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Authors: Charlotte Rahn-Lee

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BOOK: Royal Quarry
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Still, Manning’s lack of solicitude today upset him. Albert knew he was giving the man no reason to show him any friendliness or affection. Albert himself had done his best to reassert his rank, to be formal and professional with his guard. It was better this way, easier to think of this betrayal as by his father, not his friend. All the same, he wished Manning would break down the wall Albert had built between them.
He takes orders much too well
, thought Albert,
no wonder my father favors him
.

Manning kept the pace swift, sometimes turning around to offer deferential yet insistent encouragement to Albert when he started to lag. By the time they stopped for lunch Albert was completely exhausted. He felt worse than he had on any of their previous days of hiking, and he fell asleep briefly while Manning found them some food.

They didn’t linger long over their meal, and by mid afternoon, as the sun was starting to get low in the sky, Albert could barely stay on his feet, much less continue hiking over the uneven ground. Manning took his small pack from him, hoisting it onto his shoulder with his own, which helped Albert keep going a little longer.

“Aren’t we in Morania by now?” Albert finally asked when Manning came back to help him over a small brook in their path.

“Almost,” said Manning, “we want to be sure to be far enough into the forest to attract their attention.”

So they kept going. But when evening truly came and the red glow faded from the sky, Albert couldn’t go any more. He sat down on the ground, drained of all energy and emotion, unable to think, unable to worry, just thankful not to be moving.

Manning turned back around, looked down at the collapsed prince, and said, “This is far enough.”

Manning began to build a fire, but Albert was asleep before it was lit.

 

 

W
HEN
Albert woke up he was alone. This surprised him. Had Manning abandoned him? Maybe he was simply off looking for food or more firewood. Albert looked around him. The sun was high in the sky. It must have been early afternoon. Why had Manning let him sleep so late?

The fire had burned down to glowing embers, and there was a cooked fish waiting for him on a spit above them. Suddenly Albert realized he was starving. He ate the fish. When he was done, Manning still hadn’t returned. He began to get angry. He had let Manning’s quiet strength seduce him—that, and his evident pleasure at Albert’s touch. Why had Manning kissed him like that if he was going to bring him to Morania? Why had he taught him so carefully to shoot an arrow if he was going to betray him? Why had he promised to be his bodyguard if he was going to abandon him? He wished he
had
gone with his cousin instead of this duplicitous guard. At least then he would have known whom he was dealing with. He was happy hating Godfried. Why did he have to hate Manning, too, now, with his large, strong hands and his scar and his stories of war?

While Albert was lost in these thoughts, he heard a voice not far away.

“Your Highness!” It was Manning. Albert jumped up and looked around. Manning was jogging through the forest towards him, excitement peeking through his serious demeanor.

“What is it?” called Albert.

“Bring your horn, and a knife.”

After they decamped Manning led him some ways through the forest to a small clearing in which lay a deer, a large stag with an impressive set of antlers, an arrow through its heart.

“That should satisfy your father, I should think,” said Manning, clearly proud of his quarry.

“So this is it,” said Albert. He was still angry although the man had done everything he’d told him to. “This is the crime I’m to offer myself up for. And I slept through it.” He would have liked to at least have a shot at the deer. There were a few flies buzzing around the arrow in the stag’s side. Manning had said he didn’t want to betray him, so why was he this excited? “You’re certainly pleased with yourself,” said Albert.

“I’m sorry, Your Highness,” said Manning. He didn’t seem very sorry. “I thought it best we get it over with as soon as possible.” Something was going on that Albert didn’t understand. What had changed Manning from the serious travel companion he was yesterday? Surely it wasn’t just the thrill of the hunt. He was friendly again. Part of Albert wanted to fall into him, hold him, bury his face Manning’s chest to escape the world. But he was still angry, and he didn’t understand what was happening.

“Blow your horn,” said Manning. “We need to dress the stag.”

Why bother?
thought Albert. The deer was going to be entirely forgotten in the international crisis that would follow. But after he blew his horn, the clear, high-pitched sound ringing in the air, he bent down to help Manning cut open his quarry.

He had to blow his horn two more times before anybody came. An hour later, after they’d removed the viscera from their kill, they finally heard dogs barking and the sound of a large party approaching them. Albert’s palms started sweating. He had been so sure of this decision to submit to his father’s plan for him that he hadn’t allowed himself to imagine this moment. He was frightened.

Manning laid his large, gentle hand on Albert’s back. Despite himself, Albert leaned back into it.

“Remember,” said Manning, “whatever happens, it’s important that
you
shot this deer.” Did Manning think he would forget that?

“Isn’t this the time that you are supposed to slip away and leave me to my fate?” asked Albert. His heart was going far too fast. He felt faint.

“I will not abandon you, Your Highness, as long as I live.”

It was everything Albert needed, that promise, and although he knew he shouldn’t believe it, shouldn’t trust this man in the moment of his betrayal, Albert reached back a hand and grabbed onto Manning. He held onto him as the hounds came bounding into the clearing, excited by the blood, and let go only as the first people arrived, because it would never do to be seen clinging to his bodyguard.

There were a lot of them, some on horseback, some on foot a little ways behind. Mostly they were wearing blue. He didn’t understand why their clothing looked so familiar. Shouldn’t Charles’ servants be in red? And then he heard a familiar voice.


You
shot
that
?” The incredulous question came from a young man on horseback, his gold-embroidered jacket making him stand out against the trees. Albert laughed out loud. It was his cousin. It was his goddamn cousin Godfried. They were not in Morania at all. Manning had taken him home.

“Yes!” Albert lied, a grin spreading over his face. “I did!”

 

 

A
LBERT
was feeling less jovial some two hours later, standing in a stately anteroom, waiting to be admitted to his father’s presence. The giddy strangeness of finding himself at home had worn off, and even Godfried’s consternation and ill-concealed jealousy failed to raise his spirits as fatigue took over. He’d ridden one of the horses back to the castle, escorted by some of the hunting party. He was thankful for the mount as his whole body ached, but he knew very well that his adventure was not yet over: he would have to go see his father. The servants had entirely taken over the further dressing and transporting of his supposed kill, so he’d had nothing to distract him from the prospect of this impending interview as he took the last, small leg of his journey home.

What was the most troubling to him was that he had completely lost track of Manning. In all the bustle that accompanied the arrival of the hunting party, the man who had been his constant companion for the past four days, who had disobeyed his command to bring him home, had vanished. Albert had been handed off into the care of other servants; now he was somebody else’s problem. Washed, pampered and dressed, waiting for his father to admit him, he could think of nothing he wanted more than Manning’s presence. Instead there were six other of his father’s guard to keep him company: two at each door, and an extra pair against the wall for good measure. Albert found himself scanning their faces, although he knew that none of them was the one he sought. Where was Manning? Was he in trouble? Had he run away? Was he being tortured by the king now? Was that what his father was so occupied with that Albert must wait in this damn anteroom?

When Albert was finally ushered into the receiving room, he was relieved to see no evidence of any such scene. Edward was standing beside his chair, casting an eye over some papers in his hand. He barely seemed to notice his son’s arrival. Albert knew that this nonchalance was affected, put on in the morning like his purple robe, some aspect of majesty meant to set you at ease, or unnerve you, depending on your character. To Albert, everything about his father was unnerving.

“I hear I am to congratulate you,” said the king, finally glancing up from his papers.

“Sir,” replied Albert, as noncommittally as he could manage. His father’s conversation was full of traps.

“I haven’t seen the animal myself, but I am told it is nearly sixty stone and with a set of antlers that should make any huntsman proud.”

A long silence followed this pronouncement as Edward waited for his son to accept the compliment, but Albert said nothing.

“Have I been misinformed?” asked the king.

“It was a large deer,” said Albert. His palms were sweating, and he hoped his father couldn’t tell how dry his mouth felt.

“Tell me how you came across it.”

Albert knew that his only chance of protecting Manning was to make it sound as if the man had done everything he could to carry out his mission but that Albert had thwarted him. Of course, the most important thing was to not betray the fact that he knew his father’s intentions. He took a deep breath.

“I’m sure you have noticed, Father, that I have not learned well the art of tracking, despite the best efforts of the many tutors you have supplied for me, and I was apprehensive at the beginning of the trip that I might wander the woods for days missing signs of deer at every tree. But I was lucky that in the first morning I found a sign, a large hoof-mark in the ground. Your man told me that it was many days old, and it would be more fruitful to move on to other parts of the wood, but I knew that I might not find another track again.” And so Albert spun a tale of how he insisted on staying put and waiting for the deer to return to this spot, not far from the castle, while Manning suggested with increasing insistence that they travel on, and how, after several days of waiting, Albert’s patience had paid off, and the magnificent stag had returned to the place where they lay in wait for it.

The king listened impassively, his silence encouraging more and more embellishments to fill the void. When it came to the part of the story where Albert was supposed to have shot the deer he drew on his experience with the doe, describing how he shifted his feet as quietly as he could to get a good stance for his shot, how he aimed, the sensation of releasing the string. But here in the story he paused, just for a second, with the arrow loose from the bow but not yet sunk in its target, to remind himself that in the fiction he was creating the arrow
did
hit home. It was during this pause that his father spoke.

“And such a good shot: straight in the heart with the first arrow. I had no idea my son was such an accomplished marksman.” His tone was casual, but his dark eyes were unrelenting as they took in the movements of every muscle in Albert’s face.

“It was a lucky shot,” Albert heard himself say.

“Come, do not be so modest! A shot like that is not made by serendipity! You are a son to boast of. The best marksman in my personal guard would be proud to have made such a shot. We must have a festival or tournament so I can show off your talent with the bow.”

Albert was sure his face betrayed his fear at this insinuation, despite his efforts otherwise.

“You mock me, Sir,” he said. “You have not seen the shot yourself. It served to kill the deer but was nothing spectacular. Surely some servant has exaggerated its merit in order to win the favor of a proud father.”

“Is that so?” asked Edward.

“It must be the case,” said Albert.

“Then I will have the page who told it me lashed.”

Albert winced as imperceptibly as he could manage under Edward’s penetrating observation.

“I will be told the truth,” his father continued, and Albert was uncertain if this threat pertained to the unfortunate page or to Albert himself.

The king changed the topic to some trivial matter, with Albert attempting to seem relaxed, engaged, and not as though he were hiding truths from his father. The conversation concluded shortly thereafter, and as Albert left his father’s presence, he said a silent prayer for himself, for Manning, and for leniency on the part of whoever was to beat the page.

 

 

W
HEN
the dogs and the horses and the hunters came tumbling into the clearing—when Albert let go of him, stepped forward, and stood on his own, answering his cousin, boasting of the deer—the first thing that Manning felt was relief. He was relieved that his outlandish plan had worked. It had been no sure thing that he would be able to bring Albert all the way back home in one day, and Manning had been lucky to bring down a deer so quickly. But most of all he was relieved that Albert seemed to be taking well to his deceit. He had feared that the prince might protest and give the whole game away.

Manning stood behind Albert as he chatted with his cousin and took compliments about the kill. The young man’s body, which for the past few days had followed him, trusted him, come to him, did not now seem to know he was there. Even when Albert was angry with him there had been a connection between them: they had been alone together. In company Manning felt awkward, cast off. He was angry with himself for feeling this way. He had no right to expect any attention from the prince. But he wanted some.
I might never be alone with him again
, thought Manning, and the thought made him sad.

One of the grooms took charge of Albert, helping him onto a horse, ordering some of the riders to accompany him back to the castle. Manning had no horse, and no one was going to dismount for him, so he watched Albert ride off before beginning to follow on foot. As he was leaving the clearing the groom in charge stopped him.

BOOK: Royal Quarry
4.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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