looking forward to the honor. In particular, it is an honor to meet you, the man my kingdom, La Brea, owes such gratitude,” the prince said with a grand, perfect bow.
“Razza, frazza,” Brighton mumbled, and half-bowed in return.
If Archibald heard, he said nothing, only smiled his stupid, handsome smile more. He then gestured to the side where a procession of knights, footmen, and servants were marching before a large, ornate carriage.
“The King and Queen of La Brea,” said Archibald,
“Oh, drat,” said Brighton. He looked around quickly for a place to hide, but there weren’t any. The courtyard was almost clear now. Brighton wished the strongman was still around: He was as large as a house and Brighton could have ducked behind him. Now, it was too late.
Archibald’s parents were bright-eyed and teary as they rushed to him. He froze, went pale, and tried to lean away from them.
“Oh, dear Prince Brighton!” the Queen of La Brea gushed. “How good it is to see you again!”
“Ugh,” Brighton said. “Yes.”
“We wouldn’t miss your birthday for the world!” the king added.
“Oh, no, life would never be so good to me,” Brighton said under his breath.
He endured five more minutes of compliments and praise from the king and queen before Malcolm drifted up and snatched him away with very flimsy excuses that everyone accepted nonetheless.
“So terribly busy,” Malcolm said, tugging him along like a bad child. “Must get him ready for the big event. You understand, of course. So much to do!”
Brighton staggered along, grateful to be rescued, but also a little embarrassed by the necessity.
He stole one last look over his shoulder at Archibald. The prince was staring at him, his expression something that Brighton wondered about for the rest of the afternoon.
Right after the meal ended and drinks were being served all around, the entertainment began. First up was an impressive bard singing “The Ballad of Brighton the Wise.” He was accompanied by minstrels and even a little troupe of performers who acted out the parts of Brighton, the Sphinx, and the King of La Brea. The actual King of La Brea was seated beside Brighton’s father and was quite pleased to see a very handsome man playing him in the pantomime.
“Very accurate,” the King of La Brea said. “Though, of course, I am a little taller!”
“Isn’t this wonderful?” Gilbert leaned over and asked Brighton. But he received no reply because the seat beside him where Brighton should have been was very empty. He pouted what Brighton considered his stupid pout, but Brighton was too far away to comment.
He knew he couldn’t disappear for the entire evening. Gilbert would never forgive him for that. But he could at least skip “The Ballad of Brighton the Wise,” a song he never wanted to hear again.
He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, breathing deeply. He was just starting to feel calm when a familiar, comely voice said, “You’re missing a very good performance.”
Brighton cracked one eye open to look at Archibald. The prince of La Brea was dressed in green and white, the green the exact shade of his eyes. The whole outfit showed off his broad shoulders. His clean, blond hair was pulled back off his face in a loose ponytail, but a few stray locks were in his face, one of them fetchingly clinging to his full bottom lip. As Brighton watched, he brushed it back with an easy gesture, but it fell again a second later.
“Correction,” said Brighton, closing his eye before Archibald could push that damnable stray lock of hair back again, “I am deliberately missing a very good performance.”
“But don’t you want to know how it ends?” Archibald asked and Brighton could tell that this was meant as a joke.
“Funnily enough,” Brighton snapped, “I know how it ends.”
Archibald said nothing to that. In fact, it became so quiet that Brighton cracked an eye open again to see if maybe the other man had left. Of course he had no such luck: Archibald was leaning against the opposite wall directly in front of him, mirroring his posture.
“Did my brother Malcolm send you?”
Archibald shrugged. “Why don’t you come back?” he asked instead of properly answering the question.
“I’ll go back in exactly nine minutes.”
“But you’ll miss the whole song,” Archibald said.
“Yes,” Brighton agreed. “Yes, I will.”
This gave Archibald pause. “People are going to notice you’re gone.”
“No one will notice I’m gone.”
“I noticed,” said Archibald.
“Well, no one besides you will notice,” said Brighton, giving Archibald a suspicious frown. Archibald wasn’t giving up, so he decided to try a different approach. “Look, I promise I’ll go back. You can tell Malcolm I’ll be there in time for his little magic show. I’ll clap at all the right places and everything.”
“Well…that sounds fair.”
Brighton nodded. “Good. Then please enjoy the remaining seven minutes of ‘The Ballad of Brighton the Wise.'”
“The bard is performing the extended version.”
“Ah,” said Brighton. He was more grateful for the soundproof hallway than ever. “In that case, please enjoy the remaining seventeen and a half minutes of ‘The Ballad of Brighton the Wise’.”
With the extended version, the bard would have just reached the part where the curse of the Sphinx destroyed all the crops and dried up the river. The king would proclaim a curfew a verse or so later, trying to protect his people from the plagues that came at night. Locusts. Wasps.
Brighton closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall, determined to wait this out. After another minute of silence, Brighton opened one eye. Archibald was still standing there.
“Oh, now what?” Brighton whined.
“Nothing. I figured I’d wait here with you. We can go back together.”
“Oh, must we?”
“No, but it seems like a good idea to me.”
Brighton looked at him desperately. “Why?” he whined even more.
“From my point of view, you’re actually Brighton the Wise. I could hear a bard sing about all the things you’ve done, or I could hear it from you.”
Brighton’s posture went rigid and his face went hard and cold. “No,” he said. “You can’t hear the story from me. I’m not interested in telling the story. If you want a story, then you’re better off going to listen to the, the…fifteen remaining minutes of that damnable song! I have nothing to say about it.”
Archibald looked surprised by Brighton’s vehemence, worried that he had caused offense.
“Please forgive me. I…I’m a prince of La Brea, you see. You’re a hero to all of us. In fact, the day you solved the riddle, I was actually — ”
Brighton looked pained. “No,” he said and held up a hand. “No, no, no. I can’t hear this.”
Archibald paused for a moment, then said, “You don’t want to talk about the day you saved my kingdom? At all? I don’t understand.”
“You don’t need to understand. You need to be quiet.”
Archibald looked even sorrier. “I’m doing a terrible job at this.”
“Yes,” Brighton agreed.
“So…we can talk about something else,” Archibald offered.
“Or silence?” was Brighton’s counter-offer.
“Something else it is,” Archibald said and smiled.
Brighton gave him A Look, his most effective weapon, but Archibald’s smile only intensified.
He said, “Forgive me, but everyone is talking about this quest of yours. I don’t recall Prince Gilbert doing this when he turned eighteen.”
Brighton rolled his eyes. “My older brother is betrothed to a Fairy Queen. A somewhat erotic painting was involved. Therefore, he doesn’t have to complete the quest.”
“And Prince Malcolm?”
“There’s a prophesy that Malcolm will be the greatest wizard of any age. No quest for him.”
“Ah. Well. I suppose there are exceptions to every rule.”
“Just my luck,” Brighton agreed and tried not to notice how Archibald studied him with those damn, clever, green eyes.
“So, do you know which princess you’ll try to rescue?”
Brighton shrugged. “Princess Chloe of El Segundo. My uncle was the last to make the attempt. All told, seven men from family have tried to rescue her. Tried and failed.”
Archibald nodded. “My mother used to tell me the tale of Chloe of El Segundo as a child. Hasn’t the actual location of her castle been lost?”
Brighton waved this away. “Hundreds of years ago. But the tradition only says I have to go to the edge of the Enchanted Forest and back. Family gossip says that my uncle probably didn’t even go that far. It’s a rite of passage, nothing more. If you’re like my father, you end up with a queen. If you’re like my uncle, you bring everyone back souvenir key chains.”
And then the most horrific thing happened: Archibald laughed. He laughed hard enough that he had to wipe at his eyes. Brighton didn’t know what to think. Most people considered his sense of humor completely tilted the wrong way, but here was perfect Prince Archibald treating him like he was normal. It was unsettling.
“Well, your uncle seems happy enough. Marriage isn’t for everyone,” Archibald said, still smiling with his stupid, even, white teeth.
“The whole world is better off because he won’t have children,” Brighton agreed sourly. And dammit if Archibald didn’t laugh again.
“You’re very…strange,” Brighton said after a moment of staring at him in suspicion.
“Now that’s rich, coming from you,” said Archibald.
Brighton shook his head, completely at a loss.
“Well,” Archibald said with a little bow, “I believe the bard must have just made it to the part where you’ve been followed by a procession of admirers back to La Cienega. The song’s probably ending. Shall we?”
“Oh, why not?” Brighton grumbled and walked briskly past him, ignoring the amusement on his face.
Archibald brought Brighton back to his seat just as the “Ballad of Brighton the Wise” faded out on its final cord. It was perfect timing. Gilbert, it seemed, had indeed noticed his absence and looked like nothing so much as a child deprived of his favorite toy. Malcolm just looked pleased that he had made it in time to see him conjure a perfect miniature of La Cienega Castle, complete with a banner being flown across the sky by a chubby dragon reading, “Happy Birthday!”
Next came fire jugglers and then the lion tamer followed by a troupe of acrobats. Brighton tried to pay attention to it all, but his eyes kept drifting back to Archibald, trying to figure out exactly what game he was playing. Coming to find him in the kitchens! Talking to him! Laughing at his story! Clearly, the man was insane.
Last of all came Wendell the Wondrous. He tumbled and juggled — all while telling jokes both bawdy and clever. His cart had apparently held an entire obstacle course, which he navigated with grace and practice. Brighton had to admit that Wendell was actually pretty Wondrous. If you liked jesters, which he didn’t.
At last Wendell gave a bow and proclaimed that he was also a great storyteller. Then he launched into the tale of Princess Chloe of El Segundo. Wendell, it seemed, had a heads-up on Brighton’s quest.
When he spoke, his voice carried around the large dining hall. “Once upon a time!” proclaimed the newly dubbed Wendell the Wondrous in his resonating voice. All the nobles and servants and courtiers leaned forward expectantly.
“In the legendary Kingdom of El Segundo, lived a beautiful princess named Chloe. Chloe was kind, beautiful, witty, and beloved by everyone. But her greatest treasure was that she possessed a voice so lovely, that birds flocked to her window to hear her sing.”
Then, of course, it all went wrong. Chloe’s parents made some stupid deal with the most infamous witch of all time, Minute the Lavender, then failed to deliver. In retaliation, Minute the Lavender transformed all the nobles — and Chloe herself — into statues. No one knew what had become of the servants.
The legend of Chloe said that the man who broke her curse would be her husband. Of course he left out the important detail of how, exactly, the curse was to be broken. No one knew, which made Chloe’s tale even more exciting. Imagine, people said, finding a statue of the most beautiful girl in the world, knowing that she could be your bride, if only you could revive her. But you couldn’t.
In a land filled with enchanted princesses, Chloe was unique for being the only one whose curse was a mystery. On top of that, her castle had been swallowed by the Enchanted Forest. Most ensorcelled princesses were rescued quickly enough — within a hundred years, usually less. As far as everyone knew, Chloe never would be.
Wendell received a warm round of applause, and then Brighton’s father stood and got everyone’s attention by speaking in what passed for a whisper with him. Brighton felt his headache expand like a sponge.
“People of La Cienega!” the King boomed boomingly. “Today is a momentous occasion, indeed! I want to thank all of you for joining us tonight to celebrate Brighton’s birthday, and to wish him well on his quest! Today, Brighton,” his father said and slapped him hard enough on the back to make him gasp for breath, “you are a man! Or, about as much of one as you’re going to be!”
Everyone cheered politely and Brighton wanted to sink through the floor.
“Of course, none of us are really surprised that you’ll go after Chloe, eh? That’s the easy way to go, am I right? Can’t find her to save her! Har, har!”
Brighton’s cheeks flamed. Malcolm was casting worried looks at him. Even his mother looked embarrassed for him, now.
“Gilbert, of course, went after Princess Ephremina, the one guarded by one hundred dragons and a flaming moat. I don’t doubt he would have saved her, too, if not for the orphans and the ogres and that Fairy Queen.”
“And the erotic painting,” Brighton muttered too low for anyone to hear.
“It’s a fascinating story!” continued the king. “Maybe we should just get Gilbert up here to tell it!”
Gilbert stood eagerly and was instantly yanked back down by Malcolm. Malcolm then smiled winningly at his mother, who in turn looked to the king.
“Finlay, dear,” she said, “perhaps another time.”
“Right, you are, dear! Well! Enough about Gilbert! It’s a day to celebrate Brighton, my other son. You may not have heard of him.”
Brighton sunk lower in his chair. He cast one look at Archibald who was looking right at him, and there was this awful pity written all over his face. That was worse, somehow, than even his father’s casual dismissal.
“As you know, the journey to the Enchanted Forest of El Segundo is a long-standing family tradition. My brother made the journey when he reached his eighteenth year and we were all very proud of him.”
Everyone politely avoided looking at the king’s large, sloppy brother. He sat at the end of the table, handing out key chains to everyone seated nearby.
Oblivious, the king continued, “As it is a journey fraught with perils — and Brighton is no warrior, let me tell you! — it gives me great joy to announce that Prince Archibald the Magnificent of La Brea has volunteered to accompany him on his quest. Prince Archibald will act as a guard and protector for Brighton as he travels to the dangerous Enchanted Forest.”
Many from La Cienega tittered at the idea of the Enchanted Forest as ‘dangerous.’ The men and women from La Brea looked serious and concerned. The Enchanted Forest must have seemed very dangerous to them. Dangerous enough that they agreed that Brighton needed protection from their ridiculous prince.
At the announcement, Brighton froze in his seat in disbelief. Surely he hadn’t just heard what he thought he’d just heard? But of course he had. Oh, he wanted to scream.
But he had to be diplomatic. He could protest this gross affront later when everyone wasn’t looking at him. The muscle beneath his eye jumped up and down as if it was on a trampoline.
He glanced at Archibald who was smiling his broad, perfect smile at him, perhaps expecting Brighton to be pleased.
Brighton was not pleased.
“Brighton, be reasonable,” his mother said, and yawned. “You’re not a swordsman, you’re not a wizard. You’re logical. You’re clever. And you’re hardly going to be able to argue your way out of an attack by bandits, are you?”
“Mother, what danger could there be in the Enchanted Forest? It has long been…domesticated. It’s a tourist trap. There are tour guides and little souvenir maps. They sell personalized embroidered hats.”
“Well, we know that, but no one from La Brea has any reason to. Prince Archibald is concerned for your safety.”
“Made such a fuss about keeping you safe,” said the king in his nighttime version of a boom, which was only slightly less booming. “Can’t figure out why.”
“He’s from La Brea,” Brighton explained, but his father only looked more confused.
His mother stepped in again. “There are stories of people getting robbed out there, dear, tourist trap or not. Put your mother’s mind at ease: take Prince Archibald along just in case. He’s quite brave, you know. He’s defeated his fair share of giants and ogres and Dark Lords. He’s the right man for the job.”
“Oh, and bring us back some key chains! Har, har!” boomed his father. And that was the end of it. They went to bed and he went back to his room in the tower. He was angry enough to punch his hand through glass again, but he figured Malcolm needed a break from all that.
With everyone against him, it seemed he had no choice. For now, at least, he was stuck with Archibald. It put a kink in his plans.
Brighton spent a few minutes consoling them, or trying his best. They were well and truly frazzled.
“Don’t worry. I’ve left detailed instructions,” said Brighton. “Just remember what I said: try not to let Gilbert buy anything. And I mean anything. If my father even mentions money, distract him with card tricks. This works ninety percent of the time.”
“What do we do the other ten percent of the time?” wailed a treasurer.
“Knock him unconscious and have Malcolm erase his memory,” Brighton said in all seriousness. When the treasurers looked horrified, he added, “Malcolm understands the necessity,” and waved at Malcolm, who gave a friendly wave back.
That done, he let his mind wander to the journey ahead of him, and to his traveling companion. Ah, yes, and here came: Archibald the Magnificent, First Knight of La Brea. More like Archibald the Insufferable, Brighton thought with a sneer and decided that it was a very clever thought so he thought it again. Archibald the Insufferable.
His unwanted companion was looking resplendent and well-rested. Beside him was the biggest horse Brighton had ever seen. And of course Archibald rode a big, white horse. What else would he ride?
As if all the guests hadn’t gotten their fill of terrible speeches the night before, there were more terrible speeches. His father gave a very loud one. His mother gave a very sleepy one. It was almost impossible to hear her well-wishes in between all the yawning.
Unfortunately, Gilbert gave one. He stepped forward and smiled winningly. “Bri! Bro! We wish you well on your journey! Why, seeing you riding out like this reminds me of the time you packed up all your things and said you were going to find the edge of the world. Do you remember that?”
Brighton gritted his teeth. “That was Malcolm. He was seven. You told him that the world was flat and he believed you.”
“Well, it is flat, after all!” exclaimed Gilbert.
At Brighton’s Look he added, “Isn’t it?”
“No. No. It. Isn’t.”
“Ah,” said Gilbert, not the least embarrassed. “Well, then, it reminds me of the time you got lost in the royal gardens and — ”
Brighton swore he could feel his teeth turning to dust one layer at a time. “That was you. You were the one that got lost in the royal gardens. You refused to turn left.”
“Well, right is right, you know!”
Brighton clenched his hands so tight his nails dug into his palm. “Indeed. Now, if you’re quite finished?”
Gilbert laughed his loud, foolish laugh, and stepped back.
Malcolm said some kind words then introduced Billarbold the Turquoise. The aging court magician and advisor apparently had some helpful advice for the travelers. Billarbold hobbled up, looking very wise and important. He dropped into a humble bow.
“Uh, why did he just bow to your horse?” whispered Archibald to Brighton.
“Long story,” answered Brighton. Meanwhile, Billarbold had started to speak. Brighton braced himself for the worst and wasn’t disappointed.
“Ducks and martyrs,” said Billarbold sagely. “Fiddly croissants. Dinky little tugboats. That speck on the carpet. Fudge.”
He turned again to Brighton’s horse and proclaimed, “Soiled tissue and a tiny giraffe. Yellow flowers. Toot, toot.” He spread his arms wide and added, “Flabbergasted tomatoes.”
The royals from La Brea looked horrified. Everyone from La Cienega was so used to all of this that they nodded along politely and waited. Finally, Malcolm stepped forward to stand beside Billarbold.
“I agree with my great mentor, Billarbold the Turquoise,” he said. “Brighton, your journey will be a grand one. You will achieve glory and earn even more fame!”
Archibald leaned over and whispered, “Flabbergasted tomatoes?”
“Believe me when I say there is no good explanation. Not a single one,” replied Brighton.
The painful sendoff ended at last. Brighton mounted his horse (a beautiful, black mare), and Archibald gracefully mounted his white warhorse.
“Ready to ride, Prince Brighton?” he asked.
Brighton gave him his nastiest scowl.
And so it was that the two princes set out on a quest to rescue a princess.
He took them steadily southwest.
And he brooded.
He had a lot of time to in the silence that would have been filled up with companionable chatter if he actually liked his traveling companion. As he hated Archibald and anyone like him, there was nothing to talk about.
Archibald did try on several occasions to strike up a conversation. One of his more successful attempts was:
“It’s a fine day.”
To which Brighton replied, “It was better before you spoke.”
Next on the list was:
“That’s a fine horse.”
To which Brighton replied, “Her name is Beelzebub and she doesn’t like you.”
“She seems uncommonly intelligent,” Archibald said, unfazed.
“A gift from the witches,” murmured Brighton. “Charmed to be the smartest horse in the world.”
“This is Valiant,” said Archibald, lovingly patting the horse’s head. “He’s no ordinary horse, either.”
“I don’t care,” said Brighton.
Archibald gave up making small talk after that, which suited Brighton just fine. Thinking was something he was very good at and the silence helped him do it. The quest itself was on his mind. The first step to getting it back on track was to get rid of Prince Archibald the Insufferable.
He had a pretty mouth that never ever smiled. His black eyes were full of sadness. Even his clothing was black. The collar was high and the sleeves too long, like Brighton was trying to hide away inside his clothing. All the black — from his hair to his clothes — made his skin seem as white as snow. There was an air of mystery about him.
What was easiest to figure out was that Brighton didn’t like him. He’d done everything but take an ad out in the newspaper to say as much. He gave him the silent treatment most of the time, and when he did speak, it was in an unintelligible, grumble. The few times he had actually caught some of what Brighton said when he grumbled he regretted — most of it wasn’t very nice.
“So, do you have many hobbies?” Archibald tried at one point.
“Grumble, grumble, exactly where to stick your hobby you grumble,” was about all he heard from the reply. He could fill in the blanks well enough.
It was going to be a very uncomfortable journey if Brighton intended to treat him like dirt the entire time.
They rode for several hours, the road leading them further south. The sun was high and the sky so clear and blue that one could imagine the clouds had simply given up. Up ahead, the road forked and Brighton came to a stop. Archibald slowed and cantered up beside him.
“Tired, Prince Brighton? Hungry? There are some trees just over there. We could stop for a moment, have some lunch.”
Brighton shook his head. “That way,” he said, pointing to the right, “leads to La Brea. Stick to this road and you can be there in a week. Ten days if you don’t want to tire your horse.”
Archibald looked at the road, then back at Brighton. “You want to go to La Brea?”
“No, I want you to go to La Brea,” huffed Brighton. “Look, Prince Archibald, I appreciate your time and…whatever. But please go back to your kingdom. Leave me to my quest. I didn’t ask for your company and your presence is insulting.”
“Insulting? How?” sputtered Archibald.
“Because you are just another reminder that my father finds me so incompetent that he thinks I need a bodyguard. But let me make this clear: I am not incompetent. I do not need a bodyguard. I want you to return to La Brea and leave me to my quest.”
“I swore to protect you.”
“And I never asked you to! We’re not friends. I don’t know you! And if you’re doing this because you think you owe me something — out of misplaced gratitude for that damned Sphinx or whatever — then get that thought out of your head. I…I don’t want thanks for that. I want to be left alone! Please! Go. Away!”
Archibald was dumbstruck. He said nothing, didn’t even move. He knew he had a hurt look on his face — twice as tragic as the one Wendell the Wondrous had pulled just a day ago. He tried to wipe it away, tried to look as indifferent as Brighton obviously was. It didn’t work.
As if it were all settled, and without another word, Brighton spurred his horse and was gone. Archibald watched him ride away down the left fork. The summer sun beat down on him oppressively.
He had perhaps gone a mile when he heard the sound of hooves behind him. He stopped and turned Beelzebub about. Or course Archibald the Insufferable was riding along behind him. He pulled up beside Brighton, a smile on his lips, but determination in his eyes.
“Prince Brighton,” he said. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“I sent you away.”
“You did. And I am officially away,” said Archibald.
“No, you’re not!” shouted Brighton.
“Oh, I am. I just so happen to be going exactly the same way you are.”
“If you dare follow me around — ” Brighton began, but Archibald just laughed.
“You’ll what, Bri?”
Brighton sputtered. “Do not call me that!”
“Prince Gilbert calls you that.”
“Hah! Prince Gilbert legitimately believes that broccoli are trees with no ambition.”
“Huh,” Archibald said, lips pressed into a thoughtful line. After a moment, he held out a hand imploringly.
“Fine then, Prince Brighton. You can’t threaten me. I outweigh you by at least fifty pounds. I’m a trained knight. I’ve fought dragons barehanded and won.”
He leaned in close to Brighton, his brows drawn down. “You can send me away, but you can’t actually make me go.”
Brighton glared at him. “We’ll just see about that,” he said. Then he turned Beelzebub around and rode on, trying his best to ignore the sound of Archibald’s warhorse easily keeping pace with him.
There was no losing him, no outpacing him. For the moment, he was simply just stuck with him. He had no intention of allowing this situation to continue.
Archibald, for his part, continued to act like Brighton had expressly asked him to tag along on his family’s traditional quest. It was infuriating.
The first town they came to across the border was Encino. It had once been a fortress town, back when La Cienega was much more militaristic. Since Brighton’s great grandfather’s reign, La Cienega had become a peaceful neighbor and the fortifications in Encino were more for tourists now, historical curiosities of a bygone time.
The main thoroughfare was busy with shoppers, popping in and out of brick storefronts and carrying large parcels. Archibald excitedly pointed this way and that and Brighton rolled his eyes at each exclamation.
They passed a tall and graceful church. On the stairs, two large men in green tunics stopped their low conversation and watched them. Brighton was immediately on guard. There was nothing pleasant about the men. It was a relief when they were far behind them, but the hairs stood up on the back of his neck for some time.
It grew dark and Brighton asked a passerby for directions to an inn with excellent stables. He checked behind him over and over, the feeling that they were being followed almost oppressive.
“Everything okay?” asked Archibald when Brighton craned around over his shoulder for the fifteenth time in as many minutes.
Brighton considered telling him his suspicions, but then changed his mind. He didn’t want to confide in Archibald, he wanted to be rid of him.
“Oh, everything’s just peachy,” said Brighton. But there was no boisterous reply. In fact, there was nothing but silence from beside him. A quick look around revealed that, somehow, he had gotten his wish: Archibald was gone.
His jubilation was short-lived, however. After giving instructions to the stable boy to bring in his belonging after Beelzebub was unsaddled, he approached the front desk only to find Archibald already there. He was holding a key in his hand.
“We got the last room. In the whole town. Aren’t we lucky?”
The innkeeper smiled at him over Archibald’s shoulder. “So you’re this Prince Brighton he was raving about! So nice to meet you! And aren’t you two the cutest couple?”
Brighton covered his eye as quickly as he could, trying to still the muscle before it was too late.
“We aren’t,” Brighton tried to explain, but it was no good. The innkeeper wasn’t listening and then it didn’t matter because Archibald was pushing him along to the room.
“Have a good night, you two!” cried the innkeeper.
“Oh, we will!” replied Archibald.
“Please just kill me,” grumbled Brighton.
They reached the room and Brighton stopped in the doorway and frowned. It was a smallish room with one bed pushed against the far wall. A single bed.
“Oh, come on, the bed’s plenty big,” Archibald said, and then happily threw himself back onto it, bouncing up and down like a child. “You can have first shower!” Archibald cried.
Brighton looked at him bouncing on the bed, then through the bathroom door, where a window was clearly visible. They were on the first floor. He looked at the bed, then at the window. Bed. Window. Bed. Window.
“Yes, I think I will,” said Brighton. “I will just go take a shower. This is me, off to the bathroom where I will take a shower. I take long showers. Very long showers.”
If Archibald thought he was behaving strangely, he said nothing, just kept bouncing on the bed. Brighton made a run for it. He closed the bathroom door behind him, locked it, and then practically threw himself out the window.
“Oof!” he said, tripping on a branch. Okay, so he wasn’t graceful. He didn’t need to be. He just needed to be fast enough to get a head start. He snuck around to the stables and cursed at what he saw. It was just his luck that the minute he tried to run away, some idiot decided to try to steal his horse.
The men from the stairs of the church, of course, and perhaps he should have said something to Archibald after all. But it was too late now.
One of the big men was desperately struggling with Valiant who was proving too much to handle. The other was just unlocking Beelzebub’s stall. It was a shock to see that the stable boy hadn’t yet unsaddled Beelzebub — all of his belongings were still there on the saddle pack. He’d be damned if he would lose his horse and all his things! Brighton grabbed the first thing he could find — a rake leaning against the door — and charged.
“Get away from my horse!” he shouted, swinging the rake wildly. The big man grunted in surprise, but jumped back before the rake could connect. The only good news was that Beelzebub used the thief’s distraction to rear and tug her reins free. She knocked her big head against the door of the stall, bucked out into the stable proper and then stopped. She stood still before Brighton. For too short a moment, Beelzebub was free, but she seemed torn between running for freedom and staying with Brighton.
“Get to safety, you silly horse!”
The horse tilted its big, pretty head.
He swung the rake at the thief to distract him. “Oh, I don’t know! Somewhere I’ll find you. Don’t be daft!”
The horse snorted, nudged him once affectionately, then bolted. Brighton almost smiled. They’d never catch her. The thief tried, of course, but he was almost trampled for his trouble. Beelzebub shrank into the distance and Brighton had exactly five seconds of triumph before the thief whirled on him, his face a red, ugly mask of fury.
“You bastard! You cost us a pretty prize!”
Brighton shouted in alarm as the thief drew his sword and swung a fierce blow that he barely blocked. His arm trembled with the strain and it felt like the rake was going to snap in his hands. For tense moments the roar of steel against rake sounded in the warm stable. He was vaguely aware of Valiant neighing and of someone going, “Ooph! Ugh!” but he couldn’t pay too much attention, busy as he was trying to defend himself with a rake that was getting skinnier and skinner with each swipe of the thief’s sword.
One more mighty blow was struck. The rake snapped in two and the tip of the sword caught him, ripped his clothing. It took a second for him to realize that he was hurt: The blade had connected, sliced down his stomach. He panicked and used the halves of the rake as best he could to defend himself. But there was pain now and blood dripping on the stable floor.
His arms were weakening — he was no warrior, just as his father always said. A wicked overhead strike had him down on one knee, the halves of the rake above his head in a weak guard. The thief pulled back hugely, ready to strike the final blow, when there was a sudden thump loud enough to echo through the stable. The thief blinked, staggered, and then dropped to his knees.
Archibald stood behind him, a sword in his hand. He’d clubbed the thief with the hilt. Brighton had the overall impression of blond and unruffled and handsome and god, Brighton hated him. He looked ready to fight all the horse thieves in the world. And he really, truly looked like the cover of a romance novel, Brighton thought before the pain and blood loss caught up to him and he swooned.
“Don’t call me ‘Bri’!” hissed Brighton.
“You’re hurt,” said Archibald, before helping him to his feet. The sheriff suddenly ran into the stable with a handful of men to help drag the unconscious horse thieves away. Archibald offered the sheriff an apology for not staying to help, but since he’d just caught two infamous horse thieves and left them unconscious and easy to transport, the sheriff didn’t mind him fleeing the scene.
He kept his arm around Brighton, helping him walk. Each step made Brighton hiss. Finally, Archibald just caught him up in his arms and carried him the rest of the way.
“Oh, put me down!” complained Brighton. “I can walk just fine!”
“I’m carrying you and that’s final!”
“Grumble you, grumble, grumble.”
They passed the innkeeper who had come down to investigate all the noise.
“That’s the way to do it! Attaboy!” he said to Archibald encouragingly. He even gave him a friendly slap on the back.”
“Oh god. Just let me bleed to death,” grumbled Brighton.
Back in their room, Archibald lowered Brighton to the bed, tugged his shirt off to loud protests, and pointed at him with a stern finger. “Stay still.”
He studied the wound with a critical eye. It wasn’t very deep, but it was three inches long. On Brighton’s thin frame, it looked more serious than it was.
Archibald turned to his belongings and rifled through them, feeling a little shaken. In addition to assessing the cut, he’d gotten an eye full of alabaster skin, small pink nipples, and a sharp, elegant collarbone. He knew it was inappropriate to think like that now. Only, the long layers Brighton wore — and those damn high collars — hid a lot and it was a shame.
He returned to Brighton with his first aid kit, sat before him, and looked again at the wound. It was a clean cut, which was a blessing. He poured a nasty-smelling astringent on a cloth.
“This will sting a little,” he said and went to work cleaning up the blood.
“A little? A little!” shrieked Brighton.
“Please hold still,” Archibald requested, giving him a stern look, or his best try. Brighton’s grumpy behavior was almost charming. “You’ve got to have stitches and this is delicate work.”
“Oh, very well, Prince Archibald,” Brighton sighed.
Archibald frowned. “That is so formal,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t suppose you could call me ‘Archie’?”
“Why in the world would I call you that?”
“Because it’s what my friends call me.”
“I am not your friend,” Brighton argued.
“Sure you are, you just don’t know it yet. Come on, give it a try,” Archibald said and smiled at Brighton playfully. He threaded a very sharp needle.
“You must! I really will just let you bleed to death if you don’t,” Archibald added with an exaggerated wink.
“Fine. Very well. Ahem. Archie,” Brighton said. The way Brighton said his nickname made it sound like a royal edict. Archie laughed again.
“It’s a start,” he said. “And I’ll call you — ”
“Brighton,” interrupted Brighton. “You will call me Brighton. No nicknames. Understood?”
Archie bent at the waist and covered his chest with one arm in a theatrical bow. “As you wish, Prince Brighton the Wise of La Cienega,” he drawled, voice high and nasal. “Hear ye, hear ye! His Majesty will now attend to very important Matters of State. Prince Brighton is dreadfully busy!”
Brighton’s eyes went suddenly wide. There was a beat and then an awkward sort of laugh that sounded more like a hiccup slipped past his lips. He covered his mouth instantly.
Archie goggled at Brighton. “Did…did you just laugh?”
Brighton shook his head emphatically. “No. No I definitely did not!”
“It sounded like a laugh to me. Huh. I didn’t even know you had a sense of humor.”
“I don’t. So don’t get used to it!” snarled Brighton.
“Hmm,” said Archie. “But perhaps,” he said, stooping to make the first stitch, “I want to hear you laugh again. Perhaps I liked the sound of it.”
Brighton shook his head. “You are very, very strange.”
“I think,” said Archie, “that it’s almost a compliment coming from you.”
Once the stitches were finished, Archie bandaged the wound with a long strip of clean cloth.
“There,” he said. “It’ll be as good as new in a few days.”
He helped Brighton back into his shirt, noticing that the gloomy prince wouldn’t meet his eyes. Embarrassed? Nervous?
“Bedtime!” proclaimed Archibald. And before Brighton could make a run for the window again, he extinguished the lights, caught him around the waist and tugged him down to the bed. Brighton was like a plank of wood in his arms.
“Hands. Off,” he ground out.
Archibald chuckled and put a foot of space between them. “Goodnight, Bri,” he said and closed his eyes.
“I’m sneaking out in the middle of the night,” Brighton said. “Grumble, grumble.”
“Good luck with that,” said Archie. “I sleep light.”
Which proved to be true at midnight when Brighton was caught and dragged back to the bed. It was true at three-thirty when he didn’t even get a chance to put a toe on the ground. He gave up after the five o’clock attempt when he merely opened his eyes and found Archibald staring at him.
“Nope,” was all he said.
Brighton sighed and closed them again. “You’re an ass,” he said.
“Yes,” agreed Archie. “A Magnificent ass.”
Brighton fell asleep then and slept like a log until sunlight hit his eyes.
The full extent of the trouble with Beelzebub going missing wasn’t clear to Brighton immediately, what with the shock of almost having died.
The morning found Brighton’s arms weak and sore. Archie checked his wound, changed the bandage, and fetched them both breakfast. He was terribly cheerful, of course, but then, his horse was still stabled and none of this belongings were missing.
Brighton stared at the empty stall where Beelzebub should have been with a cloudy expression. His clothing had been in his pack, and now he was left with only the clothing he’d had on the day before.
“I’ll have to go get more provisions,” Brighton said to Archibald when he joined him in the stables. “A horse,” he added.
“I asked around,” Archie said, “and there aren’t any horses for sale in the area. We’ll have to share mine until something pops up.”
Brighton sighed. “There is no we, Archibald. Archie. Whatever. You don’t have to go on this quest with me. As you can see, I’m perfectly safe.”
“Um…someone tried to steal your horse. He tried to kill you.”
“And what if I hadn’t been there?” Archie inquired, one blond brow high.
Brighton waved this away. “I’m not completely defenseless.”
“No, not completely,” Archie replied, all sarcasm. He put a friendly hand on Brighton’s shoulder. Brighton glanced first at that huge hand, then up at Archie. He put on the scowl Malcolm said could be used to remove rust from Gilbert’s armor. It had no visible effect on Archie. Typical.
“Look,” Archie continued, “I…I know you were trying to leave me behind last night. I get that you don’t want me around. You’ve made that clear enough. But I swore to your father — and to mine — that I’d keep you safe. You’re a national treasure to every red-blooded man, woman, and child in La Brea. Try, for their sakes, to tolerate my presence. What do you say?”
Brighton slithered out from under Archie’s grasp. “If I did let you continue on with me, which I’m not, you’d be riding and I’d be walking — or vice versa and — ”
Archie looked confused. “Oh, no, no,” he interrupted. “We can both ride Valiant,” he finished breezily.
Brighton bristled. “That’s a cruel thing to do to a horse,” he said, nose high. “That’s too much weight for him to safely and comfortably carry. You’ll injure him and then we’ll both be without transportation.”
Archie blinked in surprise. “Oh, don’t worry about Valiant. He was a gift from a wizard in thanks for some help I gave him. As I said, he’s no ordinary horse. He can hold the weight of ten men. Twenty men!”
Brighton rubbed his forehead. “At least he wasn’t a gift from a Fairy Queen,” he mumbled.
“What was that?”
“And you don’t weigh that much, besides,” Archibald added and gave Brighton’s thin frame an appraising look. “Valiant won’t even blink when you climb in the saddle. It’ll be like a bird landing on his back.”
“You and your magic horse can go to hell.'”
“What was that?”
“I said, ‘Isn’t that marvelous?'”
“Isn’t it just? Well! Then let’s set out.”
He managed to find a few more shirts and a change of pants for sale at a little store near the inn. They were not his style at all. The collars came far too low. His neck felt exposed. He’d noticed Archie staring at his sharply protruding collarbone, now clearly visible, and had colored in embarrassment. Archie was a knight, after all, not merely a prince. So he was big and tall and broad and muscled. The exact opposite of Brighton. Archie probably pitied him, thought he needed a good meal or two and some muscle.
Brighton refused to be pitied! He dashed back to the store and picked up a scarf and quickly tied it around his neck. Yes, it was high summer. No, he didn’t care!
The two of them rode from Encino mid-morning. Brighton was silent, thinking about how he’d ended up stuck on a magical horse with a prince from La Brea. It had been a number of factors that contributed to his decision to allow Archie to continue on his quest with him. One, he really did need to keep to his schedule, which meant he needed a horse. Archie happened to have a horse. A ridiculous, magical horse that treated two men like they weighed nothing at all.
Two, he had no experience with treating wounds. At all. That was what Malcolm was for, after all. Archie was good for changing out bandages and keeping his wound clean.
Three, he had just developed a newfound appreciating for having a bodyguard around. He was perfectly capable of admitting that he’d made a mistake and underestimated the dangers of his quest. Archie was a useful sort of brute to have around.
Four, he’d already tried to get rid of him and Archie had steadfastly refused to be gotten rid of. He was stuck with him.
The drawbacks of riding on a magical horse with Archie, however, were also piling up.
For one thing, Brighton rode at the front of the saddle and Archibald’s thighs pressed against the outside of his, warm in all that soft, brown leather. It was a bit intimidating to feel all of Archibald’s impressive muscle rubbing against him like this. There was some comfort in knowing that it seemed an uncomfortable ride for Archibald as well. At first he diligently kept his hands clenched behind him on the saddle. Perhaps he remembered Brighton’s ‘Hands off!” from the night before. But he overbalanced so many times, tilted dangerously to the side, that Brighton sighed loudly, reached back and tugged Archibald’s arms around his waist.
Archibald froze, then slowly relaxed. Brighton, however, suddenly regretted his hasty decision to keep Archibald from face-planting. Archibald held him just a little too tightly. His hands were so large it seemed like they spanned Brighton’s entire waist. They rested a little too low.
And that wasn’t even the biggest problem. The biggest problem was the motion of the horse. It rocked them together in fairly suggestive ways. It didn’t feel bad, which was another problem. There was all this heat and friction and —
“Whoa,” Brighton called and half fell off the horse in his hurry to run away.
Archibald caught him just as he was about to smash into the ground face-first and helped ease him down with one hand on his upper arm.
“Why are we stopping?” asked Archibald, hopping down after him and catching Valiant’s reins.
“Rest for Valiant,” Brighton called back, but didn’t stop moving. Getting away from Archibald was all he could focus on.
“Valiant is no ordinary horse! He can ride for days without rest!” Archibald shouted back.
“Well, isn’t that just wonderful! What a remarkable and special fucking horse! Fine then, I need rest!” Brighton shouted back.
Brighton trudged off the road and through the forest until he found a spot that looked as grim as he felt. Unfortunately, every place in the forest was pleasing and green and nice, so he had to settle on a patch that had a few ugly mushrooms nearby and that was as bad as it got.
“Oh, this is beautiful,” Archibald complimented as he approached, leading Valiant who looked just as fresh as when they first set out. Damn magical horse.
“The mushrooms are ugly,” Brighton contradicted with feeling. Archibald cast a glance at the offensive fungus.
“They’re not that bad.”
“Yes, they are!” Brighton shouted and Archibald actually jerked backwards at the sound. Valiant’s perky ears twitched a little.
“Oookay. If you say so.”
Archibald gave Brighton a look that proved any confidence he had in Brighton’s sanity had just abandoned him.
“Oh, just sit down,” Brighton snapped. “Have something to eat.”
Archibald tied the reins around a tree branch and settled on a log across from Brighton. He watched him cautiously while he ate a rind of cheese and thick slice of bread. Meanwhile, Brighton lamented his own stubbornness.
Six months ago, his parents had told him he’d have to go on this ridiculous quest. And he’d been piping mad. But then he’d started to think. He’d thought about how uneven everything in his life was. He was a legend in a neighboring kingdom; a hero to its people and its king and queen. He was a nothing in his own kingdom. Nothing to his father.
But what if? What if he could actually rescue Chloe? He’d looked at his plain face in the mirror and felt a sudden longing for change so great that he felt like he was suffocating from stagnation.
He wanted, just once in his life, to mean the world to someone. Perhaps he could mean the world to Chloe.
And just like that, he’d started planning. He’d spent countless hours in the royal library, studying, learning. It was ludicrous that he wanted his parents’ respect. Even if he got it, what then? It wasn’t like he could be happy. Nevertheless, he was driven to have the respect. To at least try.
And one day into the trip, all of his hard work had been destroyed by a couple of horse thieves and a prince from La Brea.
He was really starting to think that winning his parents’ approval wasn’t worth this. It wasn’t too late to turn around, ride north, stop at a kiosk and grab some key chains. Was it?
“May I ask why we’re going southwest?” asked Archibald, interrupting his thoughts.
“Southwest. We’re going southwest. The Enchanted Forest is the other way.”
“Oh,” said Brighton simply. “We’re not going to the Enchanted Forest.”
“But Princess Chloe is there.”
“Yes, but do you know how big that place is? No one has ever found her castle because everyone is looking in the wrong place. I’d like to look in the right place.
“It’s a good point,” Archibald conceded. “So then where exactly are we going?”
“We’re going,” said Brighton, “to the library.”
“Surely you must be joking,” said Archibald.
“To my knowledge, I have never told a joke,” said Brighton.
At night, they camped under the stars, sharing Archie’s tent.
It was easy enough to slither out of his sleeping bag, through the tent flap, and out into the night. He held his finger to his mouth when he passed Valiant. The warhorse did not look impressed.
Brighton made it about half a mile before Archie caught him and dragged him back.
“You’re very easy to track,” he said.
“Let me go!” Brighton protested, twisting in his grip.
“Don’t they teach princes these things? Don’t you know anything about tracking? About covering your tracks?”
“I’m not Gilbert,” Brighton growled. “I’m not good at tracking.”
“I am,” Archie said with a smile in his voice. “Get some sleep, Brighton.”
Brighton sighed. He could try again tomorrow.
The sun came up and they were back on Valiant for the final leg of the journey.
At one point, Archie nuzzled his neck and Brighton jerked away. “Prince Archibald,” he warned.
“Sorry,” Archie said breathlessly.
Brighton was at his wits’ end. It was a relief when they were able to stop in Playa Del Rey. The library was at last before them.
It was a tall building with elegant curving lines. Brighton tugged on the reins and Archie slid off the horse. Then he reached up and eased Brighton down, his big hands strong on his waist. There was about three inches of space between them. For a moment, Archie just held him, helped him regain his balance. His face was tilted down, close to Brighton’s.
“All right?” he asked softly.
“Just fine,” Brighton huffed and took a step back. Then another. “Well,” said Brighton softly to his feet. “Here we are.”
“Bri,” Archie said. But Brighton all but ran into the library, feeling strange. Anxious. Nervous.
Archie had one of the many attendants take the horse and then followed Brighton inside.
“Oh, yes!” said the librarian. “The Gracie Tome! I know it well!”
“Glad to hear it,” Brighton said in that flat, insincere voice of his.
“It’s a delightful book!” exclaimed the librarian.
Archie watched as the small tic began jumping beneath Brighton’s eye. It was so frequent an occurrence that he felt he could almost set his watch by it.
“Uh, huh,” said Brighton. “I’m delighted. May I see it?”
“The cover is gold, you know?”
“Imagine that. May I see it?”
The librarian held up an informative finger. “And the pages are vellum!”
“Great. May I see it?” Brighton said through his teeth.
Finally, Archie stepped forward. “So, you don’t have this book at all, do you?”
The librarian looked crestfallen. “No. Not anymore,” he said. “I’m sorry, Prince Brighton,” he added sincerely, casting a guilty look at Brighton.
Brighton opened his mouth and Archie just knew something nasty was about to come out of it. He placed a hand on Brighton’s shoulder to stop him.
“Where is the book then?” he asked.
“Alas, we are having a book sale!” The librarian pointed grandly to a big banner hanging over the reference book section. It proclaimed:
“You sold a golden book…at a book sale?” was Brighton’s disbelieving question.
“Well, we’re underfunded, you know. Our budget’s been slashed three years in a row!”
“This kingdom is so backwards,” sighed Brighton. “Can you tell us where the Gracie Tome ended up?”
“It was purchased by a lord from our neighbors to the west, Lord Jackman of Tujunga. That was three months ago or so.”
“You know what I wish?” said Brighton a little while later. His shoulders were stooped in abject misery. “I wish there was an easy to use system in place that kept track of what books each library had. You could search for a title. Or an author. Perhaps even for a keyword. And then this — let’s call it a ‘search engine’ — would tell you the results. You could know in seconds if the library had what you needed! Then you would never show up after days of traveling only to find that the bloody book you’ve traveled for got sold to a stupid lord!”
Archie looked at him sadly. “That’s just wishful thinking. Search engine, indeed. We’ll never have something like that. Next you’ll be dreaming about, oh, I dunno, frozen yogurt and diet soda.”
“It could happen!” shouted Brighton.
And so it was that Brighton staggered back out of the library looking completely deflated. He’d been able to find the books he’d lost when Beelzebub ran — luckily on sale at the book sale — but that didn’t cheer him. Of course.
“We’re going to lose days like this,” he said.
“Cheer up,” said Brighton. “Lord Jackman is a friend. He owes me a favor.”
“Of course he does,” grumbled Brighton.
He placed his armful of new books in the pack on Valiant’s saddle.
“Best find some lodgings,” said Archie. “I saw some on the way here. It’ll be dark soon. Let’s ride.”
Brighton hesitated, eyeing the horse with a look of worry. “We should walk,” he said.
Archie considered this. It was a nice day and a walk could do them both good. A chance to stretch their legs. There was a pleasant breeze blowing and Playa Del Rey was a beautiful, green town with tall orange trees growing here and there. Archie struck up a conversation and was surprised when Brighton didn’t immediately shut him down.
“What’s in this book?”
“The Gracie Tome?” asked Brighton. “Well, I can only guess, but my research tells me it contains a map.”
“Of all the kingdoms from when El Segundo was a thriving kingdom. Before the Enchanted Forest. Before Chloe’s curse. If it’s even a little bit accurate, it will give us a better idea of where Chloe is.”
“You’d think someone would have noticed this before now,” wondered Archie.
Brighton said, “No one in my family has ever been to a library before, as near as I can tell. Besides, the book isn’t in English. Even if they found the map, they’d be a little lost on how to use it.”
“But you can read it?” Archie asked with an eyebrow high.
“I wrote the book on ancient languages,” said Brighton. “Literally.”
They spoke for some time as they walked and Archie noticed that, when discussing books, Brighton showed the same enthusiasm that Archie did when discussing tournaments and adventures. He wouldn’t say that Brighton seemed happy, but he could easily see that Brighton was engaged in the conversation. Archie had finally found the one thing in the world that Brighton seemed to like. It bothered him, somehow, to realize that it was books.
Then he closed his eyes, then cracked them open again. Brighton was standing on the other side of the room, back flush against the wall, eyes as wide as a cornered deer’s.
“What’s the matter? Come to bed.”
Brighton shook his head. “Uh,” he explained.
Archie yawned, smacked his lips together, and said, “We have a long ride tomorrow. Come on. I don’t bite.”
For some reason, Brighton squeaked. It was a cute sound. Archie waited another minute before getting up and dragging Brighton to the bed.
“No, no!” Brighton protested, but he was as weak as a kitten to Archie who only released him once they reached the bed.
“Lay down,” Archie commanded and pointed to the bed. Brighton did so with obvious reluctance. Archie waited for the scrawny prince to settle down, then slid in beside him.
“Stop being such a baby. It’s not the first time we’ve shared a bed. Now, goodnight,” he said and yawned again. If Brighton gave an answer, he didn’t know for he was fast asleep instantly. This time, Brighton didn’t try to escape during the night. It was a welcome change.
Brighton held still, took steady breaths and tried to decide what to do.
The little, stupid part of his brain — the part that sounded like Gilbert — informed him that this all felt pretty nice. As nice as anything ever had felt, really.
The bigger, brilliant part of his mind told that little Gilbert voice to shut up. All the riding together on Valiant — rubbing together with each step the horse took — made this moment in bed together far less innocent than it would have been otherwise.
It feels good, said that Gilbert voice again.
“Shut up,” hissed Brighton.
“Shh,” muttered Archie in a sleepy voice. He pulled him closer. “Go back to bed.”
Brighton squeezed his eyes tight. His heart was beating out of control. He was in trouble. Worse, the whole world was in trouble. The big, knightly, idiot was growing on him.
He simply had to go.
Brighton went down to the stables with him in the morning, looked at the horse, then at Archie. He did so again several times. At last he said, “I…we can afford a day. Perhaps two days to go look for a horse for me. Any horse. To be honest, a donkey will do.”
Archie raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, if you insist,” he said, feeling a heavy…yes, it was disappointment. He was disappointed.
Archie said, “It’s a big enough town. There’s bound to be a horse for sale somewhere. Perhaps even a donkey. Let’s go.”
Brighton shook his head emphatically. “No!” he shouted. “Um. We’ll split up. We can cover more ground that way.”
And so it was decided that Brighton would head north and Archie south. The hope was that one or both of them would find a horse by then. If they both did, reasoned Brighton, even better. An additional horse for his books and belongings would be welcome.
To which Archie said, “Valiant doesn’t mind the extra weight.”
“Grumble you and your grumble, grumble horse,” said Brighton with his usual grimace.
They parted. Archie walked for a time down a quaint, country road just outside of Playa Del Rey. He came upon a very comfortable-looking bale of hay and lay down. There was a farmhouse in the distance and a stable that he could see. A few horses wandered around, nibbling at the grass.
He watched the clouds drift by. They were a little surprising since the sky had been so clear for so many days. These had the look of storm clouds. He dozed at one point.
Finally, the sun began to set and he used the last of the light to walk back to the tavern. He only had to wait about ten minutes before Brighton stomped up to him. He looked sweaty and tired. His usually smooth, black locks were frazzled.
“I was sent on a goose chase!” he complained. “I was told of a horse for sale and then given directions to the wrong yard. By the time I found the right one, the horse had been sold already!”
He waved his arms in anger so much that he caught at his stomach, as if his stitches were pulling.
“Careful,” scolded Archie.
Brighton waved this away. “I’m fine,” he sighed. “Did you have better luck?” he asked and looked around as if Archie had hidden the horse somewhere nearby.
Archie put on a disappointed face. “I looked all over,” he said. “There’s not a single horse for sale in the whole town.”
“Typical!” cried Brighton. “You know, these bordering kingdoms are so backwards! Underfunded libraries! Not a horse for sale anywhere. You know, I didn’t even see a single horse!”
“Huh,” said Archie. “Well, let’s get some rest. I think the room above the tavern is still available…”
Brighton looked suddenly pale and nervous. “Um,” he said. “Perhaps we should just…sally forth?”
“Too dark,” said Archie. “And I’d like to have a look at your wound,” he added.
“Almost completely healed,” he whispered.
Brighton staggered to his feet and away from him.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “That will do. Thank you.”
Archie gave an exaggerated bow. “As you command, your majesty!” he said in that high, nasal voice he had perfected. It was so much like Stewart the Steward that it was uncanny. “Your royal wound is well on the mend!”
Brighton felt one of those terrible laughs bubbling up. He fought it. But when Archie stood, he could just tell that Archie was pleased with himself. The man seemed to delight in slipping past his guard.
“Bedtime,” said Archie. He tugged Brighton to the terrible, narrow bed. There was hardly any space between them, heat building up under the blankets.
“Get some sleep,” he said, far too close to his ear.
But Brighton couldn’t sleep. Halfway through the night, Archie wrapped his arm around him and pulled him close. He made this lovely, horrible little groan of pleasure. Brighton tried to slip from under his arm then, but it did no good. Archie held him tighter, murmured in his ear. This was hell.
It was hours before Brighton finally drifted off. And what felt like seconds later, he was awake again. It wasn’t even surprising to find himself still wrapped up in Archie’s arms. It felt like being coddled, like being treated like a treasure. It was terrible in every way.
“Dammit,” he said to the receding dark. He had no idea what he was going to do.
The trip to the kingdom would take three days, the first of which was Brighton asleep astride valiant with Archibald holding him tight against his chest. It was clear that Brighton hadn’t slept at all the night before. In fact, Brighton was so deeply asleep that Archibald could rest his chin on his shoulder without bothering him at all.
The next day was more of the same: Something had kept Brighton from sleeping well in the tent, for he slept against him on the saddle again. It struck Archie how small and delicate Brighton seemed in his arms. The third day, the road widened a little and Brighton stayed awake.
Only, the sunshine that had graced their journey was all but a memory. The sky was slowly filling up with clouds. The sun had ducked behind them about an hour ago. Brighton, too, looked up at the clouds in worry. He was silent and gloomier than ever before.
For Archie, the only pleasant thing about the trip was that Brighton felt amazing in his arms. The motion of the horse rocked them together so perfectly. He had gotten to like riding with Brighton for many inappropriate reasons. Waking up in bed or in the tent beside him was only increasing the pleasure to be had from holding him as they rode.
He was hard, had no idea how Brighton didn’t notice.
He rubbed his forehead back and forth on Brighton’s shoulder without thinking. Brighton stilled. Just going with what felt nice, Archie nuzzled against his neck, pushed that damn scarf down so he could have his fill of the creamy skin where it met his shoulder. It had been driving him mad. His hand was splayed on Brighton’s stomach, holding him back against his chest. He tightened his arms, pulled Brighton harder against him to feel more. The reins almost slipped from Brighton’s fingers.
“W-we should rest here,” he squeaked.
But Archibald held him tighter still. “Don’t go,” he said. He couldn’t help it: He rocked his hips against him. The thrill of it went up his spine, made him harder.
“Oh no,” whispered Brighton.
“God that’s amazing,” groaned Archie. He rocked his hips again. “Are you feeling this?” he whispered against Brighton’s neck.
“I don’t feel a thing!” Brighton snapped. Archibald dipped his hand lower, proving that Brighton was lying.
“My god,” Archibald moaned and started a slow, heavy rub between his spread thighs.
“It’s just…a natural reaction to riding on this damn horse!” Brighton hissed. But when Archie rubbed again, Brighton arched into the touch. A gasp escaped his lips. “Oh! Ah!”
“Yes,” moaned Archie.
Which is the exact moment that the sky opened up. In seconds they were drenched. It was a pounding rain, sheets coming down, obscuring everything in the distance. Archie cursed. He had guessed the rain was hours away at least. Yet here they were, soaked to the bone with water muddying up the road all around them.
“Hang on!” he shouted. He snatched the reins from Brighton and let Valiant hit his top speed.
He worried he was holding Brighton too tightly, possibly damaging his healing wound. But at this speed, he was more worried about Brighton being thrown from the saddle.
“Archie!” shouted Brighton.
“Just a little longer!”
The road started to flood, the gutters were rivers. Leaves were ripped from the trees and branches cracked off loudly. Valiant struggled a little through the rising waters, leaped over floating debris.
In seconds Archie had steered them to a tall gate. Tujunga was before them; they were seconds away from being safe from the sudden storm.
The men at the gate ushered them through and gave them directions to where they might find an inn. Soon enough, Valiant was warm and dry and chomping away happily.
The two princes trudged into the inn, one wound up tighter than a clock, and the other dragging his feet like he carried the world.
The bed looked comfortable. Not too small and not too big. Perfect for cuddling and Archie felt a thrill of excitement. He showered after Brighton and stepped out into the room. But the look on Brighton’s face was not encouraging.
He lowered the towel from drying his hair, still shirtless. This was a mistake, he realized, as Brighton shouted, “Put some clothing on!”
Archie tugged a shirt on, then held his arms out, presenting himself to Brighton.
“Better?” he asked.
Brighton didn’t answer that, just crossed his arms and yelled at him. “Somehow, you seem to have come to the conclusion that you can do whatever you like because your some hotshot knight. Rules don’t apply to you! But let me tell you: I don’t care who you are. What happened this afternoon was unacceptable. You are no longer allowed to touch me,” he said.
“Brighton — ”
“Keep your hands to yourself! No more sleeping in the same bed, either!”
Archie could see the situation slipping away from him. He stepped forward, hands out, like he was steadying a wild animal.
“Bri — ”
“No!” Brighton said. His face was red, his eyes were wet. “I…I’ve been generous and…I’ve let you ride with me. But…I will do anything in my power to get away from you if you don’t agree to these terms. I’ll walk to the Enchanted Forest. I’ll steal a horse if I have to. I can’t…you can’t touch me like that anymore.”
Archie lowered his hands. He nodded his understanding. “Okay, Brighton,” he said. “I’ll sleep on the floor. I won’t…I won’t touch you.”
Some of the tension in Brighton’s shoulders went away and it upset Archie to know that he’d put it there in the first place.
“Good,” Brighton proclaimed. “We’ll have a clean slate.”
“Friends?” Archie tried. Brighton’s nostril curled.
“I suppose,” he said at last. “Not too friendly.”
Archie forced a smile onto his face. “No. Not too friendly.”
He spent a miserable night on the floor. He didn’t know if Brighton slept at all. He had dark smudges under his eyes in the morning. Archie had a crick in his neck. They dressed in silence, ate in silence. Archie wondered if Brighton’s wound was doing well; he hadn’t even been allowed to change the dressing. All the friendly gains they had made were well and truly over and all because Archie had liked holding Brighton far too much. He felt like a fool.
Lord Jackman the Red had always been a nice guy. He hadn’t changed much. He was still tall and ginger (sometimes the naming convention was terribly literal). His estate was gated and lovely and he’d seen them without hesitation, ushering them in to a comfortable sitting room and plying them food and drink.
He looked genuinely bothered that he couldn’t hand the Gracie Tome over to Archie.
“Especially since we owe you that favor for that thing with the guy and that moat,” he said, gesturing vaguely.
“I was happy to help,” said Archie brightly. Brighton rolled his eyes.
“We’re grateful, you know,” said Jackman. “But that book is being offered up as a prize in our tournament. My hands are tied.”
Archibald went very still.
“Tournament?” he asked, a smile spreading across his handsome face.
A short time later, they were walking down the street, Archie with a marked spring in his step and Brighton as if an anchor weighed him down.
“Man! A real tournament! Aren’t you glad you kept me around?” asked Archie, smiling hugely.
“Mm,” said Brighton.
“I’m great at tournaments. It comes with being Magnificent.”
“Oh?” Brighton asked flatly.
“Yes! I’m brave and selfless and true. And I never tell a lie.” He thought for a moment. “Well, almost never,” he amended.
“Grumble, modesty, grumble,” said Brighton.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” said Brighton.
And so it was that Prince Archibald the Magnificent entered a tournament to win a book.
Archie eyed the carnival with obvious excitement. Brighton looked at it in confusion. They pressed on to the tournament grounds, Archie thrumming in anticipation, practically bouncing on his heels.
“Right then,” said the tournament official. “We’ve got you all signed up, Prince Archibald. And I must say it’s an honor! I saw you joust in Santa Barbara.”
There were stars in the man’s eyes. Actual stars. Brighton wanted to vomit.
“Ah, Santa Barbara!” said Archibald, arms akimbo. “A great tournament!”
“You were the best knight there!”
“I might actually vomit,” mumbled Brighton.
The tournament fanboy looked embarrassed and said, “Well, be back here in three days.”
The fanboy laughed. “Neat how you two said that at the same time and all. Very cool. Do you practice?”
“There you go again!” he laughed and turned away to help another knight.
“Three days?” Brighton said in a voice made entirely of shock and horror. “Bah! What are we going to do for three days?”
Archibald caught his shoulder and turned him around. He pointed over his shoulder to the distance. “I have,” he said, “a fabulous idea.”
Below them, the carnival was in full swing, the merry-go-round spinning merrily.
“Oh, must we?” groaned Brighton.
“Oh, we must,” said Archie.
“What is it?”
“It’s a churro! Tell me you’ve had a churro.”
“I can’t. I haven’t.” Brighton smelled it, then turned it this way and that, studying it.
“It can’t hurt you,” Archie exclaimed. “It’s just sugar, cinnamon, and dough. It’s good, I promise. Try it.”
Brighton took a delicate, cautious bite. He made an involuntary little “Mmmm” of appreciation.
“Good,” Brighton said and took another bite. After several minutes, he asked, “What?” because Archie was openly staring at him.
“I don’t know. It just occurred to me that you’ve never been to a carnival.”
“Well, no,” Brighton agreed. “Of course not.”
“Why of course not?” asked Archie.
“Well, I mean,” Brighton fumbled. “That is…people have fun at carnivals.”
“And you don’t have fun?”
Brighton shrugged. He suddenly seemed very uncomfortable. “No, I don’t have fun,” he said.
“Time to change that!” Archie whooped. He grabbed Brighton’s wrist and dragged him to brightly lit booths filled with all sorts of games. Except for a guessing game where he correctly gave the number of candies in a very big jar, Brighton was not very good at the games.
“I believe this is rigged,” said Brighton pointing at the ring suspended ten feet away. “The balls are all slightly too big to go through the hoop.”
The carny looked from side to side nervously, but Archie exclaimed, “Oh, nonsense! What possible reason could he have to rig a game?”
The carny counted his money with an innocent smile. “The good knight is correct! What reason could I possibly have?”
“Grumble, thief, grumble, charlatan,” said Brighton.
Archie, on the other hand, was very good at every game he tried.
“If you bring that big, pink bear back to the inn, I will burn it in effigy,” warned Brighton. Archie declined all the stuffed animals he won after that.
He looked down the long line of colorful booths and let out a cry of joy. Then he was once again tugging Brighton along with him to a —
“A roller coaster,” Archie explained when Brighton asked — completely baffled — “What is it?”
“It looks dangerous.”
“Safe as houses,” Archie said and wondered why Brighton flinched.
But then they were both zipping down the track in a tiny little cart. Brighton screamed and screamed.
“Put your hands up!” Archie shouted and thrust his high into the air during a menacing drop. He laughed louder when he saw Brighton tentatively raise his own hands.
“Whoa! Whoa!” Brighton hollered. And then the sound of his laughter drifted across the carnival.
The ride came to a stop and Brighton was doubled over, clutching his stomach.
“Oh, oh!” he said. “That! What an extraordinary invention!” His smile was wide, his teeth bright.
“You liked it?” Archie asked, feeling pleased with himself, pleased with Brighton’s sudden, unexpected mirth.
“I…I did. I would like — ”
But whatever he might have said was drowned out by the sound of distant thunder. The first drop of rain splashed on Archie’s nose.
Before Archie’s eyes, the smile fell off Brighton’s face. He guessed that rain on such a fine day — one that was proving to be lots of fun — would upset anyone.
Archie craned his neck back and had a look at the clouds building up high above them.
“Drat. Where did this come from? Such strange weather we’re having. What a bummer. Ah, well. We can come back tomorrow,” he mused aloud. But Brighton didn’t answer. Archie lowered his eyes to find him still and serious, his eyes raised to the sky.
“No,” he said. “No, we can’t do this again,” he said. Then he turned and rushed away. Archie ran to catch up with him, feeling completely lost. Brighton’s moods were so mercurial he felt like he had whiplash trying to keep up.
The innkeeper was twice as nasty to them when they showed up, once again dripping water all over the floor. She shoved more towels at them and tsked.
“I don’t want to go,” Brighton said gloomily. “I don’t like the carnival. I don’t like churros!”
“Now that’s a lie. Look, the weather cleared up again! It’s a beautiful day. The birds are singing! Don’t you want to ride the coaster again?”
Brighton wouldn’t be swayed. He stayed inside with his new library books, combing over the maps and stories. He only seemed to delight in complaining about everything.
“The blankets are scratchy. And the fireplace is in need of cleaning. And the windows need a good washing!”
“Bri, this is a very nice room,” Archie argued, but that only seemed to fuel Brighton’s desire to complain.
It was a miserable few days before the tournament began. With Brighton worse than ever, the tournament was all Archie had to look forward to. Perhaps winning the Gracie Tome for Brighton would cheer him. Perhaps he could see that rare smile again.
Because that was what really stung about Brighton’s foul mood: For just one day, he had been a different person. Archie had gotten to see him have fun. It had been wonderful. The contrast was shocking.
The first day of the tournament arrived. Archibald met Brighton at the front of the inn with Valiant so they could walk to his first event together. But Brighton was clearly not pleased with his attire.
“What are you wearing?”
“Clothing,” said Archie.
“Why aren’t you wearing armor? You should be wearing armor!”
“I don’t wear armor. You’ve been traveling with me all this time: Have you seen armor?”
Brighton stomped his foot. “You’ve been in and out of the room. I thought you went to have some made?”
“Nah. I was really just going to the carnival to bring you back snacks.”
Archie sighed. “Look, I’ve got armor. It’s in La Brea, but I never wear it.”
“Why?” snapped Brighton.
“It’s embarrassing,” Archie said, scratching the back of his neck. “It’s gold, for starters…”
Brighton blinked once. Then twice. “I’m sorry, but did you just say — ”
“Yes. Gold. My armor is gold.”
“Why, pray tell?”
Archie felt his face flame. “It’s a bit of a long story. See, there was this rainbow bridge over a shimmering lake. It led me to this fairy kingdom. And I did a little favor for this beautiful Fairy Queen, so she made me invincible. She asked me to stay, I said no, and eventually I left. The armor was a farewell present. But it’s kind of redundant, don’t you think?”
“Where the hell is this damn lake with this fucking rainbow bridge!” screamed Brighton.
“Whoa, hey! Are you okay? What is wrong with your eye?”
“Nothing,” said Brighton. “Please forgive me. I just get…so excited about supernatural phenomena,” he finished awkwardly. He then spun on his heels and stomped away.
“Hey, yeah, no problem,” Archie said to Brighton’s retreating back. He couldn’t put his finger on it, exactly, but he had a funny feeling that Brighton was more upset than usual about something. He shrugged and followed him to the tournament grounds.
He’d been invited by Lord Jackman the Red to sit beside other nobles and dignitaries in a comfortable stand perfectly placed to best see the action. Brighton was so distracted by Archie marching onto the field without armor on that he couldn’t keep all the ladies and lords and dukes straight.
“The prince of La Brea, eh?” a Lord Something-or-Other of Somewhere the Something asked.
“Mmm,” Brighton replied. He was barely paying attention to the men and women seated beside him. He was only focused on Archie.
“He’s going to get killed,” observed Lord Something-or-Other.
“One would think,” agreed Brighton.
“Isn’t he with you? Aren’t you worried?”
“Not exactly,” admitted Brighton.
On the field, Archie gave him a big, goofy wave. Brighton ducked in his seat and pretended not to know him. This did no good when, after being announced, Archie walked right up to the VIP seats, bowed low to everyone and then proclaimed, “May I have a favor from Prince Brighton? A token for good luck?”
Everyone cheered and a young Countess Whosit swooned and Brighton glared.
“I don’t have anything,” he grumbled.
“That scarf will do,” Archie said with that damn smile, pointing at the black scarf around his neck.
“I don’t want to give you my scarf.”
“Oh do!” squeaked the countess. “Give him the scarf! It’s so sweet!”
Everyone around picked up the cheer.
“Be a good sport, Prince Brighton!”
“Give him a kiss, too!” cried out High Councilor What’s-His-Name.
“Absolutely not!” growled Brighton.
Archie had this amused look on his face as the cheering grew louder.
“Well?” he asked. “Gonna give me that scarf? You’ll look like a terrible sport if you don’t.”
“Oh, fine!” Brighton huffed.
Archibald watched with an eyebrow high as Brighton tugged his scarf off his neck. He thrust it forward, but Archie took it from him slowly, almost reverently. Then his eyes did this terrible thing where they traveled from his mouth to his chest, a leisurely up and down. Then they traveled up the other way again. Finished at last, it seemed, he bowed again, a ridiculous bow that didn’t look elegant at all. Not one bit.
He returned to the field, leaving Brighton behind angry and all turned around. Lord Something-or-Other leaned over and whispered, “Not a bad catch, young man. He doesn’t seem too bright, but he’s good-looking and he seems to like you plenty. Hang on to him. If he doesn’t die messy.”
Brighton felt his face flame. He sputtered something that made no sense, something worthy of Billarbold the Turquoise. Then he just deflated and gave up.
On the field, Archie’s competition was a giant man in gleaming armor. Archie had tied Brighton’s scarf around his upper arm. A gong sounded and the match began.
Brighton watched the entire sword fight with his arms crossed and a sour expression on his face. It was over in six minutes and it was clear that it only took that long because Archie was holding back to save the giant man he fought the embarrassment of losing in thirty seconds. The crowd was dead silent as the match ended with the giant knight disarmed and on his knees. Archie helped him to his feet and clapped him on the back, and Brighton could just tell that he was giving the man some compliment and possibly helpful advice on his form.
The crowd figured out that the match was over eventually and applauded, but it was the applause of people who had no idea what they’d just seen.
Lord Something-or-Other leaned over to Brighton again and remarked, “Well, that token did him a world of good. I think he was showing off. You know, to impress you.”
Brighton didn’t think about that throughout the entire tournament. He didn’t think about it during the joust. He didn’t think about it during the archery competition. He didn’t think about it during the semifinals. Not at all.
And Archie didn’t look handsome or brave. He looked foolish riding around without armor. Jousting without armor! And Brighton wasn’t worried about him. The best thing that could happen would be for Archibald to turn out not to be invincible after all, fall off his horse or something, and then Brighton would be free to continue his quest without the insufferable nuisance.
Only Archie didn’t lose. He didn’t fall off his horse. He was never disarmed.
At one point, Brighton decided the entire tournament was unfair.
“Were you dubbed ‘Magnificent’ before or after that dreadful rainbow bridge?” demanded Brighton from the bed as Archie squirmed into as comfortable a position as he could on the floor.
“Before,” said Archie with a smile in his voice.
Then Archie strode to the VIP stands and presented the book to Brighton, with a flourish, down on one knee. In front of everyone. Brighton sputtered and snatched it.
“May I have my scarf back?” he snapped.
“No,” said Archie, his eyes lingering on his collarbone again. It made Brighton squirm a little.
“Can we have that kiss now?” demanded Countess Whosit, who Brighton had decided needed to go and find herself a life since she was inordinately fixated on his!
Archie was celebrated through the town. Strangers bought him drinks at the tavern. And even the other knights he had embarrassed hardly seemed upset. He was raised up on their shoulders and given three cheers. The tournament fanboy was there, regaling anyone who would listen with tales of Archie’s performance at the tournament in Santa Barbara. Ladies came and fluttered their eyelashes at him and flashed quite a lot of bosom.
Brighton sat in a corner with his arms crossed and glared at the tableau. What did he care? Archie could take one of them to bed and Brighton wouldn’t care at all. Not at all!
At some point, Archie noticed him sitting like a storm cloud, all alone. He brought a drink over and sat beside him.
“Bri! Try to have fun.”
“I don’t — ”
“Yes, I know. You don’t have fun.” Archie ran a hand through his hair, a frustrated gesture that was becoming familiar to Brighton. Archie suddenly stood and raised his glass.
“A toast!” he shouted. The entire bar turned to him. “To Prince Brighton the Wise, hero of La Brea!”
“Here, here!” shouted the tournament fanboy.
“Here’s to your sweetheart!” cried Countess Whosit.
Everyone raised their glasses, beaming at Brighton. He was slapped on the back a few times. Someone brought him a drink. His cheeks were so red and hot you could fry eggs on them.
“Oh, fine, yes. Make fun of me,” he said when Archie sat back down, a smile on his stupid, handsome face.
“I’m not making fun of you.”
Brighton pushed the drink away. “I’ve seen it a dozen times. Gilbert comes back from some silly quest — some silly rainbow bridge! — and there’s a celebration and a party and toasts. I’m quite used to it, you know. You don’t have to, to…appease me!”
Archie reached across the wooden table and caught his hand. He stroked his thumb over the back of it slowly.
“I’m not Gilbert. I’m nothing like your brother,” he said. “Please believe me: I would never belittle your achievements.”
Brighton had this shocking moment when that childish part of him wanted to just believe him. It had been nice to be toasted. To be slapped on the back like one of the knights. But there were consequences. There were always consequences.
He tugged his hand from Archie’s. “Goodnight, Prince Archibald,” he said. He left the bar, back stiff, trying not to feel Archie’s eyes on him.
“Ahh,” he said.
Archie raised his head blearily and asked, “So that’s the map? Looks like gibberish. You can read that?”
“Yes. See? El Segundo is here. This is what it looked like before the curse. And there it is: the Castle of El Segundo.”
He stabbed a thin finger onto the map.
“Chloe’s castle?” asked Archibald.
“Chloe’s castle,” replied Brighton.
“Well, then the tournament was totally worth it,” he said wryly. “Glad I did all that work! Bet you’re happy I’m here!”
Brighton frowned at him. “Don’t act like the tournament was some kind of hardship. You had a wonderful time.”
“I did,” Archie admitted. “I’ll have even more fun fighting my way through the Enchanted Forest.”
“Hmm. I’m sure you will,” Brighton said with a smirk. He continued to study the book, occasional running a thin finger over the hills and valleys painted there.
“Ahem,” Archibald began. “Valiant’s ready to go. If you’re quite finished with the map, we can mount and ride,” he said breezily.
Brighton’s mouth dropped open and his cheeks turned red. He said nothing, just snatched up the book and stormed out of the room. It took a minute for Archibald to understand that ‘mount and ride’ could maybe be misconstrued.
“Hah!” he laughed aloud and followed Brighton outside.
They rode north. Archie looked back over his shoulder at the tournament grounds as the tents and banners were pulled down. Beside it, the carnival was still going strong, the roller coaster cheerfully sending men and women up and down. He smiled, then turned back around to see the road before them.
“We’ll ride north, then head east for a day or so. There are fewer towns here, spread far apart. We’ll be roughing it a bit,” Brighton explained.
True to his promise, Archie kept his hands demurely around Brighton’s waist. If Brighton noticed when he was aroused, he said nothing. In return, Archie never mentioned when he noticed the hitch in Brighton’s breathing, his squirming in the saddle.
At night, Brighton studied the map by the campfire. He’d procured a tent in Tujunga and no longer needed to share Archie’s. To Archie, it was another bit of distance between them, further proof that Brighton had no intention of letting him close again.
The world was untamed here, beautiful and fierce. The roads were narrow, more like scratched lines of dirt. The grass grew high here and there, and the hills rolled like the back of a dragon.
Lunch was a simple affair every day. They were trying to make the last of their rations from Tujunga last till the next town. They found a flat stretch of land, watered Valiant, and settled down to nibble on jerky and bread.
Brighton’s hair twisted around his pale face in the wind. The weather had been steadily worsening the farther north they went. Brighton was often quiet and thoughtful.
“What will you do when you rescue Chloe?” Archie asked as casual as could be.
Brighton froze, a hunk of bread halfway to his mouth. He relaxed with what looked like great effort and shrugged. “Who says I’ll actually rescue her? I only have to make the attempt to satisfy tradition. Go, pick up a key chain or two. Turn around and go back home.”
Archie laughed and shook his head. “Pull the other one,” he said.
Brighton bristled, but Archie only laughed again. He didn’t believe in Brighton’s indifference about this quest. Their path was deliberate and well-planned. Every little detail confirmed it: This wasn’t a man who didn’t care one way or the other. This was a man who intended to succeed. Archibald was certain that, no matter what Brighton said, he had every intention of rescuing Princess Chloe.
Archie didn’t know what fueled his determination. Was this just Brighton’s need to be right all the time? For bragging rights? What had driven him to defeat the Sphinx? Just to prove he was the cleverest? That stray thought didn’t mesh with what he knew of the man. There was always some method to the things that Brighton did. Even letting Archie tag along on the quest had been a strategic move for Brighton. Archie knew that, at least. Brighton had needed Archie’s horse; he’d decided he needed a bodyguard after all.
Brighton hadn’t gone through all the trouble of finding the Gracie Tome just to go and get a few key chains.
“Believe what you want,” Brighton sniffed. He took a bite of his bread with vicious gusto.
Archibald stared at his boots. “Will you marry her?” he whispered.
Brighton shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what I do. Nothing I do will change anything.”
“Gilbert?” asked Archie.
“Gilbert. My father.” He frowned. “I’m not a hero in La Cienega, Archie. I’m not Gilbert.”
Archie looked off into the distance. “Then La Cienega doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you’re a hero to me. You’re a hero in La Brea.”
Brighton almost smiled. “I wish I thought that was enough,” he admitted.
They were back on the road a short time later. Archie held Brighton just a little bit closer and Brighton let him. Perhaps there was a change, Archie thought. He was optimistic. He was always optimistic.
They rode together, almost companionably, for another two weeks. He lived in a constant state of arousal. At the small towns where they stopped, Archie was never able to find a single horse for sale. Brighton never seemed to have much luck, either.
They crossed the border from the Kingdom of Sepulveda into the Kingdom of Anaheim. In ancient times, it had been the Kingdom of El Segundo, home of Princess Chloe.
And so it was that the two princes entered the land of the Enchanted Forest.
They passed a few farmhouses. One of them had a lively little dog running around, chasing after butterflies.
“Good hunting dog,” Archie remarked, watching the little pup leap around.
Then there was just the hazy shape of buildings before them.
“We’ll rest for a bit, head out again tomorrow,” Brighton said and led them through the tall, cheerful looking gate that was the entrance to Forestland, the park and family vacation spot that had sprung up right beside the Enchanted Forest. They had to pay admission.
“That’s…quite expensive,” Archie said to the pimply kid at the ticket counter.
“I don’t make the prices,” he said and popped his gum.
Archie sighed and paid. He felt like he’d been robbed on the highway.
“It’s a tourist trap,” he said, staring down at his ticket with a shocked look on his face. It had a smiling mouse on it.
Brighton shrugged. “I tried to tell you,” he said. “There are no dangers here.”
He went on to explain that everyone from La Cienega knew this. How the news had never reached La Brea, Archie didn’t know.
After all, the enchanted denizens of the forest roamed around and charged for photo opportunities. According to Brighton, just about everyone in La Cienega had a photo of themselves holding up a peace sign next to a charming, undead pirate or a magical knight with a sword made of light. There were princesses galore in beautiful gowns and female warriors with spears and lassos. There were colorful monsters with big googly eyes and talking animals. For a dollar, you could have a picture with any of them.
There were gleaming, overpriced hotels lining the paved road, and diners and souvenir shops shoved in next to those. The remaining space was for bars and kiosks selling more souvenirs. There were roller coasters, but these didn’t please Archie like the one at the carnival had. Everything here felt wrong somehow.
Not far from this shop-filled, bustling area, the actual forest was still visible. It was fenced in better in this area and big signs were posted every few feet warning tourists not to enter the forest.
It was comical, though Archie tried not to laugh. What made it even better was that Brighton didn’t take the silly hat off, just walked around with the ears sliding around on his head, looked increasingly unhappy.
They went to buy supplies for their journey into the forest, but even the most basic things were overpriced. Brighton’s mood worsened and he started snarling harsh comment about passing tourists. He was in rare form. The tourists were oblivious to his wrath. They were enjoying the sunshine, buying this and that with smiles on their faces. This seemed to infuriate Brighton more.
Archibald could almost understand. He was appalled by Forestland. It was a relief when they stopped to rest on a bench near a fountain depicting Chloe frozen in stone. The fountain sang and sprayed water in festive patterns. Even Valiant gave the fountain a disdainful look.
“Don’t they know they’re profiting from the misfortune of an entire kingdom?” Archie asked with an identical expression.
He had just spotted pretty dolls with a giant banner above them proclaiming them “Pretty Princess Chloe and her Handmaids.” Each one cost $25 and the collectors stand was extra.
“They can’t offend anyone,” Brighton countered in that grumpy voice of his. “It was a thousand years ago at least. No one left to offend.”
Everywhere they looked there was some gorgeous rendering of Chloe. She looked young and pretty on mugs and hats and crammed inside collectible snow globes. She had long blond hair, enormous blue eyes, and a big, pink, fluffy dress. Birds landed on her finger. Bunnies gazed lovingly at her rosy cheeks.
Only slightly more pink than Chloe herself were all the posters, t-shirts, and children’s comforters featuring El Segundo Castle. Its turrets had turrets. All of them were pink. The castle was always shown on a hill, surrounded by bright green trees. The gate leading to the pristine entrance of the castle was covered in roses and topped with statues of winged babies holding hearts and flowers.
Archie pointed at a miniature figurine of El Segundo Castle ($154, plus tax).
“That castle would not be structurally sound,” he said.
“Nor is it period-accurate,” added Brighton. “From my research, it’s clear that El Segundo was a warlike kingdom. They had fifteen different words for disembowel. Fifteen! For all we know, Chloe didn’t even have handmaids. I have a hypothesis that she was a warrior queen. She probably put her enemies’ heads on spikes. It’s just a hypothesis, of course. What, really, can we know about her?”
“Well, we know where she is, for a start,” Archie offered, deciding to try to cheer him up. If he was casually discussing disembowelment, he was gloomy indeed.
“Well, we have a better idea than most,” countered Brighton.
“Come on! Brag a little! Between the two of us — your brain and my skill at tournament — we are the only two people in the world who know exactly where Chloe’s castle is located.”
Brighton gave him A Look. “Yes. Well. Don’t get cocky. We haven’t found the castle, after all.”
“It’s just a matter of time, isn’t it?”
“Oh, quit. Admit it: We make a fine pair. Like peanut butter and jelly.”
“No, not like peanut butter and jelly,” grumbled Brighton.
Archie didn’t notice, but high above them, suddenly storm clouds churned and whirled, dark like the bottom of the ocean. They seemed to pile up and then sink down, pushing oppressively against the world below.
“How about chocolate and peanut butter?”
“Like grapefruit and string cheese.”
Brighton opened his mouth, then shut it. After a moment, he held up a finger in protest. “That sounds disgusting.”
“You’ll never know unless you try,” said Archie with a leer. “For all you know, it’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever eaten. Grapefruit and string cheese. Best. Thing. Ever.”
As if he couldn’t help himself, a smile sprung to Brighton’s lips and he covered it immediately. But Archie smiled back at him, thrilled to finally see that elusive smile again.
“Or maybe — just maybe — we’re like hot fries and chocolate pudding,” he said and Brighton outright giggled.
Lightning streaked across the sky. A second later and they were both drenched. All around them, tourists darted under awnings, dodged into shops.
Archibald looked up in surprise. He shook his head like a dog to clear the water off his face. “It was sunny a second ago,” he said. “Come on, we have to get out of this! We’ll drown.”
Brighton stilled at that. His laughter had faded away and there were suddenly worry lines around his mouth. The ears slipped off his head, splashed to the ground at his feet.
He didn’t protest as Archibald led them to cover.
Brighton felt no humor now, but his stomach felt like he’d done a million sit-ups. Even his face ached. He wasn’t used to using his facial muscles like this. They were muscles primed for frowning. And here was Archibald the Insufferable, making him smile. Again!
It was getting worse. He had to do something. This could never happen again.
He let his eyes drift to Archibald — drying his golden hair and still smiling his golden smile. And there was no denying it: He looked like the best thing Brighton had ever seen.
He panicked. The wind was blowing the trees wildly outside and it was clear that the rain was going to worsen. He needed something else to fixate on.
He had to do something. Gloomy thoughts didn’t work. Running away from Archibald didn’t work. He looked all around and spotted the window. One of the panes was about shoulder high. A good height. He sized it up, pulled his fist back, and let it fly.
Brighton didn’t answer, just held his hand to his chest and glared at Archie. Outside, the gray clouds were drifting away and blue was popping through along with thick beams of sunlight. The trees were still.
Archibald stomped over to Brighton. “Let me see it,” he said.
Brighton pulled away from him. “No,” he said, sounding about five years old.
“Come on, you know I can treat this. Your stomach healed just fine!”
“I don’t want your help. This is your fault!”
Archie rolled his eyes. “How, exactly, is this my fault?”
But Brighton didn’t answer him, kept his eyes down and his hand clutched to his chest.
“Okay. Fine. I’m going to assume that I said something wrong,” Archie said after a moment. “Whatever it is, I apologize. Now, if you want to keep that hand, let me see it.”
That did the trick. Brighton grudgingly held his hand out to Archie who turned it this way and that, assessing the damage.
“Sorry,” he said when Brighton winced. “Here, wait a second.”
Archie went across the room and dug around in his travel pack. He returned with tweezers, clean strips of cotton, that same foul smelling astringent, and his very sharp needle and thread.
Over the next half an hour, he carefully removed the glass from Brighton’s hand.
“You’re going to have scars,” he explained.
Brighton was watching the entire process with a funny little frown on his face.
“Of all the times I’ve done this…I never considered any of the damage being permanent,” he admitted.
Archie gaped at him. “You’ve done this more than once?” he cried. “But there are no scars…”
“My brother, you know. Greatest wizard of any age,” Brighton explained. “I took it for granted.”
Archie threaded the needle. “Maybe next time you’ll think twice. You should learn to handle your anger a little better,” he said before setting to work on the tiny stitches. Only three of the cuts on his hand needed them and the others were small and clean enough to heal on their own.
After he tied the very last stitch, he covered them with gauge secured with neat little knots. “There. Now, try to keep them dry. And try not to punch your hand through glass. Deal?”
Brighton nodded. All of his anger and frustration seemed to have fizzled out. Archie held his hand in his own, larger, warmer hands. He examined his work, but at some point, he seemed to be idly touching Brighton.
“Are you quite finished?” Brighton asked, cheeks gone a little red.
“Ah, yes,” said Archie. He stood quickly and crossed the room again to replace all of his first aid supplies in his pack. Brighton watched him for a time, then looked at his bandaged hand. He took a deep breath.
“This is what I mean,” he said.
“Huh?” Archie asked, looking at him over his shoulder.
“This is what you’re doing wrong,” Brighton explained, but Archie looked completely lost.
“What do you mean? Helping you?”
“Yes. You can’t do things like this,” Brighton tried to explain. “You don’t understand.”
He moved closer to Brighton. “Then help me understand,” he said. But Brighton shook his head and backed away from him. Every step closer he took, Brighton took two back. “Bri — ” he said. But it was too late.
“You have to stop. Please,” Brighton begged, and then ran from the room.
Brighton sat on a bench placed just at the edge of the actual forest part of the Enchanted Forest. The fence here was barely standing, wooden pieces scattered across the ground. Archie looked small and wretched. Archie tied Valiant to a nearby lamppost and tried to calm down, but it was a difficult thing to do. He was tired and frustrated. By the time he trudged over to Brighton, it took all his willpower to gently touch his shoulder when he wanted to grab him up, shake him once or twice, and drag him back to their room.
“Bri, come on. Time to go.”
Brighton jerked away from his touch.
Archie sighed and sat beside him. “Can we talk?” he asked.
Brighton only shrugged.
Finally, Archie steeled himself and said what he was thinking. “It’s you,” he said. He watched as Brighton went still. “This weather. The rain. It’s because of you.”
Brighton shook his head no, then stopped and nodded yes. “I’m not meaning to.”
“But it is you? This weather is…your doing?”
Brighton nodded miserably. “Yes.”
“When you smile, when you laugh…it rains?” asked Archie.
Brighton nodded. “Yes. I…I am trying to keep it under control.”
Archie thought for a moment. “Magic? A curse?”
“Uh, no. Nothing like that,” Brighton said, looking at the ground, the trees, anywhere but Archie.
“But that doesn’t make any sense! Nothing but magic could do something like that!” Brighton didn’t answer, so Archie asked, “Couldn’t Billarbold the Magenta do something for you? Your brother Malcolm?”
“Billarbold the Turquoise. It’s turquoise.”
“Whatever!” cried Archie. “Can’t he do anything?”
Brighton took a deep breath and briefly explained the magician’s madness to Archie.
“Debates?” Archie said after listening intently. “You know, there was this pile of shoes in the courtyard…”
“And there you go,” said Brighton. “As for Malcolm, he will be the greatest wizard the world has ever known. One day. Not now.”
“But you! You’re Brighton the Wise! Can’t you figure this out?”
“Look. It’s not a problem,” Brighton said with false brightness. “I don’t need a solution or anything. I can deal with it just fine. It hasn’t been a problem most of my life. As long as I’m not — ”
“Happy?” Archie asked, voice low with an undercurrent of anger.
“Right. Happy,” Brighton agreed. “So long as I’m not happy, the weather stays the way the weather always is. And, well, I’m never happy, so there’s no problem.”
“But I make you smile,” Archie said softly. “I make you laugh.”
Brighton’s breath caught. “You’re a buffoon,” he snapped. “A clown!”
Archie turned Brighton to face him with firm hands at his shoulders. He scooted closer, unfazed by his words.
“Just admit that I make you happy,” he whispered. His thumb stroked along Brighton’s jaw.
“Don’t be silly,” Brighton said, but he looked from side to side nervously like a gazelle on the run from a lion.
“I make you happy. Admit it!” Archie said with giant grin lighting up his stupid, handsome face.
“Never,” Brighton argued. He sprang to his feet and took a step away. Archie stood as well, smiling bigger and bigger. He stepped forward. Brighton retreated.
Then, like a flash, Brighton found himself up against a tree, Archie right there before him. The little game of cat and mouse had brought them right to the edge of the Enchanted Forest.
“Then you must like almost drowning,” snapped Brighton.
“Are you with me when I’m drowning?” Archie said with a voice gone husky.
He leaned in to Brighton, blocked Brighton’s view of the world. There was just Archie and his stupid, perfect face. The sky popped back into existence, but only because Archie wasn’t in the way anymore. Archie was, in fact, breathily mouthing at his neck, occasionally licking at the pulse there.
“Oh….stop,” Brighton said shakily.
“I will if you really mean that,” Archie answered and then sucked.
This was all very troublesome for Brighton. If Archie sucking on his neck felt bad, that would be one thing. The troubling thing was that it felt so very nice.
“Um,” Brighton said with feeling.
“Not an answer, Bri,” whispered Archie and then proved he was a terrible bastard by licking Brighton’s collarbone. He made some comment about buying every horse thief a medal, but Brighton had no idea what he was talking about.
“Even better than I imagined,” he added, still intent, apparently, on speaking nonsense.
“D-don’t call me ‘Bri’,” moaned Brighton. He opened his eyes — had no idea he’d closed them — just in time to see the first bolt of lightning turn the world blinding white for a split second.
And that was it. He knew what he had to do.
He found strength he didn’t know he had and shoved hard. Archie actually stumbled back. His arms reached for him. And Brighton wanted to feel them again, wanted to be held like that again. It was that thought that got his feet moving. He turned and fled, deep into the forest. Archie called his name, but he didn’t stop.
It was only later that he felt comfortable enough to admit that this was a pretty stupid thing to do, especially for someone called Brighton the Wise.
But at the time, he was just running away, not paying attention to where he was going or what he was doing. The forest was frightening and that was good. If he was afraid, he couldn’t kiss Archie. Was Archie even now chasing after him? That would never do! He had to move faster!
The trees jumped out of the darkness at him. He ducked under one branch that came from nowhere, skirted around a tangled web of trees, and then felt something catch at his ankles.
He felt the rope wind around his legs. It yanked him off balance.
A trap, he thought as he tumbled backwards. It was the last thing he thought as his head hit the hard forest floor.
“The boy’s awake!” shouted a candelabra.
“Well! You fell into our trap quite nicely, young sir! Now you are at our mercy!” said a serving spoon at the front of the gathering.
“What are you?” asked Brighton.
“We are the Cutlery!” screamed the serving spoon. “And you are our captive! Mwa-ha-ha!” He rubbed his little hands together greedily.
Brighton pulled a face. “What a terribly inaccurate name,” he said.
The spoon frowned. “Excuse me?”
“Well, it’s not accurate is what I’m saying. He’s an egg timer,” Brighton said, pointing at what was, indeed, an egg timer brandishing a small dagger. “And he’s a cheese grater. Those aren’t cutlery at all. You might want to consider changing your name. It’s a misnomer. Misrepresentation. Consider this: a goodly number of you are feather dusters. Why doesn’t your name reflect that?”
A curtain rod near the back of the crowd waved a tiny arm, “Here, here! I’ve been saying that for years!”
“Quiet, you!” shouted the serving spoon to the curtain rod. “We’ll call ourselves whatever we like!” he added to Brighton.
But Brighton was on a roll. “I take it that you actually mean that it’s you who prefers the name as it is. And I suppose that’s fair. If you’re a dictator.”
The spoon looked horrified. “I never was!”
“So then you claim that all the members of your band have a vote?”
“Of course!” the spoon said, but someone — a little teacup — cleared his throat to disagree.
“I never liked the name,” said the teacup. The spoon looked cornered.
“Thank you for voicing your concerns,” growled the spoon with a forced smile. “See? He has freedom of speech! We’re all very fair and democratic around here!” he shouted.
“Well then,” said Brighton, “If that’s the case, I would just like to point out that tablecloths and napkins appear to be in the majority. If you’re a democratic sort of gang of talking household objects, then they should be represented substantially in all your decisions.”
As Brighton talked, he slowly used the small, silver edge of his boot buckle to work away at the knot of rope behind his back. If he could break free, he could wait until dark, sneak out, and hide in the trees. The small size of the Cutlery meant that they wouldn’t look into the trees as much. Also, they’d assume he would try to get as far as possible as fast as he could. They’d never suspect him of hiding out just above their tiny heads.
“We do have a pretty well-organized voting system,” said a saucepan. “But bills have to be approved by a two-thirds majority before even being put on the docket, and the salad tongs just keep going back and forth on whose side they’re on…”
Brighton saw the small cluster of salad tongs standing nervously off by themselves. He could easily see that they were the type of salad tongs that waffled back and forth on core issues.
“Perhaps you need a better platform to express your opinions. Perhaps the salad tongs need to hear both sides of the argument clearly before making their decision.”
A salad tong stepped forward. “I do sometimes feel like the issues are being talked around, instead of really discussed. If only we could come together across the aisle and have real bi-partisan communication.”
“Would you stop listening to him!” the spoon said and waved his little arms around in frustration. “He’s filling your head with nonsense! Bi-partisan communication! Are you all going mad? We don’t take political advice from our captives!”
A cluster of napkins were talking animatedly amongst themselves. A few feather dusters were looking at the serving spoon with real malice.
“Listen,” Brighton said calmly. “I think a third-party mediator is necessary. Someone to help you work through your problems for the benefit of all. And it’s just your luck that I happen to be a neutral third party. ”
“Oh, yes! That’s a brilliant idea,” said a salad tong, clapping her little hands together. “He seems quite good at difficult things. Like making decisions and sticking to them. I bet he’s wonderful at mediating.”
“Perhaps we can finally be a true democracy!” exclaimed a tablecloth with feeling.
“Indeed,” Brighton agreed. “I think we’re well on our way to something here. Now, if you would just untie me — ” he began, but never finished because, at that exact moment, Prince Archibald the Magnificent came crashing through the trees magnificently.
“It’s an ambush!” screamed the spoon.
“We’re under attack!” squeaked a salt shaker, salt flying everywhere.
“Release him at once!” screamed Archie.
“Oh, for the love of god,” grumbled Brighton.
A mob of tiny forks and spoons and salad tongs rushed the prince. And Archie was quite handy with a sword, but it was the nature of his opponents that did him in. The Cutlery were numerous and quick. They darted this way and that and tripped up his feet. Before he could recover, he was swarmed by footstools and frying pans and candelabras. A tea towel wrapped itself around his eyes and a pair of tablecloths tripped up his feet. He was truly beaten in less than five minutes. To his credit, he didn’t shout or scream as one might feel inclined to do in such a situation.
His hands and feet were bound in almost no time at all.
“Got him!” exclaimed the serving spoon.
“Hey, look at this!” said a large medicine cabinet. She was holding Archie’s sword. “It has the crest of La Brea.” She showed the sword around and everyone agreed.
“This will fetch a handsome price,” said the fork. The spoon glared at him.
“Don’t be such a fool! Do you know what it means that he carries this sword? No? He is likely a noble. Possibly even a prince!” Here he stalked towards Archie, sizing him up.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Brighton wanted Archie to lie more than anything, but of course Archie didn’t lie. It came with being Magnificent.
“I am Archibald the Magnificent, Prince of La Brea. Release my companion at once!”
“A prince, indeed!” the spoon said greedily. “Cutlery! We’ve got ourselves a prize! His family will pay his ransom or we’ll start carving him up! Bwa-ha-ha!”
The carving knife looked maniacally pleased with this.
“Cutlery! Back to base!”
All too soon, dozens of spoons and forks were beneath Archie, working in concert to lift him. Their little legs made Archie look like nothing so much as a big, handsome caterpillar.
“What about him?” the fork asked and jerked his thumb at Brighton.
The spoon thought quickly and Brighton could practically see the wheels turning in his shiny head.
“Leave him,” he said. “We’ve got a prince to ransom.”
Brighton knew the spoon simply didn’t want him around because he was likely to incite a coup. But he watched all of the cutlery leave, taking Archie away from him, thinking his way through a million scenarios and a million variations and permutations on those.
They had Archie and Brighton knew he had to get him back. The question was how.
What he needed, he realized, was something that was good at tracking. Something fast and smart.
He held up a finger as the idea came to him. He’d lose some time backtracking, but it was the best option. He staggered his way out of the forest in the fading light. He’d come out at a different spot than where he’d entered in his haste to flee from Archie and his affections. It took a moment to locate the bench, and there was Valiant, looking miffed.
“Sorry,” he said, then struggled up onto the saddle. It was with some shock that he realized Archie had been there every time before to help him up onto the tall horse. To help him down. He firmed his lip and rode down the rode as fast as he could get Valiant to go.
The farmhouse was before him in about an hour. He silently fumed about lost time and led Valiant up the path. He almost fell when he dismounted. Valiant was openly laughing at him. He could tell. The dog was curled up on the porch, eyeing him with curiosity.
He pulled a leaf out of his hair, trying to look less like a bedraggled traveler who had spent the better part of the day caught in a rainstorm of his own making and then the rest of it tied up by utensils.
He knocked. The old farmer was thin and stooped, but his wife was tall and sturdy. It was comical to see the husband place a protective arm around his wife when it was the wife who looked like she could snap Brighton in two.
“Sir, madam, good evening,” said Brighton. “I am sorry to bother you, but I am in need of a favor.”
“We ain’t got any money,” said the farmer.
“It is I who would be paying you. I would like to borrow your dog.”
The farmer looked at the dog, then back at Brighton. “Huh?”
“Your dog. I. Would. Like. To. Borrow. It.”
He handed over a small pouch that jangled nicely. The farmer’s wife took it with a skeptical frown. Her face blossomed into shock as she studied the contents.
“You’re wanting to…buy the mutt?”
“No, madam, just borrow him for the night. I should return him by this time tomorrow.”
The couple exchanged a calculating look. “We’ve got chickens, if you’d like to borrow them as well,” said the wife, suddenly all smiles.
“My father won’t pay a ransom,” Archie proclaimed when a butter knife yanked his gag down to give him a bowl of runny vegetable soup. It was disturbing that the bowl had arms and legs and little beady eyes. Worse, so did the soup spoon he was fed with . It grumbled with every slurp he took. The spoon reminded him of Brighton and he felt a pang of regret.
“It’s an indignity!” proclaimed the soup spoon.
“Hah!” replied a feather duster. “A spoon talking about indignity! At least you have representation! What about us feather dusters? Huh?”
“Shut up, you!” shouted a serving spoon, the one that Archibald had come to think of as the leader.
“Maybe we’re tired of shutting up!” said an egg timer with feeling. “Maybe we’re tired of listening to you!”
Archie finished his soup and his gag was yanked back up immediately. The bowl and spoon that had been responsible for feeding him dashed away to join in the argument. Archie sighed. His rescue of Brighton had not gone well at all. How had Brighton ended up caught by a roving gang of household items, anyway? He seemed to have pretty bad luck, what with being cursed and all.
The self-proclaimed Cutlery had just started to draft the ransom note. A quill pen was flying over sheet after sheet of paper.
“Sign it ‘From The Cutlery’, Mwa-ha-ha!” cackled the serving spoon.
But then the quill pen remarked that he certainly wasn’t cutlery and that no one seemed to care that he worked twice as hard as the rest of them and got paid half as much. A footstool took offense and the ink blotter came to the quill pen’s aid. Then the feather duster joined in . Frankly, for Archie, it was all a bit too much.
What was clear was that there seemed to be some kind of mutiny taking place before his eyes. And just as the feather duster and the spoon were about to come to blows, there came the sound of barking in the distance.
Everyone froze. In the silence, the barking grew louder. A dog was approaching. Alone? Archie felt a glimmer of hope that he might be rescued.
His eyes widened in surprise when a feisty, somewhat familiar-looking dog rushed into the clearing before the cave. It raced up to him and tap-danced at his feet, barking. The Cutlery scrambled away from the dog, clearly afraid of it.
It was like a dream for Archie when Brighton emerged from the forest a moment later, a weary look on his long face. The Cutlery scrambled to surround him, but he didn’t look disturbed. He raised his hands in the air in surrender.
“I’m here to negotiate for the release of Prince Archibald,” he said clearly.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve!” said the leader spoon, jumping up and down in anger.
“Perhaps,” Brighton agreed. “Or perhaps not. After all, I have something you want.” At that moment, Brighton reminded Archie of the boy he’d been when he’d defeated the Sphinx. Clever and confident and just a little cold.
This made the spoon squint suspiciously. “And what might that be?”
“I can break your curse.”
“Quiet, quiet!” shouted the spoon at last. The Cutlery fell silent, which was disturbing since they should have just been quiet by default. And inanimate.
The spoon crossed his little arms. “And why should we believe you?”
“Because it’s true,” Brighton said. He caught Archie’s eye, just once. Archie was shaking his head, trying to convey to Brighton that he should flee. Brighton ignored his imploring look.
“Believe it or not, I’m very good at breaking curses,” explained Brighton. He cast a guilty look at Archie. “For the most part,” he amended. “In fact, there’s only been one curse I haven’t been able to break.”
“And what curse is that?” barked the spoon.
“My own,” said Brighton, once again looking nervously at Archie.
The spoon looked hopeful despite himself. “But how do we know you’ll help us at all?”
Brighton shrugged. “I’ll help you because it’s the right thing to do, but also because I’m being selfish. I want my traveling companion back. Now. And I want you to swear that you will stop your criminal ways after you’re restored to your human forms.”
“Oh, he’s bargaining! Look at this! Well! Maybe we’ll just make you break the curse. He means that much to you, maybe we’ll kill him if you don’t break the curse.”
“Now you’re just being foolish,” Brighton said. “If you hurt that man in any way, I’ll simply refuse to help you at all. Then you’ll have to kill him, which means you lose any ransom his family would have paid. And then you won’t have anything left to bargain with in exchange for my help. I’m probably the only one who can break your curse, by the way — hurt him and you’re stuck like this for eternity.”
The spoon seemed to be turning red with anger. “You!” he shouted. “You, you…scrawny little devil!”
“I have been called worse,” Brighton sighed. “Look, do you want me to break the curse or not?”
The Cutlery took up shouting again. Some of them were now begging for their leader to listen, to hear Brighton out. Others were shouting insults and threats. Through it all, Brighton stood still, eyes drifting across the scene, analyzing and considering.
The spoon was turning red, losing his little temper. He cursed under his breath, then shouted over his army. “Enough is enough. Stop your whining. This is it. We’ve waited a long time for this. But do we trust him? Let’s take it to a vote!”
“Oh, so we’re being democratic now? Fancy that!” hissed the egg timer.
The spoon bristled. “Yes, we are!”
“Do we need a two-thirds majority to get it on the docket?” inquired a salad tong.
“Shut up. All in favor of trusting this scrawny little devil, raise your hands!”
Archie watched as all but a small cluster of salad tongs raised their hands. They all looked like they might, then they dropped them again. They seemed quite incapable of making up their minds.
The spoon nodded, satisfied. He turned back to Brighton.
“We swear,” said the spoon. “But if you can’t deliver, we slit your throat.” He jerked his little thumb at the menacing carving knife. It was smiling evilly at him. “Clear?”
“Sounds like fair terms to me,” agreed Brighton, ignoring Archie’s muffled protests. “Now, tell me the conditions of your curse,” he said.
“We are cursed to stay like this until it snows in summer,” explained the spoon.
Brighton didn’t speak. He blinked a few times, very slowly. At last he said, “You’re in luck, good Cutlery. It just so happens to be summer…”
The knife jumped up and down in frustration. “But you can’t make it snow!” he screamed.
“But I can,” said Brighton. He waved a commanding hand at Archie. “Remove his gag,” he said simply.
“No tricks!” shouted a fork.
“It’s not a trick. I need him to break the curse. It won’t work without him.”
There was a moment of whispered debate between the Cutlery. At last, the spoon ordered a spatula to tug down Archie’s gag. Archie looked a little red and sweaty, but was otherwise unharmed.
“Thought you said you couldn’t track,” he said with a smirk.
“Hence the dog. I’m afraid I’ll be…showing my hand a little. Please forgive me in advance.”
Archie frowned and looked like he was about to question Brighton, but Brighton interrupted him with a question first.
“Tell me how you feel about me,” he said simply, then closed his eyes. He seemed to be concentrating. Archie didn’t answer, so Brighton cracked an eye open again. “Sooner would be good. Later would be bad.”
Archie was obviously flustered. He turned cherry red and said, “Well…I…I thought you knew.”
“Pretend I don’t,” Brighton ordered.
“Oh…well…this is a little embarrassing. That cheese grater is staring right at me.”
Brighton rolled his eyes. “Imagine that you’ll never see me again unless you tell me the truth. Not difficult to imagine considering the circumstances, I should think. Tell me. Right now.”
“How is this going to break the curse?” complained the fork.
“Shhh!” said the spatula.
Brighton closed his eyes again and Archie took a bracing breath.
“Um,” he said. “I wouldn’t like that. Never seeing you again, I mean. Because I like you. A lot. I like your voice. I even like it when you go on and on about all those books you like.”
Brighton almost, almost, smiled. “Go on.”
“I like that you have an answer for everything. I mean, absolutely everything. And how your lips move when you read. You’re a bit mysterious, too. Like, what is it with the super-smart horse? And your mad hatred of apples? You actually glare at them, did you know? The fact that you don’t tell me at all…gotta admit: kinda sexy. And, um…and you have just one crooked tooth and it’s adorable. Oh, and it’s kind of cute when you get mad and your eye twitches like crazy. You should see a doctor, by the way.”
Brighton shook his head. “Aaaand that’s enough of that. Why don’t you tell me about what it’s like riding with me?”
“Um…that’s a little…private, don’t you think?” Archie was red enough to give certain hated fruits a run for their money.
“This is important, Archie. Go into detail.”
“Uh…Well…I don’t even get it myself. I mean…you’re a skinny, bad-tempered know-it-all. You shouldn’t do anything for me at all…but I can’t stop thinking about you. I love holding you when we ride. You always smell good and your skin’s like porcelain. I hope we never find a horse for sale. I’m…and I know you don’t believe me, but I’m having the time of my life with you. I never want this quest to end.
“I don’t care about your curse. I want to touch you and kiss you and the world can just wash away into the ocean. And if I weren’t so damned noble and honest, I’d deliberately get us lost so we could just stay on this quest forever, because I don’t want you to find the princess and I don’t want you to marry her. I want to steal you away and make you forget about everything that makes you so unhappy. I…I want to make you happy.”
Brighton slowly opened his eyes. There was a sudden chill to the air. When he exhaled, a cloud of white breezed from his lips. The very first flurry landed on Archie’s nose. The next landed on Brighton’s shoulder. It stood out against all the black he was wearing. A heartbeat later and snow was falling thickly to the forest floor.
“It…it’s snowing!” whooped the spoon. He and the fork embraced and there was a sound like pop! All around, the spoons and forks and rolling pins and cookie cutters and bottle openers were turning into butlers and footmen and maids and cooks. It was over in a matter of seconds.
As all the Cutlery, newly restored, celebrated with hugs and cheers, Brighton was able to make it to Archie without altercation. He started on his feet first, untying the knots as quickly as he could. Then he started on his hands. Only then did he look him in the eye.
“Hi,” said Archie.
“Hi,” Brighton said inattentively. Archibald reached for him, but Brighton swatted his hands away. “Pay attention,” he whispered. “While they’re distracted, grab your sword. Move quickly. We don’t want to be around if they decide they want that ransom after all.”
Then he helped tug Archibald to his feet. Archibald snagged his sword, and then chased after Brighton back down into the thick of the forest. The dog bounded after, cheerfully snapping at the snow.
After almost getting himself killed to come rescue him — after hearing Archie’s confession that he was crazy about him — it was shocking to Archie that nothing at all came of it. And, yes, a part of him had expected a kiss before a sunset on a hill or something — possibly with rainbows and a flock of doves — but that was just because he was a romantic at heart. The rest of him would have been more than happy with a good old fashioned grope up against a tree or something — finishing what they started. But that was because he was eighteen and horny. Since neither the kiss nor the grope happened, Archie was grumpy. Very, very grumpy.
They checked into an inn to rest, to fix the stitches on Brighton’s hand. Brighton would hardly even look at him, much less talk to him.
This went on through breakfast, then lunch, and then dinner. The following day they were back on the road, heading further north. And Brighton still wouldn’t talk to him about his curse, about what Archie had said in the forest. In fact, they spoke only about necessities, nothing more. It was like that first day all over again, Brighton making it clear that he wanted him to take the right fork in the road and go back to La Brea.
Their journey brought them to a town called Mar Vista, situated almost dangerously close to the densest part of the Enchanted Forest. The main strip of the town was crowded with businesses, everything from a smithy to a palm reader.
Archie pointed at a peeling sign plastered to a fence.
“Huh, they have a witch here,” he said.
The sign proclaimed that Elda the Mystical practiced ancient and powerful arts near the 2B exit right next to the wishing well. The woman on the poster was old, but had sharp eyes and a clever mouth. She did seem quite magical.
“Ah, Elda,” said Brighton. “I know of her. She’s legit.”
“A Real witch is hard to come by in La Brea,” explained Archie.
“Oh?” Brighton asked. It was the most response he’d gotten all day.
“Yeah. Our kingdom is riddled with fakes. They come and tell everyone that the Sphinx was their doing. Nobody knows who sent it, after all, so they happily take credit. None of them have real power.” Archie gave an expectant look to Brighton, leaving the perfect place in the conversation for him to talk about defeating the Sphinx. To talk about his curse. To talk about anything.
“Well, best to move on. We’re losing our light,” Brighton said, again refusing to take the bait.
Finally, Archie was fed up. They had just arrived at a small inn struggling by off the beaten path. Brighton had his nose buried in a book, pointedly ignoring Archie.
“Are we going to talk about this?” Archie demanded, snatching the book from under Brighton’s nose.
“Hmmm?” said Brighton. “May I have my book back?”
“Oh, I hate it when you do that. Answer me!”
“Talk about what, exactly?” drawled Brighton.
“Us! Are we going to talk about us?”
“No,” said Brighton easily.
“Because there’s nothing to talk about.”
Archibald felt his temper rising. “There’s plenty to talk about.”
He tossed the book on the table, and caught Brighton’s arm, jerking him up and forcing him to look at him. “For starters, it’s still snowing,” he added. Indeed, just outside the window, unseasonable flurries were coming down.
Brighton shrugged, but some of his indifferent mask slipped. “A temporary problem. Things will go back to normal any minute now.”
“Okay, I’m waiting,” Archie said, but his thumb was stroking up and down Brighton’s arm.
Archie ignored him, moved in closer. “You don’t even know what you want, do you?”
“I want you to go away.”
“Are you mad? Look out the window! This isn’t some game. This is dangerous!”
“And if I leave, you’ll be unhappy enough that we’ll get sunshine again? The world will be safe from snowflakes?”
“Don’t pretend like you didn’t see that flood in Tujunga. You know this isn’t just snowflakes!”
“Well snowflakes is what we have now!”
“And if the crops die from the frost?”
Archie went silent. He had no answer to that. He exhaled. “So you just want to end it here?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Look, yes: I like having you around. You want to hear it so badly, so there it is. Yes, I like you. And so you simply have to go away.”
“You’re the most complicated boy I’ve ever dated,” said Archibald, rubbing his temple.
“We’re not dating!”
Archibald sighed and began rubbing both temples at once. “Okay, answer me this: If I go away, who will protect you?”
“I don’t need protection.”
“I’ve literally saved your life three times now!”
“Oh, right. You were asleep for the third one. Ogres. You know how they are.”
Brighton’s scowl was as nasty as it got. The snow actually eased up a little.
But then Archie pulled him into a fierce hug. “Don’t send me away. I don’t want to leave you,” he said.
“Archie, no,” Brighton protested. But it was too late. Archie tilted Brighton’s chin up and kissed him, warm and sweet.
“Mmm,” Archie sighed. One of his hands came up and stroked along his collarbone.
Brighton could just see the window over his shoulder. The snow had stopped. Something worse was coming. It was too late to stop it, so he wound his arms around Archie. Just this once, he thought.
“Yes,” Archie sighed against his mouth. He slid his thigh between Brighton’s legs, rubbed against the heat there. Archie’s hand at Brighton’s collarbone deftly undid the buttons of his shirt, then splayed across his chest, stroking in a tease that inflamed him. Brighton ran his fingers through Archie’s hair, marveled that it was as soft as he had always imagined.
“Bed,” Archie said and Brighton felt a thrill shoot through his body.
Lightning ripped a thick beam of white across the sky. It was so bright that Archie made a hissing noise and said, “Ouch. Bright.”
He protested when Brighton suddenly pushed him away. Archie had a disappointed, affectionate look on his face and Brighton clutched the side of his head just as three monstrous bolts of lightning flashed white in the sky in rapid succession. Bam, bam, bam!
“Brighton?” Archie asked softly.
The sky was a bottomless bucket flipped upside down. The wind whistled high and low, loud through the night. A large bush whizzed past their window.
Brighton watched it pass with a horrified look on his pale face. He gestured at the window with a flapping, bird-like movement. “I’m not happy,” he said. But the rain worsened, calling him out as the liar he was.
“Brighton…?” Archie tried.
But Brighton was edging around him, muttering almost unintelligibly. And Archie could see the minute Brighton decided to bolt, he just couldn’t stop him in time. Brighton raced out the door.
“Here we go again!” Archie cried.
He caught up to Brighton near the stables. He was drenched and shivering, his shirt was clinging to him, transparent as it slipped down his shoulders. Archie clasped his arms.
“Brighton! God, what are you doing?” He shouted over the rain.
“I’m not happy!” Brighton wailed. He pounded weakly on Archie’s chest. But the rain poured and poured.
“Dammit, Bri,” he growled. “Look at this,” he waved at the soaked world around them. “Look what we do together! I make you happy!”
“This isn’t a good thing, Archie,” Brighton shouted back at him. “This will, literally, end the world. So I’m not happy. I’m thinking gloomy thoughts. I’m miserable and…and lonely. And…frustrated and…grumpy! Like always. Just like always! So go away and stop being…you!”
Archie rolled his eyes. “You’re happy, so just say it. We’ll find a way to fix it, but I want to hear you say it first.”
But Brighton just looked more miserable and the trees were whipping to and fro in the wind, churning in the air wildly. Archie was conflicted. On the one hand, he had undeniable proof that he made Brighton happier than he had been his whole life. On the other hand, being happy like this seemed to make Brighton miserable.
Archie felt awful suddenly. Brighton was already having a pretty terrible time without Archie making emotional demands on him. Besides, he reasoned, the weather patterns of the world were flat-out telling him what he wanted to know. Brighton was incapable of saying how he felt, but the sky was saying it for him.
Thinking that made him feel such tenderness for Brighton that Archie groaned and kissed him.
“Dammit, I know anyway,” he said in between taking Brighton’s mouth. “Even if you never say it, I know!” He kissed him until he imagined pulling him down to the ground and finishing this here. Brighton was clutching him close, kissing back. The sky was a light show, the thunder an endless, primal roar.
The rain pounded harder and harder and Brighton finally sagged against him.
Archie scooped Brighton up and carried him inside before the slowly flooding streets washed them away. Inside the room, Archie’s mind was racing.
Brighton seemed shut down, barely conscious. Archie roughly dried Brighton off and wrapped a spare cloak around him. Then he carried him back to the stables.
Valiant was hardly pleased to be saddled in weather like this, but he consented and took Brighton’s boneless weight followed by Archie behind him. Archie urged the horse as fast as he could, holding Brighton firm to him with a hand on his belly.
“Hold on, Bri, all will be well…”
“Stop being wonderful,” Brighton said weakly, obviously still determined to stop the rain by thinking gloomy thoughts. It wasn’t working at all. Archie kissed his cheek and spurred the horse forward.
In the rain, it was difficult to see the roads, but he was Archibald the Magnificent. He was very certain he could make it to the dwelling of Elda the Mystical.
The hut was, indeed, right next to the wishing well and Exit 2B as advertised. There was a big, brightly flashing sign that had guided Archie for the last leg of the trip. Elda’s the sign said.
He dismounted and carefully lifted Brighton off the horse. Brighton was still half-unconscious, and he leaned heavily on Archie. Whenever Archie hugged him closer, lightning and thunder crashed like the heavens were tumbling down on them. Archie lifted Brighton into his arms and dashed to the hut’s simple wooden door.
When it creaked open, a tiny, stooped but smooth-skinned old woman was at the door. This was Elda herself, just as she was on the poster. Over her shoulder was the perfect picture of how a witch’s hut was meant to look. There was even a shelf of shrunken heads in the corner beside a mean black cat.
She eyed the two soaked men in the door. Her gaze lingered on Brighton.
“So all of this is your fault, eh?” she stated and waved them in. Archie stooped and entered. He gently lowered Brighton onto a chair near the crackling fireplace.
Elda, meanwhile, was bustling about making tea. It was only a matter of minutes before Brighton was weakly holding a steaming cup. He shivered and steamed before the fire.
Elda put on a pair of bright red glasses with stars at the hinges. She stooped and walked around Brighton in circles. “What have we here?”
Archie watched nervously, his own tea going cold beside him.
“It’s mostly him, but you’re all tangled up with it, too,” Elda said after poking Brighton a few times and looking at his dull eyes. “Someone did a number on him. He’s all switched around: happy when he’s sad, sad when he’s happy. He must be a pain in the ass.”
Archie shrugged a little. There was no good way to answer that, he figured.
“Any idea what hit him so hard?” Elda asked.
Archie took a breath and said what he’d suspected all along. “The Sphinx,” he said. “I think he was cursed by the Sphinx, but he won’t talk about it.”
Elda’s eyebrows went high. “Sphinx? Hah! So this is Brighton the Wise. I wondered when I’d get to meet him. How is Beelzebub? She was a gift from us witches, you know.”
“I was told. She’s…temporarily missing,” Archie admitted.
Elda didn’t seem worried. “She’s the smartest horse in the world. She’ll turn up.”
Then she looked again at Brighton. “Brighton the Wise. My, my. Is he really worth all the hype?”
Archie nodded. “He’s actually too smart for his own good,” he said honestly. “He’s so clever it makes him rather foolish.”
Elda eyed him seriously. “And you’re no dummy, either, huh?”
“Archibald the Magnificent,” he introduced himself with no modesty, as he really had none to speak of.
“Oh! I find myself in famous company, indeed! Well, Archibald, if it was the Sphinx, which I think it was, then this here is the work of Minute the Lavender. That Sphinx Brighton outsmarted was hers if anything ever was. I’ve never seen a spell she cast that didn’t have a gotcha.”
Archie frowned. “What’s a gotcha?”
“It’s what I call the nasty, hidden part of a spell. It’s the second phase, if you will. Nothing you can do to dodge it. No way to see it coming. Minute prided herself on sticking gotchas in everywhere. I knew as much when that Sphinx plopped itself down in front of your kingdom. I almost went to solve its riddle myself, but I said to myself, ‘Elda, she’ll win in the end one way or the other. Best to let it slide.'”
She stood suddenly and grumbled, “And I was right. We’re all gonna have to grow gills if he keeps this up. This gotcha could end the world.”
“Just turn him into a frog or something,” Brighton said in a voice so weak it was mostly just rasp and squeak. He pointed an accusatory finger at Archie. “That will do the trick.”
“Hey!” Archie protested.
“A frog?” Elda asked.
“Frogs are gross,” Brighton offered. “He’s not gross and he’s the problem. He’s…very likeable. It’s horrible.”
Elda gave him a sympathetic look. “He’s part of the problem, that’s for sure. After all, you did fine all these years, didn’t you? No floods, no typhoons. Then along comes Prince Hunk here, and now we’re all going to sink into the ocean. Worse comes to worst, I’m on board with the frog plan.”
“You must be joking!” shouted Archie.
“Hold your horses,” said Elda. “I’ve got a trick or two to try before then. That’s a last resort. Hold on.”
She disappeared for a minute to a well-concealed room in the back of the hut.
While he waited, Archie studied Brighton with concern. Brighton wasn’t looking at anything. He seemed to be staring into the distance, shivering worse than ever.
“Brighton, are you okay?” Archie asked, and touched his damp cheek. Lightning struck so close to the house, Archie’s ears rang.
“Stop caring about me,” Brighton whined. “You’re making it worse.”
“That’s a stupid thing to ask and you know it. I do care. I’m crazy about you.”
“Shut up, shut up! I’m remembering my awful childhood and almost have a real mope going, but you’re ruining it…”
Archie almost smiled, but knew it would probably topple the trees all around them if he said what he was thinking. All of that could wait once Elda untangled Brighton’s feelings.
The witch returned a moment later with a small pendant in her hand. It was a little dusty and she rubbed it clean on her apron. “Here it is,” she said. “This will block the worst of it.”
She gave it to Archie and waved at him as if to say, “Go on, go on!”
Archie crouched behind Brighton, gently moved his dripping hair off his neck, and draped the pendant around his neck. There was a bright flash of light and a sound like the chiming of very well-orchestrated bells. Brighton shivered from head to toe and gave a gasp.
“Hey, you okay?” whispered Archie once the bells stopped.
“I-I think so,” Brighton said softly. Then, as if he simply couldn’t make it anymore, he slumped in Archie’s arms, fast asleep.
Archie re-arranged them so that Brighton was resting against him on one of Elda’s overstuffed couches. He held him close, glad that he seemed fine, if completely exhausted. It was surprising when the rain eased up. It seemed almost like dead silence when compared to the deluge from before.
“Huh. It’s working. Is it safe?” Archie asked Elda.
“Safer than letting him run around like this,” she said, and gestured at Brighton who was snoring softly.
“It won’t hurt him?”
“No. But let me remind you that it’s not perfect, either. The curse on that boy is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s going to take more than that necklace to fix it.”
“What do we have to do?” asked Archie, as always, sounding ready for an adventure.
“You’re either the bravest man I’ve ever met, or the dumbest.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Well, that answers that,” said Elda with a sigh. “As for what you can do, the truth is that if you really want to help, leave that poor boy alone so the world can dry out. But at this point I don’t think it would do any good. The damage has been done. You got under his skin real bad.
“So just keep him safe. Make sure he wears that necklace at all times. And don’t push your luck with it, if you catch my meaning.” She said, crossing her arms and raising an eyebrow at him. She deliberately stared at how Archie held Brighton, how he seemed to be missing a concept of personal space.
Archie blushed. “I understand what you mean,” he said. “I’ll behave,” he promised.
“Hmm. Good thing I have an umbrella,” Elda said, clearly not believing him.
Archie shrugged. “I did hear you were having a drought in this area?”
“I’ll go buy a bigger umbrella,” Elda mumbled. “Now shoo,” she said and waved her hands at Archie. “I’ve got to work on this problem and you need to take him somewhere so he can sleep it off. Give him this.”
Archie took the bottle she handed him. It was filled with a deep green liquid.
“A teaspoon two times a day until the bottle’s empty. It’ll keep him alert and active while the pendant’s working. It’s going to take a lot out of him.”
“Thank you,” Archie said. He lifted Brighton gently, smiled when his head lolled against his shoulder. “Shall we come find you after our quest is finished?”
“You may be Magnificent, but I’m Mystical. I’ll find you.”
“Madam, I am in your debt” Archie said, tilting his head. He stepped back out into the soggy world, Brighton a soft weight in his arms. The rain had stopped, for the moment. Valiant looked unhappy under the awning, more than ready to get back to the warm, comfortable stables.
“I feel different,” Brighton admitted.
“Well, not bad,” Brighton said.
“Well, that’s good,” Archie said and smiled against his neck.
“You’re an ass.”
“A Magnificent ass,” Archie agreed. At last he took a deep breath. Now seemed as good a time as any other to say what he wanted to say: “I was there that day. I saw you defeat the Sphinx.”
He couldn’t see Brighton’s face, but he could hear the confusion in it. “But the curfew…”
Archie shrugged. “I snuck out. I had just been given my first sword and I thought I was invincible.”
“You are invincible,” Brighton grumbled.
“Ah, but then? Before the Fairy Queen? Then I was just a scared kid. Terrified. But the wells had dried up and the crops were dying. The great thinkers kept coming and the Sphinx outsmarted all of them. That night, I decided I would try to slay the Sphinx. I know now it wouldn’t have done any good, but I was only ten. It seemed the only solution. We were all going to starve to death.
“But you were already there. I watched you walk right up to it, fearless. And when it gave you its riddle, you didn’t even hesitate. You just answered.”
“I was foolish,” Brighton said.
“You were brave. I wanted to be like you. You didn’t announce to my father that you would challenge the Sphinx like so many before you. You didn’t even ask your own father for permission, something I learned later.”
“I stowed away in a cart. La Cienega ships apples to your kingdom. I can’t eat them to this day.”
Archie laughed and gently kissed his neck. “There’s one mystery solved,” he said. But when he spoke again, his voice was sad.
“After the Sphinx turned to dust, you smiled. Then you laughed.”
Brighton seemed to be holding his breath and Archie knew that this was it, the moment in his story where Brighton had stopped being that proud, joyful boy. This was the moment he turned into the miserable creature he was now.
“And that’s when it started to rain,” Archie whispered, “and it didn’t stop.”
Brighton went rigid and the pain was clear in his voice. “I didn’t understand the curse. I was proud of myself. I was happy. And then a farmhouse washed away. And then another…”
Archie closed his eyes. To think all this time that Brighton had blamed himself for that. Not the Sphinx or Minute the Lavender. Brighton had blamed himself and decided that his happiness caused disaster and death. And now he wouldn’t let himself be happy. Archie understood then: he had never even attempted to break the curse. He had just given up on himself. It was almost as if Brighton considered the curse deserved punishment.
Archie didn’t know how to fix this. But there was no way he would give up without trying. They arrived at the inn and Archie made Brighton complain loudly by carrying him all the way to their room.
“You’re making a habit of this!”
“That’s the idea,” Archie said with a smile.
In the room, Archie stripped Brighton down to nothing but his shorts and the gently glowing stone on his neck. Brighton squirmed and didn’t help at all, but eventually the task was completed. He pulled him toward the bed.
“Come to bed,” Archie said. He jerked his own shirt off over his head, then tugged him down to lie beside him. Brighton’s eyes were wide and shocked staring at his bare chest.
“No, Archie. The pendant can’t — ” Brighton protested, but Archibald stopped him with a finger to his lips.
“The pendant can do enough. I’m going to hold you, you’re going to sleep, and we’ll get a light drizzle, okay?”
Brighton relented and let himself be dragged close to Archie who was warm and solid and good. It did begin to drizzle outside, but it wouldn’t wash away houses. It wouldn’t drown anyone.
Archie wrapped his arms around him.
“This is nice,” he commented.
“Yes,” Brighton agreed, and then promptly fell asleep again.
Brighton traced the flow of skin from Archie’s collar bone to his navel, three centimeters above his smooth, golden skin, never touching. His own breathing was deep and even, aroused even without the sensation of touch.
Archie’s chest rose and fell, beautifully. All it would take was lowering his hand and he could feel that rhythm. And he wanted to. He wanted to believe that he could have that — even just a taste of it — as long as he wore the pendant.
He was a fool.
Brighton pulled his hand back slowly, feeling worse somehow. He turned away and almost screamed aloud as a fierce grip caught his wrist. Archie was awake after all, looking straight into Brighton’s eyes. Brighton could barely catch his breath. He certainly stood no chance of freeing himself from Archie’s grasp, so all he could do was stare back into his green eyes and wait.
“Why did you stop?” Archie asked, his voice soft and low.
“Besides the fear of a flood? I…suddenly imagined you thinking me a bandit or an ogre or something and attacking me in self defense.”
Archie smiled as he shook his head. “That’s not likely to ever happen. I can tell the difference between someone touching me in my sleep because they want to hurt me, and someone touching me in my sleep because they’re in love with me.”
Brighton gasped and jerked his arm back as hard as he could, trying to free himself. It made no difference.
“What are you talking about? It’s nonsense!”
But then he was tumbling and his back was pressed hard against the soft, warm bed. He didn’t have time to react before Archie was pressing down against him. And Brighton didn’t know how to fight something that felt so good. His hands were pinned above his head and Archie’s arousal was obvious with them pressed this close.
Brighton was in too much shock to do much of anything, but Archie was prepared to take the initiative. He got hold of Brighton’s hand and put it where he wanted it. Brighton swallowed. This was all happening very quickly.
“You can always touch me, Brighton. I’ll never stop you.” He released Brighton’s hand and knelt up so that he was straddling Brighton’s hips. He undid his trousers and each undone lace made Brighton’s eyes widen more and more until they were at saucer proportions. When Archie pulled his erect cock free, Brighton’s jaw dropped. His throat was desert-dry.
“Touch me,” Archie whispered.
Brighton hesitated. Then he pushed himself up and cautiously reached for Archie’s erection. The first touch was dry and hot against his palm and fingers. Then he lingered at the wide head and a pearly bead of white dripped from the tip. He caught it with his fingers and used it to smooth the next touch which turned into a slow stroke. Through all of this, Archie made pleased, breathless sounds.
“Just like that. Please. Yes…”
Brighton liked having the power to make Archie beg, Archie who was powerful and brave and daring. But for Brighton, at that moment, he was just a man who needed release.
“Here, lie down,” Brighton ordered.
Archie flopped onto his back, watched with bald hunger as Brighton scooted into position. He arched when Brighton stroked him again, a slightly better angle, a bit more friction.
“Harder,” Archie sighed, hips jerking up and down.
“I’m not left-handed,” Brighton apologized, feeling clumsy. His bandaged right hand was useless.
Archie smiled, wrapped his hand around Brighton’s, squeezed just a bit.
“We’ll make do. More is always better,” Archie advised. Brighton’s cheeks flushed and he bit his lip, but he did squeeze harder. Archie guided his hand, showed him how to twist a little.
“That’s perfect,” he praised and let his hand fall away to clutch at the sheets. His breathing changed, went high and fast. Then the muscles of his stomach were bunching and was coming with a gasped, “Brighton!”
He flopped back, didn’t seem capable of catching his breath. Brighton slowly took his hand away. He didn’t know what happened now. Archie smiled up at him.
“You’re a natural,” he said. “Come here.”
He caught his wrist and pulled him down beside him, kissed him soundly.
“Have to get these off,” Archie complained, making quick work of Brighton’s shorts. They went flying off somewhere and Brighton didn’t care.
Then Archie was touching him, skin to skin and it was too good to be real. One of his big, callused hands was on Brighton’s chest, the other on his cock. He stroked him, watched the expressions flit across his face. Brighton caught his wrist, held on through the movement. He jerked with each twist of Archie’s hand up and down, every swipe of Archie’s thumb across the leaking head.
It was over in a flash, Brighton crying out and spilling in three spurts that splashed on his neck and chest. Archie slowed his hand, eased Brighton down. Finally he released him and leaned down to kiss him.
Brighton was red in the face, steadfastly not looking at him.
“I’m sorry…” he said. Archie smiled.
“Don’t be. That was hot,” he said and kissed him again. “You’re so easy,” he teased.
Brighton’s face went redder. “I-I…” he sputtered.
“I know. There’s no chance you’ve done this before, huh?” he said, seemed to be considering the implications.
“It would have been a disaster,” said Brighton. “Literally.”
Archie laughed and caught Brighton by the shoulders and rolled onto his back so that Brighton was on top of him. Brighton squeaked as he was flipped easily, but settled down on top of him. He seemed to fit just right, like he’d been made to go right there with his head against Archie’s shoulder.
“Tired?” asked Archie.
Brighton nodded. The pendant was hot against his neck, obviously working overtime to deal with all of this. Outside, the wind had picked up and the world was dark with cloud cover. The fact that they had made it through sex without flooding the whole town was a testament to the power of the pendant.
But Brighton yawned hugely. “I’m sorry…I really am. That was amazing. I liked it. But…”
“It’s fine. I mean, it’s not fine, exactly. I’m young and horny and you turn me on. More sex would be great, but I can wait. Were just going to have to break this curse as soon as humanly possible so I can have my wicked way with you.”
“Ass,” said Brighton, yawning again.
“Don’t forget Magnificent,” whispered Archie. Brighton was already asleep when he brushed his lips across his forehead.
Brighton took his medicine, kept the pendant on, and kissed Archie as often as he could. The sun was long gone, but the rain was nothing like before. Nothing like the flood in Tujunga. The flood in La Brea.
Archie’s kisses were addictive. Just as nice were all the things he whispered to him at night, promises and compliments. Brighton knew they were on borrowed time. Each day he got happier and each day the pendant was hotter and hotter, sapping his energy.
The bandage on his hand came off on the third day. The scar on his belly looked mostly healed, pink and new. Archie was fond of licking it and it drove Brighton mad.
“Oh, stop! It tickles.”
“Mmmm,” Archie agreed. He licked more, seemed to love the sound of Brighton giggling, the flush to his cheeks.
Brighton’s quest had been completely forgotten. Chloe completely forgotten. He had no idea what he was doing.
He woke up on the morning of the sixth day, kissed Archie awake, and marveled as he came in his hand again. He leaned away when Archie reached for him.
“We have to go,” he said.
He felt the disappointment Archie’s face showed, his mouth turned down, his green eyes sad.
“I know you don’t believe me, but I’m having the time of my life with you. I never want this quest to end.”
Thinking about Archie in the forest, saying such wonderful things to him, Brighton almost took it back — almost said, “Oh, never mind. Let’s stay here another week. What difference will it make? Kiss me again.” Then he thought about his father.
“Today, Brighton, you are a man! Or, about as much of one as you’re going to be!”
They were packed and on the road within the hour.
Valiant looked pleased to be moving again. The sky was a sheet of swirling gray marble, the sun so buried behind it that the breeze was cold. They rode on.
None of the tension of riding with Archie behind him was gone. It was worse somehow since now he knew what he was missing every hour they spent on the road.
“How often can one man need sex?” Brighton asked over his shoulder when Archie made it pretty clear what was on his mind by scooting closer and pressing his erection firmly against Brighton’s ass.
“Mm…with you? Three times a day at least. Like meals.”
“Well, it’ll have to wait,” Brighton said with real regret. “We have to leave the road today.”
Archie restrained himself to occasional kisses to Brighton’s neck, the rare caress to his chest and stomach. Just after three, they could no longer stick to the road; they had to enter the forest. Valiant looked at the treeline of the Enchanted Forest dubiously. The trees here looked sinister: older, ancient and twisted.
The took their time through the underbrush. The forest floor was littered with leaves, branches, and rocks, treacherous ground for Valiant. There were no paths, no clear direction. Brighton consulted the Gracie Tome map.
“That way,” he said and led Valiant deeper into the forest.
They camped when dark came, earlier than was usual due to the canopy and the clouds. Brighton didn’t even bother with his own tent, just watched Archie set up his.
“Not going to help?”
“I like the show,” Brighton drawled. They were safely inside when the drizzle they’d both been expecting started.
Archie squirmed on top of his sleeping bag. Brighton’s head was bobbing between his spread legs, his mouth stretched wide. Archie arched prettily when he spilled. Brighton only gagged a little, but returned to lick up what he missed.
“Sorry, sorry…” Archie gasped. “Too good. Wasn’t expecting to come so fast. Wanted it to last…”
“It’s fine. You’re fine,” Brighton said and kissed the tip of his softening cock.
“Can’t figure out why you’re good at that,” mused Archie.
Brighton shook his head at the compliment. “I’m not. You’re easy. But it’s fun, either way. You even taste good, which is bizarre.”
“Magnificent,” Archie said with a leer.
“And so modest.”
“Mm,” Archie said and reached for him. Brighton covered his mouth, felt too loud in the empty forest with every cry Archie pulled from him. He shuddered all over, forced his hand open where it clenched on Archie’s hair.
Archie let him fall from his mouth and smiled down at him. They curled up together, idly touching.
“What will you do when you find Chloe?” Archie whispered. The forest was quiet outside the tent, for the most part. There was the occasional hoot of an owl, the growl of some dog or wolf. Brighton wasn’t afraid. Archie would protect him.
“I don’t know,” Brighton admitted. The question made him uncomfortable, made it difficult to breathe. It had been such a simple plan: rescue the princess, marry her, get respect. He’d been aware of the contradiction: that respect usually made one happy and that he couldn’t be happy at all. But he had wanted it nonetheless.
And now he had Archie and those things didn’t seem so important anymore.
Archie twirled a lock of Brighton’s hair around his finger absently. “We don’t have to go to El Segundo Castle,” he whispered. “There’s a whole world. I’ll go with you wherever you want to go.”
Brighton closed his eyes, tucked himself in closer to Archie. The pendant was so hot against his skin in that moment that he had to move it, twist it in the sheet a little just to keep it from burning him.
“We’ve come so far,” he said. It wasn’t an answer and Archie would know that it wasn’t an answer. It was the best Brighton had right then.
“Not much further,” he said.
Just after lunch, they arrived at their destination. Archie helped Brighton off Valiant and hoped down beside him. They were both speechless.
“This can’t be,” said Brighton.
For where the castle of El Segundo should have been was just a ruin. There were exterior walls and a partial stairway, but everything was overgrown with thick patches of grass and dark green moss. There was no princess; the place was empty. Well, almost empty, for the men and women who had once been the forks, knives, and spoons (and yes, feather dusters) of the bandit gang known as the Cutlery were standing there as if they had been waiting for them.
“We were waiting for you!” said the man who had once been a serving spoon. He had a perfect little mustache and hair only at the sides of his head. The top of his head was shiny, even with an overcast sky. There was still something of the spoon in him. The bald head, perhaps? The thin shoulders?
“Where’s Chloe?” Brighton demanded.
“Thank you, Mario! But our princess is in another castle!”
“Come again?” said Archie and Brighton simultaneously.
The former serving spoon waved his arms around irritably. “I mean, literally, that Chloe is in another castle.” He jerked a thumb at his chest. “I’m Mark, former steward of El Segundo Castle!”
Brighton raised an eyebrow at him. “Huh. You were a spoon for a long time,” he stated.
Mark went red and crossed his arms. “Never mind that! It was clever of you to find this spot. Most people never make it through the forest at all! And none have ever found this castle! Too bad for you that you’ve found the wrong castle! Oh, what a pity for you, young prince!”
Archie drew his sword and stepped before Brighton. They were outnumbered, but Archie didn’t seem to care. “What do you intend to do?” he demanded.
Mark held a finger high in the air. “I intend,” he began darkly, “to tell you where Chloe actually is!” He ended this friendly proclamation by laughing maniacally.
“You’re going to help us?” Brighton asked. He had suddenly realized that Mark had been a bandit for too long and now had no idea how to say anything without making it sound like a threat. He placed a hand on Archie’s arm and pushed down until he was forced to lower his sword.
“Indeed! In thanks! Bwa-ha-ha! We owe you a great debt! Mwa-ha-ha-ho!”
“We would be grateful,” Brighton said.
“Oh, would you, young prince? Mwa-ha-ha-ha!” said Mark. The former members of the Cutlery were all smiling friendly smiles and rubbing their hands together as if hatching a plan. It would take some work to integrate them into society, Brighton decided.
“This is really confusing,” Archie said a short while later, trudging through the forest after Mark and the Cutlery.
“Come with me! Yes, your fate awaits you! Come, come this way!” Mark shouted over his shoulder. He kindly held a vine out of their way as they caught up with him.
“Yeah,” Brighton agreed. “Thank you,” he added to Mark.
“Oh, don’t thank me yet, young prince! Bwa-ha-ha!”
They walked for several hours. The Cutlery was terribly accommodating, always asking if they needed water or food.
“Some place to sit?” asked one of their band who Brighton could swear used to be a chair.
Brighton squirmed in his boots. “It’d be nice to take a break,” he admitted.
“Oh, we’ll take a break, all right!” exclaimed Mark. A tea service was promptly set and everyone settled on soft blankets in a lovely spot with colorful birds flying above them.
As they sipped Earl Grey and ate finger sandwiches, the Cutlery explained the confusion with the castle.
“Renovations,” said Mark.
“It’s very neat how you two say things at the same time. Do you practice?”
Brighton sighed. “You were saying? Renovations?” he prompted Mark.
“Yes! Renovations! The royal family moved to another castle temporarily while this castle underwent renovations. The workmen came, knocked down a wall or two, put in better insulation. The spray kind.”
“Ohhh,” Archie said, clearly impressed.
“New paint. A few additional wings. Niiiice carpeting. They really added considerable equity to the castle, while staying within their budget.
“Then Minute the Lavender shows up and curses everyone and it’s a real shame. All the servants and staff became, well, you know what we became. But Chloe and her family were turned to stone. No one ever got to enjoy the improvements to the castle. The carpets were heated.”
“Hmm,” said Brighton. “And since the other castle was never put on a map, my research led me straight to the wrong place.”
“You never could have known,” consoled Mark. “It was a long time ago. Anybody who makes it to the other castle must be wicked lost.”
“So, was Chloe’s curse identical to yours?” Brighton asked and chose a cucumber sandwich to nibble.
“It’s difficult to say, but I’m guessing it was!” said Mark.
“Then she could have been restored, too,” said Archie. “That could be bad.”
Brighton tapped his chin as he thought about that. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
“Funny you should mention bridges!” cackled Mark.
The dragon crouching in front of it, however, was big and red and particularly dangerous-looking.
“Minute the Lavender,” said Mark. “She always includes a gotcha.”
Brighton sighed. “You don’t say,” he grumbled.
“That’s quite a big gotcha,” remarked Archie.
Mark gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Yes! A fearsome dragon! Your doom is sealed!” He paused and seemed to re-think that. “We wish you the best of luck!”
“We’re rooting for you!” said a former egg-timer.
“Fight the good fight!” said a former feather duster.
Brighton and Archie smirked at their retreating forms. “Thanks a lot.”
“See? Simultaneous! It’s neat! Mwa-ha-ha!”
And with that, the Cutlery disappeared into the forest.
“Do you suppose,” said Archie, “that this dragon has really been waiting around for a thousand years?”
“I would have said ‘no’ not too long ago,” said Brighton.
“But after the talking spoons and witches and your being invincible and golden books, I’m going to say that it’s very likely.”
Archie stood, drew his sword. “You should stay here,” he said. Brighton would be a morsel for this dragon. Like a piece of popcorn, he was so small.
“I’m coming with you,” Brighton argued.
“If you insist,” said Archie and reached a hand down for him.
Brighton let himself be pulled to his feet. He squeaked when Archie swept in and kissed him hard and fast.
“For luck,” said Archie, leering.
“Oh, just go slay the damn dragon already, you moron,” Brighton grumbled. Archie was getting better at deciphering his nastier grumbles.
Archie walked before Brighton, sword drawn, as they approached the dragon. He looked at the intelligence clearly there on the dragon’s face. This was no brute.
The dragon’s wings unfurled behind it as they neared. Smoke streamed from its nostrils.
Archie looked at the dragon, then at his sword. It seemed more of a twirler’s baton next to the dragon. Then he looked at the dragon, then back at his sword. He did it one more time for good measure.
“This isn’t going to do any good against you, is it?” Archie asked the dragon. He felt a bit like Brighton at the moment, talking his way out of a pickle.
The dragon shook its head and gestured to a large pile of very dead knights, all of whom had been carrying swords much like Archie’s.
Archie sighed. “Okay, then,” he said. Then he trudged to a nearby tree. “Give me a minute.” He swung the sword once and the tree came crashing down at his feet.
“Just take a second,” he added. A few quick flashes of steel later followed by a heft and a grunt and Archie was holding the giant stake on his shoulder.
“This will do,” he said and slid into a stance for hurling.
The dragon’s eyes were wide in its leathery skull. It looked at the former tree turned siege weapon, then back at Archie. Then back at the stake, then back at Archie. He did it one more time for good measure.
“So…I’m not going to win, am I?” asked the dragon suddenly.
The dragon rolled its eyes to the side as he considered this. “Good point,” he said.
Then he sighed and flopped to the ground. He braced his big head on one big claw. “Well, that’s settled then. So, let me guess,” the dragon intoned, “rainbow bridge on an enchanted lake?”
Archie lowered the stake to the ground. Crash, rumble, rumble, went the stake.
“How’d you know?” Archie asked with what Brighton suspected was genuine surprise.
“Lucky guess,” said the dragon.
Brighton decided, right then and there, that he was going to embark on a quest to find this lake and this damnable rainbow bridge. Once there, he was going to burn the fairy kingdom to the ground. The world would be a better place.
“Just as a warning,” said the dragon, “that Fairy Queen is a cougar. She’s got dozens of handsome boys hanging around doing her bidding. She goes through them like tissues. Watch yourself.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Archie, clearly amused.
“Well, I’m Ezra,” said the dragon. “Ezra the Dragon,” he added. “I got the short end of the stick with the naming convention.”
“Archibald the Magnificent,” Archie said, once again with bashful modesty, or, perhaps, modest bashfulness. Brighton hated him.
Ezra the Dragon swiveled his big head to Brighton. “And you, handsome?” he asked. And that…that was a surprise.
Brighton cleared his throat. “Brighton,” he said simply.
The dragon waited expectantly. Archie looked at him as if he had grown a second set of arms and legs.
“Brighton the Wise,” Brighton admitted at last.
“Oh, beauty and brains! You, sir, are a catch!”
Brighton was speechless. Which in turn made Archibald laugh loudly.
“I’ve never seen that before,” he said and jerked a thumb at Brighton. “You made him shut up.”
Ezra smiled, too, but it wasn’t so charming with rows upon rows of big, white teeth gleaming in his mouth.
“Ass!” shouted Brighton.
“Oh! Feisty!” praised Ezra.
“That’s how I like ’em,” admitted Archie.
“Me, too, girlfriend!”
“He’s a handful, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m standing right here.”
“Oh, tell me all the details!” cooed Ezra. “What’s your story?”
Archie smiled winningly. “He’s on a quest; I’m here to protect him.”
“Oh, that makes sense. He is a little thin,” Ezra commented sagely.
“Right? He weighs absolutely nothing!”
“I’m. Standing. Right. Here.”
Archibald looked guilty for exactly two seconds. “How about you?” he asked Ezra. “What’s your story?”
“Guarding Chloe,” said Ezra. “Bored to tears.”
“She’s in there, then?” Brighton asked, suddenly feeling ice water in his veins.
“She is. Though how much longer she’ll stick around is anybody’s guess.”
“So she’s awake?” Brighton whispered.
“Oh, yes. And she needs a hair dresser,” said Ezra conspiratorially. “Badly.”
El Segundo Castle was quite clearly going to be fine for a good long time.
“It’s…terrifying,” said Archie.
“It’s a siege castle,” said Brighton.
There were bars on all the windows, a stone wall five feet thick around the entire perimeter. The wall, in turn, was topped by big black spikes. There were skulls jammed onto them.
“Ah-ha!” said Brighton, feeling vindicated. “See!”
But Archie wasn’t as impressed as he thought he should have been.
The gate that should have had winged babies with hearts and flowers instead had a raised relief of the enemies of El Segundo being ripped apart by lions, burned alive, and, yes, well, disemboweled.
They entered the courtyard, then the castle proper. The steps were still intact. Everything, in fact, was still intact. There was a table that was mostly just a huge tree cut in half lengthwise and propped up by boulders.
It was Archie who saw her first. “Bri, look!” he said.
“Don’t call me — Oh, a princess,” Brighton said smartly.
She turned from the window as they approached and they got a good look at Princess Chloe, the first look anyone had gotten in at least a thousand years. Chloe was wearing armor. Full chain mail. Her dirty, light brown hair was cut short, perfect for fighting. Underneath all the war paint, dirt, and grime, it was clear that Chloe was stunning. One bath would make her the most beautiful woman anyone had ever seen. It was just the armor, really, that was ruining the whole thing. Birds would never land on her finger. She probably ate bunnies raw.
She sized the two strangers up as surely as they were sizing her up. She blinked as if she thought them specters, took a deep lungful of air, and then screamed. Only scream wasn’t quite the right word. It was more of a war cry, Brighton realized.
“Flaka swella ba see lum ta!” she said and then bolted. But it wasn’t the run of someone who was afraid, Brighton decided. It was more the run of a woman off to look for a good, sharp knife.
Archie and Brighton exchanged a look, shrugged, and then made chase.
“I never thought we’d have to chase her to rescue her!” shouted Archie.
“I’m beginning to think she doesn’t need rescuing! Don’t lose sight of her,” Brighton huffed back as a stitch formed in his side.
“And what was she saying? I can’t understand her!”
“I think she speaks El Segundan,” Brighton answered breathlessly.
“Nobody speaks that!”
“She’s a thousand years old! She speaks it just fine!”
“Well, this is just great! You’re the expert in ancient languages! You speak El Segundan, right?”
“I can read it!”
“That’s not what I asked!”
“Quick, she took the stairs!” Brighton said, hoping that it distracted Archie from that line of questioning.
The princess finally ran out of room to run in what Brighton guessed was the North Tower. Like a true siege castle, the North Tower had been where surviving knights went when the castle was breached and taken. This is where they were meant to make their final stand, to wait for their enemies and fight to the death. There were no doors. There were no windows.
She whirled to face them, eyes darting left and right for a weapon, but the tower was in shambles, filled with rotten furniture and cobwebs. There was nothing here to use to defend herself. Archie made it to the top of tower first and slowed when Chloe picked up a chair leg and held it before her as if it were a broadsword.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” Archie tried, but his words only agitated her.
“Bea! Ba se blanuarita bar!”
Brighton joined them a little later and instantly hunched over, gasping for air. He stooped that way for a long time, one finger in the air as if he had something to say and he would say it the minute his lungs stopped burning.
“You should really exercise more,” Archie said out of the side of his mouth.
“Brighton the Wise, not Brighton the Fit and Active,” Brighton wheezed back. He stood upright a minute later and wiped his sweating brow. Chloe looked flummoxed, as if she had expected them to attack her and was uncertain of what to do now that she didn’t have to fight tooth and nail.
“I’m trying to tell her that we, you know, come in peace and all that, but she acts like I’m trying to toss her down the stairs,” Archie complained and waved a frustrated hand at Chloe.
Across the room, Chloe’s jaw firmed. Her eyes narrowed.
“Bre ka fruo?” she said in a voice a little rough from disuse as she started to edge around the rounded wall, looking for an opening to attack.
Archie shook his head. “Princess Chloe?” he said gently.
“Va. Ba se Kaolohe,” she said, voice going a little high. “Bre ka frou?”
“We’ve really got a problem here,” Archie said to Brighton, elbowing him in the side. “Bright ideas?”
“Shhh,” said Brighton who elbowed him right back. Archie gave him an offended little look, but Brighton had his eyes closed and a look of serious concentration on his face.
“Ba su…” he whispered to himself. “Ba sa? Um….hmm.”
“Faster would be better,” Archie said quietly as Chloe came closer. “She’s got pretty good form. Getting a little nervous…”
“Ba se Brighton,” Brighton said after several moments of silence. This made Chloe halt and look with something like shock and hope at Brighton.
“Barhaiuton?” she asked hoarsely.
“Va. Umm. Ba se Barhaiuton. Bar se Archibald,” he said and gestured at Archie.
“Ahchebualdi?” asked Chloe with a tilt to her head.
“Not even close,” whined Archie.
“Shhh!” Brighton scolded and smacked him once, which made Chloe fall back into a fighting stance. It was a heavy, wooden chair leg, but she held it like it weighed nothing.
“Ba frees,” Brighton said quickly and held his hands up, palms forward. “Ba frees, Kaolohe.”
“Bra se swaaaala?” she said and indicated Archie with a jerk of her chin.
Brighton jabbed a finger at Archie, “Nat. Bra se stupid,” he explained.
Chloe jerked in surprise, then covered her mouth. An unexpectedly tinkling laugh came from behind her hand. Princess Chloe lowered the chair leg.
Archie raised an eyebrow at Brighton.
“Did I just hear the word ‘stupid’?”
“Yes,” said Brighton. “Oddly, that word hasn’t changed in several thousand years. The pronunciation is even the same.”
Archie exhaled a huff and crossed his arms. “Okay, I’m so done here. So you can speak El Segundon. Congratulations! Now, tell her we’re here to rescue her and let’s get going. This castle is creepy.”
Brighton rolled his eyes before launching into an increasingly fast paced, gesture-filled exchange with Chloe, who was speaking rapidly back at Brighton. As she spoke to him, she smiled a little and even took a few steps closer. Her voice grew in confidence.
And so it was that the two princes rescued Princess Chloe of El Segundo. Sort of.
Archie came to Brighton just after midnight. He found him at one of the rough tables, papers covering every inch of its surface. Some of the drawings showed what looked like leather straps.
“Building something?” asked Archie, draping his arms around Brighton’s shoulders.
“A way home,” he said.
“Valiant is a good way home,” Archie said, pulling Brighton tight against him like he did when they rode.
“Valiant is good. This is faster.”
“Ah,” said Archie, looking at the plans with a new eye. “Ezra.”
“If he’s feeling helpful. We’ll ask in the morning. Bed?”
Archie kissed his favorite place on Brighton’s neck. “Bed,” he agreed.
The big bed was dusty, but Archie said he didn’t mind.
“I’ve been guarding a bridge for centuries, girlfriend. I’d like to see the world. Maybe take a cruise. Have one of those drinks with the little umbrellas.”
While Brighton and Ezra worked together, Archie and Chloe went out hunting. The forest was teaming with hares and deer and even a few wild chickens. After a morning of watching her murder everything in sight, Archie felt inadequate. He helped Chloe carry their catch back to the castle
“Nicely done!” Brighton praised him and it was so rare and so pleasing to hear that he decided that this was an okay time to be a little untruthful.
Brighton had been busy in their absence. The Cutlery had been recruited to help with his plan. They were hard at work everywhere you looked. Former butter knives carried planks of wood with former egg beaters. Ezra helped as much as he could, lifting things too big and heavy for anyone else to carry.
“Oh, I’ve got it! I’ve got it! I’ll make it work!” he cried.
Mark, the former serving spoon, was supervising as usual. He seemed to have located his softer, gentler side.
“I’m…diligently listening to the requests of everyone and attempting to find common ground to reach mutually beneficial compromises.” he paused and then added. “Mwa-ha-ha!” because old habits died hard.
Brighton eyed him seriously. “Have you considered going into politics?”
All told, Brighton estimated that the entire endeavor would take about a week to complete. Archie didn’t mind. After all, Brighton never locked his door. And if it was always cloudy and always a little damp in the Enchanted Forest, no one complained.
Since they had the time, Brighton decided to teach Chloe English. She picked it up very quickly, but most of the things she had to say were disturbing. When asked where the rest of her family had gone — why she alone was in the castle — she waved this away, unconcerned. After they awoke from their stone sleep, it seemed that all of her family had scattered to look for more things to conquer. She had stayed behind.
“After all, my castle, no? I protect it. I stwalukikak my enemies,” she said. “How do I say this in English?”
“Disembowel,” Brighton told her, a pained grimace on his face.
“Yes. I disembowel enemies who come. How about fralulustraaak?”
“Disembowel,” Brighton said. The pained grimace now had a pained grimace.
“Ah. So simple,” said Chloe, clearly impressed.
She’d washed the war paint off and so it was a lovely, shining face that casually discussed disembowelment. It was disturbing.
“Why leave? Why conquer when I already conquered? Queens rule,” she said.
Archie thought of the pretty little doll in her pink dress and how far removed it was from the actual Chloe. Not a princess, for starters. A queen. Not a dainty little doll waiting around to be rescued. She was clever and ruthless and bloody-minded.
She got along with Brighton far too well. He, in turn, seemed to find bloodthirsty Chloe delightful. Or, rather, he didn’t seem to detest her like he did everyone else. Archie could admit that she wasn’t a bad person. That wasn’t the case. What was really going on was that she was a relic from a hard time, a bloody time. She had awakened with brutal sensibilities because that was all she knew. Chloe’s mind was conquest and war.
In fact, he got the idea now that Chloe had probably deserved the curse Minute the Lavender placed on her. He didn’t like to think like that. After all, what had the men and women of La Brea done to deserve the Sphinx? But perhaps…
At night, Brighton would sit by the fire and pore over books with Chloe. She surprised everyone by showing up in a dress. It was big, pink, and fluffy. Gone was Queen Chloe the Conqueror. In her place was Princess Chloe the Fair. Any little girl would want a doll that looked like her.
She sat a little too close to Brighton around the campfire, in Archie’s opinion. She spoke mostly in El Segundan, and she laughed at what Archie could only assume were the cruel things that Brighton often said.
He watched it all, feeling grumpy. Ezra landed a short time later, just returning from a late-night hunting trip. Despite his size, he landed gracefully, long leathery wings flapping high above him.
“They seem to be getting along well,” said Ezra, clearly fishing. He jerked his chin at Chloe and Brighton, as if Archie needed clarification.
“Hrmph,” said Archie, and he had no idea when Brighton had started to rub off on him.
“You seem unhappy about it,” fished Ezra some more.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
And Ezra was an understanding, considerate kind of dragon. Instead of pushing it, he sat quietly beside Archie, a silent, comforting presence.
They all worked so hard that they were finished ahead of schedule in only four days. It took all of them straining together, but at last the final strap was tightened across Ezra’s massive shoulders. Ezra craned his big head around and studied the harness.
“Comfy,” declared Ezra.
The basket sat snugly on his scaly back. There were seats at the front, a small aisle between them. At the back was a comfortable pen for Valiant. The Cutlery had constructed a long ramp on wheels from the remains of a long table. Valiant could take the ramp right to his pen.
Brighton clutched his chin, eyeing his handy work. “As the crow flies — ”
“Sorry, Ezra,” Brighton said hastily. “As the dragon flies, we’ll be back in La Cienega in a matter of days.”
Archie considered this. He felt a sudden stab of panic. He looked at the number of seats.
“Four,” he said aloud. It hadn’t occurred to him before from just looking at the plan. But there they were, four seats.
“You, me, Chloe, and one extra for my books,” Brighton explained.
Archie suddenly felt very foolish. How had he not considered?
“Chloe,” he said after a moment spent trying to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth.
“I go to see world,” said Chloe. “Maybe get drink with little umbrella?”
And that seemed to decide it. Archie’s mood darkened. He somehow managed to persuade Brighton to delay their departure until tomorrow.
“We finished ahead of schedule, after all,” he said breezily. “We can…rest and get more supplies and…say goodbye to the Cutlery properly.”
Brighton studied him for a moment, one of his thoughtful looks dancing on his pale face. “One day won’t hurt, I suppose,” he said. The knot of tension in Archie eased, but he knew it was only temporary.
That night, Archie held Brighton a little too tight, kissed him just a little too passionately. For the first time in quite some time since Brighton started wearing the pendant, there was thunder crashing above them. Wind whistled through the ancient cracks of the castle.
“Archie,” Brighton gasped and writhed. His fingers dug into Archie’s back. “I’m…I’m…”
“Yes,” Archie growled. “Give it to me. I want to hear you.”
Brighton screamed through his release. The heavens opened up above them.
“Take your medicine,” he said and shoved the bottle at Brighton.
“Grumble, grumble, exactly what you can do with that, grumble, grumble,” said Brighton. He then took his medicine.
Archie got dressed slowly, ate breakfast slowly, dragged his feet all morning and it did no good. The next thing he knew, they were saying goodbye to the Cutlery.
“We’ll be seeing you soon, young princes! Oh, you can count on it! Bwa-ha-ha!” said Mark.
“I invited them to visit La Cienega,” Brighton clarified.
“Ahh,” said Archie, nodding his understanding.
Then they were loading Valiant and boarding. Ezra it seemed, was more than ready to go. The takeoff was smooth, the heavy sound of Ezra’s wings somehow comforting.
“In case of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling,” droned Ezra. “Place the mask over your nose and mouth, and pull the elastic tight. After your mask is secured, please assist any children nearby with theirs. Your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device.”
Archie had no idea what was going on. Brighton just shrugged.
He said, “One day, everyone will travel like this. We’ll all sit around in big metal flying machines and go from place to place just as fast as you please. Air Wenches will bring drinks and food. Maybe just snacks. Like peanuts. Possibly pretzels. I haven’t worked that part out yet.”
“More wishful thinking, Bri,” sighed Archie. “Just like that ‘search engine’ thingy you were talking about. And what was the other one? Hand-held Talkers?”
Brighton bristled. “Everyone will have one! I imagine they will be very affordable. No hidden fees. There will be ones with big buttons for the elderly.”
Archie laughed and slapped him on the back. “You’re such a dreamer,” he said.
“All Hand-held Talkers must be turned off and stowed during the flight,” said Ezra.
Chloe, meanwhile, was flipping through the helpful pamphlet in her seat back pocket.
“Emergency exits,” she said and nodded.
Below, the countryside was zipping by. The dense green of the Enchanted Forest melted away to the even patches of tilled farms
“Look!” cried Archie. “Forestland!” But by the time he said it, Forestland was already far behind them. The realization made worry stir in his stomach again.
The months it had taken on horseback with Brighton to cover the distance between La Cienega and the Forbidden Forest were mere hours on Ezra. It shouldn’t have mattered. He knew that.
After all, they’d won. They’d broken the curse. They’d found a castle no one else had been able to find. They were supposed to go back to their kingdoms. They were supposed to be celebrated.
Archie’s head knew all of this well enough. The problem was that his heart was telling him that something was wrong. He looked to Brighton, studied his dark eyes, his unsmiling mouth.
Nothing seemed different. So then why did he feel like everything was about to go south?
“Just in case one of the guards has read too many fairy stories and thinks they’re under attack,” he said.
It was eerily quiet when Ezra landed. Valiant canted around the courtyard, happy to be back on solid ground. When Beelzebub came trotting up to them, seemingly from nowhere, Brighton wasn’t even surprised. The horse first greeted Brighton with an affectionate nudge of her nose to his shoulder. He stroked her soft neck and rubbed her long nose.
“I thought maybe you’d go to the next town over,” he scolded. She waggled her ears.
“Oh really? Was that what you thought? Well, we’ll have words about this later,” said Brighton, cheeks going red. He cast a look at Archie who was obviously interested and amused by the exchange.
Then Beelzebub turned her attention to Valiant. The two rubbed against each other and made friendly horse noises.
“Huh,” said Brighton.
Then he yawned, looking every bit his mother’s son.
Removing Ezra’s harness took a bit of work, but soon enough the thing was accomplished. Ezra took off not long after with a promise to send postcards. It was sad to go him go. He was a good sort of dragon, Brighton decided.
He turned and looked at his home, squinted at its lines and angles in the dark. It seemed strange. Almost unfamiliar.
The guards at the front gate finally noticed them and came running up. Chloe was on guard instantly, but Brighton spoke quickly and got her to lower her broadsword just in time.
And before Brighton could say, “We’ll tell everyone we’re here tomorrow,” one of the guards hurried off to wake the king and queen. Then lights were coming on everywhere and people were rushing out into the courtyard.
Brighton craned his neck to stare over the crowd of people vying for his attention. His eyes caught on Archie’s for all too brief a moment. Then something big and blond and brain-dead stepped in the way.
“Oh, Bri, hey!” exclaimed Gilbert, rushing towards him in boxers with little pink hearts all over them.
Oh, that’s right, thought Brighton, My brother, Gilbert. I had almost forgotten him. I really don’t like him. Funny how Archie had made even the worst things in his life seem trivial.
Then his Welcome Home Celebration began. It lasted much longer than Brighton wanted.
Archie had been put in a room so far from his own that he practically needed a map to even get to him. Chloe, meanwhile, had been placed in a room right next to his. A mere day had passed since his return and already certain changes were making themselves clear. His father, in particular, was acting like a different man entirely.
And speaking of his father, the big man stood, tapped his glass with his fork, and began a speech.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Today, we celebrate the return of my son, Prince Brighton the Wise. You know him, I think, as the savior of La Brea! He also happens to be the author of the definitive work on ancient languages. He signed the copy he gave me!
“This day, we are fortunate to be present for yet another of his triumphs! He has returned from the Enchanted Forest with Princess Chloe! Her curse has been broken!”
There was applause and cheering. Chloe stood dutifully and waved.
“Actually, I am queen,” she said, but no one paid too much attention. Meanwhile, Malcolm was beaming at Brighton.
“Why, it’s just like that time I defeated that — ” began Gilbert, standing as if to give a speech, but the king gave him a glare worthy of Brighton.
“Oh, sit down!” he said. Gilbert quickly sat down.
The king said, “Today is Brighton’s day! In fact, I might just declare it a holiday. Prince Brighton Day! I like the sound of that.”
There was more applause and cheering. Brighton’s cheeks flamed. He looked to Archie and there was such warmth in his eyes that a rumble of distant thunder echoed through the castle.
“Strange weather!” boomed the king, even louder than the thunder. Then he laughed it off and finished his speech with a pronouncement that instantly caused extreme amounts of panic and joy and confusion.
“As a father, I couldn’t be prouder! As a king, I am ecstatic to see the joining of the kingdoms of La Cienega and El Segundo. The marriage of Prince Brighton to Princess Chloe will bring joy to all of us!”
Brighton felt exactly as if a horse thief had just sliced a chunk out of him. He knew the feeling, and this was exactly what it felt like, minus the blood.
Both Chloe and Archie were looking at him. Chloe’s pretty face was a question, Archie’s was murderous rage.
“Grumble, grumble,” said Brighton.
After the celebration dinner, Brighton ran away. He literally ran. He used every trick he knew from a boyhood spent sneaking in and out of the castle to get away unseen. His heart was racing out of control.
He stood in the tallest tower of the castle, glad to have escaped all the well-wishers. A familiar kind of tension was growing inside him, making his stomach clench and his head throb. It was the same kind that came whenever he had to hear the Ballad of Brighton the Wise. Whenever he met someone from La Brea and they ran up to him grinning, all emotional and grateful. The attention was unwanted.
But his father’s speech; that rare, proud look in his mother’s eyes — ahh, now that. That was different somehow.
He couldn’t describe what he was feeling. He couldn’t call it happiness. That wasn’t it. It wasn’t anything like how he felt when he was with Archie. He wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be or not. Happiness was handsome Archie being ridiculous and making him laugh, buying him churros and kissing him awake.
Perhaps he felt satisfied. He’d wanted to prove to everyone that he could do something heroic, as well as or better than Gilbert. And he had done that. To a degree. With a considerable amount of help. But he’d had help, which meant he wasn’t alone anymore. And that was something, too.
He plopped down on the stone, wrapped his arms around his legs and thought about the road leading to this moment. Fact: his parents had sent him on this quest because it was tradition. Not only had they not expected him to rescue Chloe, they hadn’t cared if he did one way or the other. Conclusion: it didn’t matter because he didn’t matter to them.
He wasn’t handsome; he wasn’t strong; he wasn’t extraordinary. He certainly wasn’t a good person. Most days, he didn’t actually feel very wise. But now everyone was so proud of him. Now they were looking forward to his marriage. And it wasn’t as if marriage to Chloe hadn’t been in his plans. But then he’d had Archie. His plans had changed.
If he told his father to shove his ideas of absorbing an ancient, enchanted kingdom via marriage, nothing would change. The sun would still rise in the sky; Gilbert would still be the favorite son; Brighton would spend the rest of his life alone.
Because Archie would tire of him, just as everyone else eventually tired of him. What did he have to offer? Archie could have his pick of lovers. Archie would realize this, too, sooner or later. And then what?
The thought of growing old with nothing but the memory of his time with Archie to keep him company was what decided the whole thing for him.
Decision made, Brighton pulled a bottle of Figueroan Scotch from its hiding place under a loose stone. It was a deadly shade of orange. Legend said it melted your bones from the inside out if you drank too much.
Then, for the first time in his life, Brighton the Wise went about the business of getting blind, stinking, drunk.
He padded barefoot to the door and pulled it open. The scrawny lush outside was just recognizable as Brighton. He slumped against the door frame as if his bones had gone liquid and could no longer support him.
“Figueroan Scotch,” Archie said.
The smell coming off Brighton made Archibald’s nose try to run away from his face. Brighton was drunk. Very drunk.
“Hi,” breathed Brighton. He tripped through the open door and instantly wrapped his arms around Archibald.
He kissed him hard, rubbed against him sensually. Figueroan Scotch was not a taste he was used to on Brighton’s lips. He pushed the door closed and deftly locked it with one hand. The other hand cupped the back of Brighton’s head. The kiss was desperate, open-mouthed and wet. It took a second for Archie to realize that some of that was tears. Archie frowned.
Brighton broke the kiss long enough to catch his wrists, tug him towards the big bed. The scotch made him seem to unravel onto the bed like a ribbon. Then his skinny arms reached up and pulled Archie down on top of him. He spread his legs, pushed his hips up into Archie’s, and did it all without breaking the kiss. His long fingers were everywhere, squeezing his ass one minute and tugging on his pajama bottoms the next. Then he was undoing the buttons on his own shirt and grabbing Archie’s hand. He placed it on his bared chest.
“Yes, yes,” he slurred, “touch me.”
And while everything felt amazing, Archie broke the kiss. It took all his willpower, but he did. There was a childish look of disappointment on Brighton’s face. His hands were still moving, still demanding.
Archie effortlessly caught them and pinned them above his head. Brighton strained against his hold.
“Please, Archie — ” Brighton moaned, but Archie interrupted.
“Please, what? Please make love to you one last time?” Archie said in a voice that was hard edged and dangerous. The look on his face was almost feral.
Brighton stilled. His eyes were wide in surprise and maybe even fear. Archie released his hands and scooted back, watched angrily as Brighton sat up and tugged his shirt flaps closed. He hunched in on himself a little and only spared a quick glance to the side at Archie.
“Don’t think I don’t know what goodbye tastes like, Brighton,” he said.
“Not ‘goodbye,'” Brighton argued. “Just…an end to this. We’ll be friends. We’ll see each other at…birthdays and…coronations. I’d like you to be there. At the wedding I mean.”
Archie cursed. He stood, ran his hands through his hair in frustration. “Dammit!” he shouted and didn’t care when Brighton flinched. He paced away from the bed, his back to Brighton.
“And has this been part of your precious plan from the beginning?” he spat.
“I…in some ways…”
“So then what was I?”
“An accident?” Brighton said, looking up at him from beneath his lashes.
Archie almost, almost gasped aloud. Instead, he pushed the hurt so far beneath the anger that he didn’t feel it at all. He wanted to hurt something. He wanted to scream.
He took a deep breath and turned back to look at Brighton’s glassy-eyed confusion, his swollen lips.
“What changed?” whispered Archie. “Between finding Chloe and now, what changed?”
“Everything!” Brighton cried. “Everything changed, okay? Did you see the look on my father’s face?” he shouted, arms spread wide. “I outsmarted a Sphinx! I’ve saved his kingdom from financial ruin twice and he couldn’t care less! But when I showed up with Chloe, he…he was proud of me! He’s never looked at me like that before. Did you hear his speech? Don’t you understand?”
Archie was practically shaking in rage. “I understand,” he said. “I understand that you’re giving up on us so you can win the approval of an old man too foolish to recognize what I’ve seen all along.”
Brighton winced, but pressed on. He stood, moved closer to Archie, but not too close. “Please don’t make this harder than it has to be. I’m marrying Chloe. I’ll be a good husband. And you’ll just confuse things. You’ll complicate something that could be quite simple.”
“‘It was fun while it lasted’?” Archie snapped. He smiled then, but it wasn’t a joyful smile. “So this is what you want? You want to marry her?”
“Then I wish you all the best. I’m sure you’ll be very happy together.” He looked out the window again. “Look at that,” he said, “the clouds are gone. I can see the stars.”
Brighton’s back stiffened. His mouth parted slightly. Archie turned to stare at him for a minute longer, perhaps committing the look on his face to memory.
Then he dressed quickly, gave a courtly bow, and left Brighton standing alone in the center of his guest room.
He walked calmly to the stables. Valiant was glad to see him. He ignored Beelzebub.
“Come on, old friend,” he said. He rode through the night. In the morning, the sun came up bright and hot. A true summer’s day. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen one.
He swooped in and sat beside Brighton who was still sitting in the center of the guest room Archie had occupied for far too short a time.
“You can still fix this,” he said after ten minutes of silence from Brighton.
Brighton glared at him. “So you know about me and Archie? Prince Archibald the Mag-fucking-nificent.”
Malcolm nodded. “Billarbold had a prophetic vision.”
Brighton laughed humorlessly. “And what exactly did he say when he had this vision?”
Malcolm pressed a long finger to his chin. “Let me see. I believe it was, ‘Control, alt, delete. Press up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A.’ I just knew you were in trouble, then,” said Malcolm.
Brighton sighed exasperatedly. “Malcolm, fess up: How much of what Billarbold says do you actually understand?”
“About thirty-five percent,” said Malcolm.
“Thought so,” said Brighton. Then he aimlessly poked at the ground. “I can’t…be happy, you know,” he said.
“I just don’t think you know how,” said Malcolm. He placed a comforting hand on Brighton’s shoulder. “Do you love him?”
“Yes,” admitted Brighton. “Isn’t that awful?”
“Worst thing ever,” agreed Malcolm.
“What’s the point of loving someone if you can’t be with them?”
Malcolm shrugged. “I think the point is finding a way to be together anyway.”
“And if it’s impossible?” asked Brighton, perhaps with hope in his voice.
“You’re wise and he’s magnificent. How impossible could it be?”
Brighton laughed and it was a surprise to both of them. Brighton felt the pendant around his neck as it turned warm. Outside, the sun suddenly disappeared behind clouds that hadn’t been there a moment before. The smile fell off of Brighton’s face. The look of hope was gone completely, as if it had never been.
“No, Malcolm. Some things really are just impossible,” he said.
But the truth was that Gilbert was rubbish at spelling. It became clear after the first dozen invitations that Brighton examined that Gilbert could not spell “Brighton.” One variation had, for some inexplicable reason, several q’s and a v. Gilbert was very proud of them and Brighton broke his heart throwing them away.
“There is no w in my name,” he explained, the tic beneath his eye worse than ever.
As a last ditch effort, Brighton wrote it down in big letters on a big piece of paper for Gilbert to copy. This made no difference as Gilbert continued to add letters and even invent a few new ones. Finally, Brighton had Gilbert modify the invitation so that Brighton’s name wasn’t even on it. As such, the invitation that arrived on the desk of the greatest painter in the world, Francisco de Leon, read:
“No, no,” he muttered to himself. There were tears in his eyes. Then a surge of determination came.
“No, I will not let this happen,” he said. “I will not lose him to some ensorcelled princess!”
Within a few hours, he was rumbling towards La Cienega in his best carriage. He was a man on a mission. A mission based on a terrible misunderstanding.
A terrible misunderstanding caused by a prince with poor spelling. Poor spelling, perhaps, caused by multiple blows to the head. No one was exactly sure.
After being back for a few days, he was able to admit that he should have gone on a trip somewhere else. To any kingdom where Brighton wasn’t a national hero. There were paintings and statues of him everywhere. And some bard had added additional verses to “The Ballad of Brighton the Wise” to include his rescue of Chloe. The song was exactly a half an hour long now. Archie was certain that Brighton would snarl nasty things at anyone who attempted to perform it in his presence.
But the song was being played everywhere. There were remix versions with rap interludes. And, oh! How Brighton would have complained about that!
It was shocking how much Archie missed him.
His sadness translated into vehemence — when the wedding invitation arrived, he tore it to pieces. He wouldn’t go. No one could make him!
That night, he had terrible dreams. Brighton was running away from him, up winding steps in a tower as tall as the sky. When Brighton stopped at one of hundreds of landings, he looked back at Archie — always ten steps behind him — and the look on his face was one of terror.
Archie awoke feeling hollow inside. Even in his waking hours he saw it: Brighton afraid of him, Brighton running away from him.
He began to idly consider taking a trip. He could always go back to the rainbow bridge. Perhaps the Fairy Queen would want him since Brighton clearly didn’t.
Then she went back to polishing her giant sword.
That was…terribly practical, Brighton realized. Marriage hadn’t been about love for the people of El Segundo. Marriage had been about empire-building. And, really, how different were her ideas from his father’s?
He took to avoided her as much as possible. She was nice. His parents adored her.
“She beat Gilbert in a fight,” exclaimed his father. “It wasn’t even a contest! Har, har!”
And she was beautiful and smart. She was the perfect ending to his plan. She was the icing on the cake.
She wasn’t Archie.
Some of the satisfaction he felt at his parents’ newfound love for him started to fade. Archie had told him he was brave before he rescued Chloe. Archie had loved him before he rescued Chloe. Archie had been willing to die for him from the start.
Brighton tried to keep thoughts like that at bay. He failed every time. He distracted himself by taking up his old duties. The treasurers were so happy to see him they threw him a party and baked him a cake. It was a much nicer party than his grand celebration had been.
“Oh, it’s so good you’re back!” said one teary treasurer. “While you were gone, your father started buying these things through the mail. It was awful! He bought this blanket with sleeves and this grill that drains fat and this set of really sharp knives that can cut a tin can. Oh, it was all too much! Finally that jester, Wilbur the Wondrous, clunked him over the head with a frying pan. He saved the kingdom!”
Brighton considered this. “Huh,” he said. “Wondrous after all.”
Luckily, despite his father’s late night shopping habits, the coffers were in fine shape. For once, Brighton almost wanted something to happen. Anything. Some disaster or calamity so that he could have a challenge to focus on, some puzzle to solve.
In the evenings, he sat with Malcolm in the tallest tower and looked at the stars. Malcolm was always good company.
“You’re being very foolish for someone called Brighton the Wise,” Malcolm remarked after several hours of silence.
“I know that, dammit,” Brighton replied.
He was getting married to the most famous and beautiful woman in the world. The sky was so clear you could see straight to heaven.
He didn’t care so much, in fact, that he went riding. Valiant was well-rested and ready to get out of the stable and Archie was mad enough to just keep going forever, to ride to the end of the earth. He rode the horse hard, thrilled at the world zipping past him in a blur.
The landscape changed from the lowlands at the heart of La Brea to the hilly terrain closer to the border of La Cienega. He slowed near the border of the two kingdoms when a massive shadow passed overhead, blocking out the sun.
Ezra landed hard, but as graceful as a cat.
“And what have we here?” inquired the dragon, reclining on one elbow and twitching his tail from side to side. Valiant tossed his head, impatient to move again.
“Hi,” Archie said, petulantly. “Where did you bugger off to?”
“Cruise. Drinks with little umbrellas. Awesome,” enthused Ezra. He gave Archie a souvenir cup made out of a coconut.
“Thank you,” said Archie flatly.
“Oh, someone’s grumpy,” Ezra said with a raised brow. “What did you do wrong?”
Archie laughed a dry, vicious laugh. “Hah! Me? What did I do wrong? Why don’t you go ask your precious Brighton what he did wrong!”
Ezra looked at his claws daintily. “He dumped you, huh?”
“For Chloe!” shrieked Archie. He dismounted and plopped down on the ground in front of Ezra, elbows on his spread knees and his head on his hands. “He’s going to marry her! To impress his idiot father. She, like, a thousand years old! She doesn’t even speak English! She doesn’t know him like I know him! He doesn’t love her. And it’s not fair,” he added and crossed his arms. He looked like nothing so much as a six-year-old boy.
Ezra seemed to consider this. “So let me get this straight,” he said slowly. “You let him get away?”
Archie felt his color rise. “Aren’t you listening? He didn’t want me! He sent me away!”
“And you let him?”
“What do you mean let him? He picked someone else!”
Ezra leaned down low, his big, smoking nose just inches away from Archie’s face.
“And you let him?” he repeated, harsh and slow.
Archie exhaled and his shoulders slumped. “What was I supposed to do?” he asked softly.
Not unkindly Ezra said, “You were supposed to fight for him, Archibald. You were supposed to fight.”
“Fight for him,” repeated Archie. “Hah.”
“You’re a knight, aren’t you? Isn’t that what you do?”
“But not like this. I fight monsters. Ogres. Trolls. Dragons.” He gave Ezra a quick look. “No offense.”
“He’s not on the list of things I fight.”
“He’s the scrawniest guy I’ve ever seen. You could fight him and win,” Ezra remarked.
“Well, yeah, but it’s not that kind of fight, is it? I have to talk to him and he’s stubborn and…irascible.”
“Thanks. It’s just…he makes everything so hard! He’s got me all confused.” He threw his hands into the air. “He’s a complicated, gloomy, horrible person! I can’t even!”
Ezra looked lost. “Can’t even what?”
“Never mind! You just don’t understand! I’m magnificent and it didn’t do me any good! He…doesn’t want me.”
“Hey, shhh. There, there. Shhh. Hey now,” said Ezra. He tried to pat Archie on the shoulder, but the claws made it a very difficult endeavor. He settled on nudging him as gently as he could with his snout. “Come on, girlfriend. Just listen: forget about all that. Forget about how mad you are. Just think about this for a minute. Think about a future where you didn’t even try, where you just let him throw you out and you went like a kicked dog. Will you be able to forgive yourself if you let him get away?”
Archie felt ice shoot through his veins. “Well, no. Of course not. But you make it sound easy.”
“It is easy,” said Ezra. “I guarantee you it’s easier than breaking an ancient curse.”
He glanced behind him and there was the painting, secure in a tube for transport, but he could see it if he closed his eyes: seashells and ermine and lots and lots of nudity.
He would make it to La Cienega in time. He would!
He wore high-collared regalia with heavy golden braids draping at each shoulder. His hair was brushed back and held in place with a golden clip, and his shoes were so shiny he could see his face in them. He guessed that, elsewhere in the castle, Chloe was disturbed by the fluffy white dress she was being forced to wear and all the maids it took to get her into it. He’d tried to explain the tradition to her, but she’d seemed unimpressed and confused by the necessity.
“Don’t we just say, ‘Now we married,’ and then go conquer? This is how it is done, yes?”
“No,” Brighton had sighed. “I’m afraid things are much more complicated. How do you feel about choosing flowers?” Chloe had not liked choosing flowers.
Brighton stared out his bedroom window at the carriages arriving below.
At a quarter to two, Malcolm knocked and drifted in without waiting for a reply. He brushed imaginary lint off of Brighton’s regalia, then caught him by the wrist and dragged him out of the castle and down to the square. The cathedral was drenched in flowers and lace. Malcolm had charmed birds to carry a banner that read, “Cungradulashions Prinse Brivvvalq!” It was a very sparkly banner.
Brighton pressed at the tic beneath his eye, willed it to stop.
“You let Gilbert make the banner?”
“He asked very sweetly. Now, come along. We can’t have you late to the biggest mistake of your life,” said Malcolm.
Brighton grumbled and followed after him. Gilbert was just outside on the steps.
“…and I put the glitter on myself!” he was saying when Brighton and Malcolm arrived. “Oh, hey! It’s the birthday boy!”
“Wedding,” snarled Brighton.
“It’s the wedding boy!”
“Don’t tax yourself, dear brother,” Malcolm said, and patted Gilbert on the head affectionately. Brighton cried a little inside when he recalled that, by virtue of being perceived as being good at everything, Gilbert was his Best Man.
“Please be my Best Man, instead,” Brighton begged Malcolm.
“But I’m giving the homily,” Malcolm sing-songed. Then he all but pushed Brighton into the cathedral.
If the outside had been decorated to excess, the interior was a decorator’s drug-induced wet dream. The bows had bows. The garland had garland.
Brighton shuddered. “You let Gilbert decorate, too?”
“He has a knack,” said Malcolm dreamily.
The pews were filled with guests that Brighton didn’t want to talk to. Most of them were related to him. His mother was already crying. She did this while yawning every few minutes. That was perhaps a talent, Brighton decided. He wasn’t sure.
His father, the king, was easy to keep track of; his voice filled the tall church, made the stained glass rattle.
“Gilbert should try to have a wedding as fine and grand as this! Grander! Finer!”
It was like a whirlwind to Brighton. He felt hot and anxious and before he knew it someone was playing the organ (badly) and Chloe was being marched down the aisle by Malcolm.
She looked lovely, but she kind of…stomped down the aisle. Brighton was just thinking that she would have maybe been more comfortable in her armor, when everything went terribly, terribly wrong.
“Hey, girl, hey!” shouted Ezra the Dragon. “What’s shakin’? We here to crash yo’ wedding, girlfriend!”
“We?” Brighton repeated, then dropped his eyes from the dragon’s head to the dragon’s feet.
“Dammit,” Brighton mumbled.
“I object!” screamed Archie from between Ezra’s massive feet.
Brighton smacked his forehead with more force than necessary. “Ouch,” he said, and then turned to Gilbert. He peeked at him from between his fingers. “Did he really just crash my wedding with a dragon and say ‘I object’?”
“He did,” answered Gilbert.
“Oh, damn,” said Brighton.
Archibald was resplendent in that damned fairy-gifted golden armor (because why would he lie about something like that?) and Brighton wanted to find that fairy kingdom and do worse than just burn it to the ground. What that might be, he didn’t know, but he was creative. He’d think of something. He knew the location of every lake in the world. He’d start in the south and work his way north.
The idea made him smile a crazed little smile. Lightning sizzled its way across the clear blue sky.
“Brighton!” Archie shouted. He walked up the aisle bravely, perfectly comfortable with everyone staring at him. “I won’t let you marry her.”
“Oh, good heavens, why not?” Brighton groaned.
“I’m in love with you.”
This caused an uproar louder than even the king could boom over. All the chattering court ladies gasped and leaned in close to each other to talk well above what one would call a whisper.
“How romantic!” cooed Ezra.
Brighton scowled. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he answered.
“Silence, silence!” shouted the king, proving to everyone that his usual booming voice was what he considered a polite whisper.
The whole court went silent and stared at the king — that was, when they weren’t darting looks at the giant dragon nestled in the nave.
“Sir Archibald! Can you explain yourself! What is this all about!” bellowed the king.
There were certainly questions in there, but Brighton couldn’t hear the question marks at their ends. It was all exclamation points.
“Just as I said, Your Majesty. I’m not going to allow your son to marry Chloe. She’s a nice girl, but she’s not right for Brighton.”
“This is all a little strange, dear,” drawled Brighton’s mother.
“I’ll say,” said Gilbert. “If the wedding’s off, what do I do with the rings? I know some orphans who might benefit from them,” he added.
“There wasn’t a single prophecy about this,” said Malcolm.
“Oh, everything is falling into place! Yes, yes! Bwa-ha-ha!” said Mark. Brighton had invited the Cutlery to the wedding.
“Feelers on my dingo! Man the Cheese!” said Billarbold with his finger high in the air.
Malcolm nodded importantly. “That’s true,” he said. “You’re absolutely right. And, actually, Brighton, I have to object as well.”
“Stop pretending like you understand that batty old fart!” shouted Brighton.
“Brou le avflll smeee fraakkk?” said Chloe.
Brighton rubbed his temple and squeezed his eyes tight. He decided that he would take back all the mean things he said about the fairy kingdom if only their ridiculous rainbow bridge would show up right then and take him away from this nonsense.
The king demanded, “Brighton! Were you aware of this!”
“Er?” Brighton said. Because he was the wisest man in the kingdom.
“Can’t you explain yourself!”
“Father, please do try to use proper punctuation,” Brighton begged and rubbed harder at his temple.
The king turned beet-red. “What in the devil are you on about, now!”
Just then, the doors of the church flew open again and in stomped Francisco De Leon.
“I object!” shouted the great painter.
“Oh, form a queue!” shouted the priest. He plopped himself down on the altar and took an antacid.
Francisco De Leon stormed up the aisle. “Prince Gilbert, please don’t marry her!”
Gilbert looked flummoxed. “Frankie? What are you doing here, you old scamp! Marriage? Me! I’m not getting married!”
Francisco De Leon looked suddenly radiantly happy. “You’re not?”
“No! It’s my stupid brother,” he said and jerked a thumb at Brighton, who was hyperventilating. “He found some girl. I dunno. I wasn’t really paying attention. Anyway! Hey! You look great? Lost some weight?”
“All for you! I adore you!”
“You and everyone else,” Gilbert agreed and ran his fingers through his hair. “Did I tell you about the Fairy Queen? She’s says I’m the sun in the sky. I’ll marry her eventually.”
“Nooooo!” wailed Francisco De Leon.
Brighton now felt like an entire marching band had moved into his head and they simply wouldn’t stop playing loudly and stomping about.
“Who’s the little man in the little hat!” boomed the king. “Why is he carrying around a painting! Brighton! What is going on!”
“Punctuation!” snarled Brighton.
“What are you talking about!”
“Never mind,” Brighton said. “It’s all a bit moot as I think I’m going to faint.”
And then, because he was very rarely wrong, he promptly fainted. As the excessively ornate ceiling of the cathedral faded away before his eyes — then was blocked entirely by Archie’s handsome face peering down at him with worry — he realized that Archie was going to pick him up and carry him somewhere like some damn princess in a fairy story.
“How romantic!” he heard Ezra gush just as Archie’s strong, golden arms came around him.
This is the worst day of my life, thought Brighton, and that was really saying something.
After all, there had been that bloody Sphinx.
So, yes, still the cover of a romance novel. All he needed was to hold still with some fainting virgin on a white cover with the words “Master of Desire” or something printed above his head. It would sell millions of copies.
Brighton realized that he was having hysterics.
“Are you okay?” asked Archie. “You’ve been laughing for about three minutes.”
“Oh, that’s just because everything is so terribly funny. Terribly, terribly funny. Did they sew you into those pants?”
“Yes,” Archie said seriously.
“So!” said Archie, too chipper for someone who had just ruined his life. “Are you going to spend forever with me instead? Chloe says it’s okay.”
“You can’t understand a thing she says! How do you know?”
“I read between the lines. She made some appropriate gestures with her fingers and I thought it all sounded pretty good. That girl has a filthy imagination. I like her.”
“Archie, listen to me very carefully. We agreed that I would marry Chloe and that we were over, right?”
“Right,” agreed Archie easily.
“So what happened?” asked Brighton.
“Ah,” said Archie, “I changed my mind.”
Brighton felt the muscle beneath his eye going at record speeds. “Well, that’s all well and good then! You change your mind, and I’m left being the guy who almost married a princess with an enchanted kingdom and acres and acres of fertile farmland!”
“She was a queen. And you don’t love her,” said Archie.
“And you don’t love me!” screamed Brighton. “I’m not nice. I’m not…good. You can’t change me into someone bright and sunny.”
“I don’t want to change you,” said Archie.
“Stop lying to me! You don’t even like me. I don’t even like me,” he said and then jerked in shock at what he’d just said. He went suddenly quiet.
Archie sat in front of him looking into his wide, black eyes. Very slowly he placed his hands on Brighton’s cheeks. “I know you don’t like yourself. I don’t know if you’ll ever get over it. But I need you to believe me: I like you just the way you are. I’m in love with everything you are. I interrupted your wedding so I could have you for myself. I want to spend the rest of my life in a waterproof castle making you laugh. We can move to a desert. We’ll buy stock in umbrellas. I don’t care. Whatever it takes, okay? Whatever it takes I’ll do it.”
Brighton sniffed. Just once. Then his perpetual mask of emotionless calm was back. And maybe only Archie saw the cracks.
“A waterproof castle?”
“I’m taking a page from your book. Dreaming big.”
“Hrmph,” said Brighton. He looked out the window where gray clouds were swirling in the sky. He sighed. “Kiss me,” he ordered.
Archie leaned forward slowly and pressed his lips to Brighton’s. He kept his eyes open to watch as Brighton’s fluttered closed.
The rain began pouring instantly.
“Yes,” Archibald said and pushed Brighton to the bed, thrilled when Brighton threw his arms around him. He moved down to suck at his favorite part on Brighton’s neck, right behind his ear. Thunder growled in the distance.
“Tell me more,” Archie murmured. “Tell me how much you like it.”
Brighton moaned and lightning turned the world electric white. The weather was answering for Brighton, responding to every touch of Archie’s hands, every lick of his tongue.
The wind howled when he shoved his hands under Brighton’s regalia to stroke his thin chest.
“It’s my wedding day!” protested Brighton. “We can’t just — ”
“Bang right here? Yeah, we really can,” argued Archie. Then he went about proving himself right.
“We might have to work on that waterproof castle sooner rather than later,” he remarked. “The necklace doesn’t seem to work as well as it used to,” he said. The thing was so hot against his skin that Archie had gotten out his very sharp needle and some thread and sewn a little pouch to wrap around it. It seemed that being a knight made one very domestic.
“That’s because I make you very happy,” Archie said with an arrogant smirk. “I’m Magnificent, you know.”
“Ass,” Brighton said and punched him in the shoulder.
“You hit — ” like a girl, he was about to say, but then he remembered Chloe and amended, “pretty weakly.”
Brighton was gearing up for a colorful and creative retort when there was a knock at the door.
“Go away,” he shouted. He was far too comfortable in bed with Archie to answer the door.
“Brighton! Open the door,” whined his brother.
“Oh? Is that you, Malcolm?” drawled Brighton.
“Yes! It’s me, Malcolm!”
“Hi, Malcolm. Go away, Malcolm,” sing-songed Brighton.
“But you have a visitor! She turned the guards who tried to remove her into fat cats and your dragon into a mouse and threatened to do more damage unless you come down and see her!”
Brighton wiggled a finger in one ear, then the other. His hearing seemed fine.
“Does this menace have a name?” asked Brighton.
“Elda the Mystical!” said Malcolm. “Oh, please do come down!”
“You’re the greatest wizard in the world,” Brighton said when he finally opened the door, fifteen minutes later. He was fully dressed, but looking very displeased about it. Archie was tugging on the last of his clothing and he looked equally annoyed.
“Well, yeah,” Malcolm agreed.
“And you couldn’t handle one tiny witch?”
“She’s horrifying,” Malcolm said, white as a sheet.
Brighton sighed, grabbed Archibald’s hand and dragged him down to the throne room to meet Elda.
“Well, well! There you are!” grumbled Elda. “And I can see this damn storm is your doing,” she said with a raised brow and a pointed look at Archie’s un-tucked shirt. He hastily straightened his clothing.
“Elda,” he said with his face flaming. “Good to see you again.”
“Hmph,” she said.
It was then that Brighton noticed the stooped, wrinkled woman standing behind Elda. She wore thick glasses and checkered kitchen apron. Her gray hair was pulled back in a tight bun.
“Elda,” Brighton said, “who is that?”
“Ah, this?” said Elda with a wicked smile. She pulled the little woman forward. “Brighton the Wise, meet Minute the Lavender.”
There was a collective gasp in the throne room. The fat cat guards stopped chasing Ezra the Mouse. They all gasped, too.
“How is that possible?” asked Archie. “She’s been missing for years!”
“Well, I figured it out after I had a look at your Prince Brighton,” explained Elda. “Minute went missing the minute (Ha, ha! Minute, minute! There’s a joke!) the Sphinx disappeared. That curse she put on Brighton was a doozy. She never expected anyone to beat the Sphinx, you see. The minute (Ho, ho!) he did, it triggered a curse too big even for her to contain. Her gotcha had a gotcha. Brighton took the brunt of the curse, and she got hit with the backlash. She lost her memory, forgot who she was.”
Brighton shook his head, too shocked to do much else. He looked again at the tiny, kindly looking woman that was all that was left of Minute the Lavender. It was difficult to believe that this was the woman who had ruined his life. Ruined Chloe’s whole kingdom. She seemed so harmless.
“Okay, Minute,” said Elda sternly, like a disappointed school teacher, “look at what you did. This man’s suffered quite a lot. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I’m very sorry, sir,” said Minute the Lavender. “Elda says I did some harm. I’m sure I don’t know what I did, but I hope you can forgive an old woman.”
Brighton nodded dumbly. He didn’t know what else to do.
Elda shook her head. “I found her playing grandma in a little village south of Silverlake. She’s still just as powerful, but the witch she was isn’t home anymore. She’s been a boon to that village, making medicines and helping the poor. She’s changed. She’s really Minute the Lavender; she just doesn’t remember.”
“But then what good is she?” Archie asked. “How can she undo what she did to Brighton?”
“Well, she can’t really. But I might be able to root around in that hollow head of hers and find the spell that done this to your prince.”
“Oh. Now?” asked Brighton, suddenly fearful. His curse defined him. It was him. What would he do without it?
“Perhaps we should think this over!” he said.
Archie smiled, caught his hand and tugged him over to Elda. “Shh, Bri. It’s okay. Let it go.”
“We doing this or not?” snapped Elda.
“I would be so grateful,” Archie said and stepped back. Brighton’s fingers slipped from his grasp and Brighton flailed after him.
“Archie, wait! I’m not…”
“Come on,” Archie said, serious and assured. “Dream big.”
Brighton looked like he wanted to argue, but then Elda caught one of his clammy hands. Then she took one of Minute’s wrinkled ones and placed it over Brighton’s. She swayed from side to side and hummed a little. There was a shimmering light surrounding Minute the Lavender and Brighton, blue and orange at turns.
The orange light turned to a terrible, violent red which flickered as it moved to surround Brighton. It gathered just before where his heart was.
Brighton gasped in pain and Archie lurched toward him, but Elda held up a hand.
“Let it work,” she commanded. With effort, Archie stood back and watched that cloud of light shift and change color. A range of emotions played out across Brighton’s face. Anger, confusion, fear, sympathy. Pop, pop, pop, the changes came. Cunning to restlessness, then boredom to irritation. And at last, his face became a perfect mask of joy. His smile spread and spread.
From outside came a monstrous, echoing crack!
The sun burst through the clouds so quickly it was blinding, a lemony golden reminder that it was only midday, not midnight as the storm had made it seem. Steam rose from the ground as the world was superheated by the sudden warmth of the summer sun.
Brighton sagged forward and Archie raced to catch him before he smacked hard into the floor. Elda looked on, shaking her head in amusement. She looked down. There was a mouse tugging on her skirt.
“Oh, fine,” she said and then Ezra was back, looking mad enough to burn the castle down. The fat cats went poof! and then the guards were scurrying away from Ezra, who was determined to get some of his own back.
“Oh, don’t you dare run away from me!” shouted the dragon and bounded after them.
Then, satisfied that her work was done, Elda smiled at the princes, and led Minute the Lavender away. “Take care of him,” she shouted over her shoulder. It wasn’t clear if she was addressing Archie or Brighton.
Minute herself turned and said, “Sorry!” one last time and seemed to really mean it. Then the two witches were gone.
Archie knelt on the ground and held tight to Brighton who was looking very uncertain.
“How do you feel?” Archie whispered.
“Different,” Brighton said.
“Maybe,” Brighton admitted. He wasn’t really sure. He hadn’t had happiness without misery following on its tail in so long that he didn’t know how to recognize it.
“It’s maybe related to happy. A distant cousin of happy,” he said.
“I can make you happy,” Archie whispered and took his hands.
“I…I think you already do,” Brighton admitted, blushing. He got to his feet carefully with a lot of help from Archie, who pulled him close. He stared down at Brighton with his emerald eyes.
“Now will you tell me?”
Brighton sighed, rolled his eyes. “I love you. You’re a smug, arrogant asshole. And I love you.”
“And you’re a snotty, superior, grump. And I’ll love you forever,” Archibald said and kissed him.
Brighton leaned hard into the kiss, wound his arms around Archie’s neck. When they finally pulled apart, they were both a little dazed. But Brighton recovered quickly.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
“Now,” said Brighton “I’d like to go on a trip.”
“Oh, to where?” Archie asked. He took his hand and they began walking together.
“I’d like to tour the lakes. Every lake,” he said breezily. Not a care in the world. Nothing up his sleeve, no sir!
“Why the sudden interest in lakes?”
“Oh, it’s just that I find them terribly interesting,” Brighton lied, an easy smile on his face.
Archie wasn’t over the novelty of Brighton smiling. He leaned over and kissed him again. Brighton stood on tiptoe, wrapped his arms around Archie’s neck and smiled some more into the kiss. He was truly, truly happy for the first time in his life and it was the most amazing feeling. Things were looking up.
At that exact moment, far away — across an ocean and to the west — an icicle suddenly formed on a cactus in the middle of the desert.
As for Brighton and Archie, perhaps, just perhaps, they lived happily ever after.
See this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.