Amine did not like the lance.
Swordfighting? Fine, he supposed. At least it kept a hand free. But lances were heavy, and Amine was not strong, and with his grip sealed tight on the shaft of the lance, Amine never had enough hands to cast warding spells or magical wind to push his father away in their awful training sessions.
“That’s the point, Mina,” Father told him for the however-many-th time. “You gotta rely on your strength. Gotta be tough for the crowd.”
“I’m not tough,” Amine always said, but those words always seemed to make training last longer.
Hiding didn’t work, either. Father had grown up in Castle Gautier, too, another ‘rambunctious little boy,’ as Mother called it, hiding from big people and bigger shadows. No matter what nook or cranny Amine managed to squeeze himself into—the shelf behind the big velvet curtain in the parlor; the back of the false hearth in the reception hall; a broom closet tucked behind the staircase of the family quarters—Father always seemed to find him just as Amine had made himself comfortable.
“You’d think you’d at least launch a sneak attack,” Father complained once. By the time Amine realized his Father’s military mind had made an excellent point, Father had slung him over his shoulders like a sack of grain and had begun yapping praises about this hiding spot, this one was my favorite when I was your age and someone was looking for me, it’s pretty hard to just yank someone out of this shelf, but Mina, I know just the right angle, I wasted my youth figuring this stuff out so you wouldn’t have to…
And then Father would drag him to train.
Amine couldn’t even understand why Father kept hounding him about it. Father hated training, too, or at least claimed to. Amine wouldn’t have believed him if he hadn’t overheard Father complaining to Mother about it, how much he’d rather just be on horseback, how much he’d rather just be outside riding his favorite steed, or better yet, inside riding his favorite—
“The children are present,” Mother would remind him, and Father would heave a dramatic groan and sink to the floor in front of the fireplace and let the babies crawl all over him.
It wasn’t fair. Amine wasn’t allowed to roll on top of his father anymore, to fall asleep on his chest and wake up in bed, to hear his Father cry, “Okay, okay, you beat me, I surrender!” unless he’d earned it on the training grounds, not the soft rug by the hearth.
No, Amine was too big to do anything fun like that. Amine had to learn how to be polite like his mother and charming like his father. Amine had to be the perfect big brother, the perfect son. Neither Mother nor Father needed to tell him of their high expectations. Amine felt them on his own. It was why Father was so hard on him during training, even if his Crest—if he had one—had yet to manifest. Amine had to protect everyone. Not just his family—everyone. Amine was the heir. Anyone on Gautier lands would one day be under Amine’s protection whether he knew how to swing a lance or cast a spell, or whether he knew nothing at all.
It was a very tiring thought, and he didn’t like thinking about it one little bit.
“Amine, will you read to me?” Mother asked him, sensing him sulking in his corner near the couch. She cast her glowing, gentle smile on him like the beaming light of the moon through the curtains, and Amine’s foul mood fizzled away.
So his mother let him stumble over the latest ghost story he’d written just for her, and his father pretended he wasn’t unsettled by the vivid and vicious images his son’s mind could produce, and for a short while, the heir to the Gautier title did not wish he could be anything other than the heir.
The short while did not last forever.
“No!” Amine shouted from where he lay sprawled on the training room dust. Father stood over him, unsympathetic and powerful, leaning heavily on his lance, which Amine had failed to disarm.
“Don’t ‘no’ me. C’mon, up.” The exasperation in Father’s voice was familiar, and Amine hated it.
“I’m tired. I don’t wanna learn to fight anymore.”
“Well, I’m tired of you giving up.”
The coldness in Father’s voice?
That was not familiar.
Amine jerked his head up to find Father looming above him like a tombstone, casting tall shadows over his crumpled form. His narrowed eyes—the same color as Amine’s own—stabbed blunt and unfeeling judgment straight into him.
“No one wants to learn how to fight,” Father said. The easy smile on his face reminded Amine of the demonic wolf he’d once seen prowling the castle grounds. The wolf Mother had set aflame with too-strong a spell because it had gotten too close to her baby, to Amine, she’d said. That wolf, that smile was another remnant of that not-so-distant war scarred into his father’s name. “No one wants to. But you’re gonna wish you learned how to fight when it’s a matter of one length of a lance between your enemy’s hand—” Father swooped his lance straight down, Amine rolled out of the way, and the tip of the training weapon slammed squarely into the dirt, “and your unarmored chest. Get up, Mina.”
Amine stared at where the lance had fallen, where it was now rising back into Father’s grip. It hadn’t been a real strike. Father had known his son would dodge, but he’d held back just in case. Still, that energy surrounded him. “What’s wrong?” Amine asked, struggling to his knees. “Why are you mad at me?”
“Mad? I’m not mad.” Father hefted his weapon and waited for Amine to get up. He did not, just swayed lightly on his grubby knees, scuffed-up from playing and from training. Something ugly and stubborn in Amine’s gut kept him from feigning compliance. Father’s lip curled. “I’m just disappointed my eldest child’s so spoiled he thinks he’s incapable of hurting any—”
Father and son whirled around—Amine smearing dirt on his pants—to see Mother striding towards the two of them, arms crossed, mouth set in a hard, flat line.
Father recovered faster than Amine. He made a great show of stretching his back, his arms, his every little muscle, and the smile spreading smooth like oil on his face was much less wild but no less scary. “What’s up, baby?”
Mother didn’t reply. No, if she did, it was silently: through pursed lips and big eyes, the kind of hard, searching look Amine hated to see aimed his way. He sighed, relieved, and hoped she hadn’t overheard.
Something was wrong with Father after all.
Amine pushed himself to his feet while his parents had their staring contest. Father had disarmed him magnificently, and his training lance had flown clear across the little arena, rolled up tight against the wall closest to the weapon racks.
His knees were so sore. His shoulders, too. Amine wasn’t quite eight and he wouldn’t be holding the Lance of Ruin for some time yet—maybe never, the rumors whispered—so maybe it wouldn’t be too shameful to heal himself a little, right? It was always so nice to have the quick cool buzz of a healing spell washing over him as he nestled into the bathtub after practice.
“Great work today, Mina,” Father announced far too loudly, just as Amine’s fingers wrapped themselves around his wooden lance. Amine’s head shot up to gape at him, but Father was speaking to some point beyond Mother’s head. “I’m beat. Let’s call it quits.”
And with that, Father was gone, whisking past Mother without much more than a backwards glance.
Without much more.
He caught Amine’s eye as he fled, and even Amine knew his father was ashamed.
“Is he angry with me?”
Mother’s lavender perfume embraced him even before her soft, lacy arms did. “No,” Mother said. “He’s angry with himself.”
Mother walked back home with him. She let him grip her arm like he was small again, like he still needed to hold her hand lest he get lost in the great gaping maw that was Castle Gautier, and Amine was glad she didn’t tease him for it.
Father didn’t come to dinner that night. He had vanished at some point during the afternoon, and no one had seen him since.
“I’ll get him,” Amine volunteered when Mother seemed ready to direct the servants to start serving. Mother only raised an eyebrow.
“He might like to be left alone with his thoughts like you do sometimes, don’t you think?”
He had not thought. Amine nodded, and Mother gestured for the servants to continue.
But halfway through dinner, guilt began to gnaw at the edges of his stomach to replace his hunger.
“Maybe he wants to tell me himself,” Amine said, “that he wants to be left alone with his thoughts.”
“May I please be excused?”
It was indeed a very good hiding spot. It was one of Amine’s favorites.
When Amine poked his face behind the false hearth in the reception hall to be greeted with his own father spinning cat’s cradles in thread from his cloak, he wished either of them were surprised to see each other.
“You should have launched a sneak attack,” Amine informed him when his father gestured at him to nestle by his side. He curled up against that thick Gautier cloak and watched torchlight from the outside hall glimmer on the embossed Crest.
“Nah,” Father said. “I’m always happy to see you, Mina.” He handed off the cat’s cradle to Amine’s fingers, and Amine was delighted to see he could hold the pattern just as well.
“Sorry,” Father said after a few moments had passed of him pulling more cords from his cloak to make a cat’s cradle of his own, “for earlier. I’m sorry I said that to you. It was really wrong of me.”
Amine hummed agreement. “Thank you.”
“Love you, kid.”
Father planted a big, sloppy kiss just above Amine’s ear—“Gross!”—and he squirmed out of reach. Very difficult given the way they were squished in, but somehow he managed despite Father’s gleeful laughter. “Ew,” Amine wrinkled his nose, wiping his father’s spit from his hair. “I sort of love you back. Can we go get dessert now?”
Amine loved his father enough to know how to pull him out of hiding. Just the right angle.
“Yeah, sure. Let’s go.”