Arthit knew he was destined to be the villain of someone’s story. The title of Huntsman didn’t allow him to be anything else. The only mystery to his future was what hero he would anger.
As a child, Arthit’s mother had told him he was fortunate to have been born as the son of a huntsman to the king. He would never have to brave danger to rescue a princess, never have to prove himself with perilous tasks. As a huntsman, he would never go without food and there would always be someone who wanted his services.
As a child, he believed her. Until his father was summoned by the king and the princess’s body was found the next day. They moved kingdoms but the story followed them.
She didn’t tell him about the fear that would follow his name. She didn’t tell him about the blood that would stain his clothes or the whispers that would surround him. She didn’t tell him how extraordinarily lonely it would be.
Living in the kingdom neighboring the one Arthit grew up in, whispers followed them. Arthit became used to the stares and hushed conversations that surrounded his family. His father’s smile became harder to come by and his mother no longer visited the noblewomen. It was a lonely childhood, the other children pulled away by concerned parents before Arthit could make friends with them. As the years passed, Arthit filled his time learning his father’s craft.
Years later, it was this skill that granted him his first meeting with the prince.
Not the eldest prince of course. The eldest prince was destined for greatness beyond knowing a huntsman, as all eldest princes were. Not the second prince either, whose fate was no doubt just as wondrous, if less prestigious, as the eldest’s. No, the prince whom Arthit knew was the youngest. Third born Prince Kongpob. Third born princes were destined to live in mediocrity in the shadow of their brothers or to overthrow them.
When Arthit first met the youngest prince he had been certain he was destined for the first future.
“Pull your arm farther back so your hand touches your jaw.”
Arthit watched the prince correct his arm, nock the arrow and let it fly. It flew above the target before falling to the ground. The other two princes’ arrows had both hit dead center. He could see now why he had been chosen to teach Prince Kongpob.
They met once a week, and Arthit swallowed the complaints about wasted time. He corrected the prince’s stance, reminded him to wear the protective leather brace for his hand and arm. Prince Kongpob enjoyed talking during their lessons, and it was through this that Arthit slowly became privy to several facts about the prince. He learned that Prince Kongpob was not particularly talented at archery but he worked hard. He learned that Prince Kongpob was fond of his brothers and loved his father. He learned that Prince Kongpob was soft but unyielding in accomplishing his goals.
And yet, months passed and the prince failed to improve. Arthit wondered what would happen to him if the prince’s aim didn’t improve. The thought made his tongue sharper, his hands rougher.
“How were you chosen to be my teacher when you are so clearly not meant for it?” the prince asks once. There's a challenge in his voice, but no real malice behind it.
“I am the kingdom’s best huntsman. I have never needed to learn how to teach.”
The prince hummed, nocking the arrow again. It missed. Arthit frowned. It should be impossible for Prince Kongpob to continue missing every target, every time. He should have hit one after all these weeks, even if by accident. He kept the thought to himself but studied the prince more intently.
For their next lesson, Arthit was late, having lost time due to sleeping in. He rushed to the training grounds, unsure if the prince was still even there. He had apologies already prepared when he slowed to a stop, frowning at the sight that greeted him. Prince Kongpob seemed to have forgone waiting for his arrival. Instead, his bow was fitted with an arrow already, and Arthit silently cursed the open field where they held their weekly practices. There were few places to remain hidden, save for the cluster of hay stacks used as extra targets. It was here that he hid behind, curious to see what would happen next. From his place out of sight, Arthit could see that the prince had already begun practicing. Fourteen arrows were stuck firmly in the dead center of the target. He waited, watching from his position behind the prince among the bales of hay.
After several minutes, Prince Kongpob picked up his bow, nocking the arrow. Arthit watched him concentrate, brows furrowing. A moment of complete stillness, and then the arrow flew straight to the bullseye. Arthit’ eyes widened. Despite his suspicions, he hadn’t expected to see such accuracy. Prince Kongpob’s lips curled into a satisfied smile, and then he moved to the target, placing a hand on the target as he pulled the arrows out. Arthit waited for the last arrow to go back into the quiver before he spoke.
“How long have you been able to do this?” Arthit demanded. He stepped out into the open field.
Prince Kongpob startled, his grip on the bow faltering. He rearranged his features quickly enough but Arthit had already seen the surprise on his face.
“You’re late,” he said, and then, “Are you accusing me of something?” His tone was cool, and if Arthit hadn’t seen the amusement in his eyes he might have been intimidated.
“You’ve been wasting my time and yours by pretending you can’t shoot,” he snarled. Anger curled up his spine, slipping beneath his skin as his hands curled into fists. He had spent hours trying to teach the prince, wasted time he could have used to do something useful, time the prince could have spent learning something he actually needed taught. Arthit’ lip curled into a sneer, and were he not speaking to the prince, he would have said more. But he was and he had already said more than he should, so he bit his tongue; Arthit knew better than to risk his life on the moods of royalty.
“Well, I guess you’re smarter than I thought,” Prince Kongpob said, grinning widely.
Arthit blinked. “What?” he asked dumbly.
“I was wondering if you’d catch on, you know.” Prince Kongpob smiled at him, leaning back against the target. “I was starting to think you never would.”
“I was starting to think it was lucky you had other people to catch your food,” Arthit replied before he could stop himself. He gulped, half expecting the prince to take him to the king. To his surprise, the prince laughed. He had a rough sounding laugh, the kind that invited you to laugh with him.
“I knew you weren’t as polite as you pretended,” Prince Kongpob said, and he sounded oddly delighted. Straightening, he stepped forward and put his hand on Arthit’s back. Arthit stiffened but Prince Kongpob just smiled at him again.
“I’ll see you at my next lesson,” he said, and walked away leaving Arthit staring after him.
Despite his suspicion that Prince Kongpob could use a bow nearly as well as himself, Arthit found himself showing up to the next lesson. Prince Kongpob was waiting for him, bow and quiver clutched firmly in his hands. No arrows in the target this time.
“No hiding in the targets today?” he called out cheerfully, grinning brightly as Arthit approached.
Arthit scowled at him. “No more pretending you can’t shoot an arrow?” He paused, abruptly aware and horrified at his boldness. “Your Highness,” he added hastily, and Prince Kongpob laughed before he shrugged.
“That day must have been a fluke.” His words were easy, and Arthit wondered if he was really going to try and pretend Arthit hadn’t seen the results of fifteen perfect shots.
“We’ll see,” he said shortly, and then gestured to the target. “Let’s start.”
“Whatever you say,” Prince Kongpob said, and shot Arthit a sharp grin.
He nocked his arrow, pulling his arm back smoothly with none of the usual shakiness most beginners had. Privately, Arthit wondered how he hadn’t noticed that earlier. And yet, despite Prince Kongpob’s perfect stance, Arthit could see the split second change in direction right before the arrow left its bow. And just as he expected, the arrow went sideways, glancing off the side of the target to land a few feet away.
“You didn’t hit the target,” he said, eyeing Prince Kongpob carefully.
The prince smiled, bright and mischievous, as though they were sharing an inside joke. “Well,” he started, “I suppose that means you still have a lot to teach me.”
Arthit clicked his tongue impatiently. Clearly the prince was determined to keep up this ruse, though Arthit couldn’t understand why. And unless he could prove it, he was still the prince’s teacher.
Their next three meetings followed much the same pattern. Arthit would arrive to see Prince Kongpob waiting for him and then Arthit would watch as he missed the target every time, Arthit biting his cheek to stop himself from commenting. He was certain Prince Kongpob was pretending.
Curiosity had led him to finding Prince Kongpob’s other teachers, all of whom were quick to share how polite and intelligent the prince was, how quickly he picked things up. And yet, here he was, lying to Arthit’s face each time he picked up a bow. It was as infuriating as it was confusing. Despite hours of wondering, he couldn’t understand why Prince Kongpob would pretend and waste both of their time. Still, Arthit was a mere huntsman. He did not pretend to understand how the minds of others worked, much less someone so different from him. And as he could do nothing so long as the prince pretended, he simply watched each arrow fall to the ground with gritted teeth, resigned to waiting until there was something he could do.
His chance came a mere fortnight later, three months since their lessons began. Upon his arrival back home, he caught sight of a letter waiting for him. Written in rich black ink and stamped with the king’s seal, Arthit skimmed it to see it demanded he come to the king in three days to report Prince Kongpob’s progress. Arthit’s hands curled tightly around the letter, swallowing as his stomach clenched.
How could he tell the king his son refused to show the full range of his skill? Even if he did, would the king believe him? Worry kept Arthit restless that night, and the next morning dark circles were clearly visible beneath his eyes.
Arthit continued his usual routine automatically, eating and getting dressed as he pondered what to say to the king. The problem was a heavy weight in his stomach as he made his way to the training ground. Upon arrival to the practice field, Prince Kongpob was waiting as usual. This time, he was waxing the bow string, and Arthit watched him carefully for a moment before the prince noticed him.
“Master Huntsman,” Prince Kongpob said, a now familiar cheerful grin on his face.
“Your Highness.” Arthit bowed and moved to stand beside the prince. He watched in silence as Prince Kongpob finished waxing the bow string. The wind was cool against his face, and Arthit wondered what he was supposed to say three days from now. It was silent save for the sounds of the wind as Prince Kongpob put the wax away and grabbed the quiver of arrows. Arthit watched him shoot three arrows, each missing or glancing off the target.
Then, right as Prince Kongpob was reaching for the fourth, before he could stop himself he blurted out, “The king has asked me to let him know about your progress.”
Prince Kongpob paused briefly, turning to look at him. There was an unreadable expression on his face.
“Oh?” he said after a moment, voice even and unconcerned. The lack of concern irritated Arthit, though he wasn’t sure why he had expected anything else. What would a prince know or care about the importance of this for Arthit?
Prince Kongpob finished nocking the fourth arrow, drawing his arm back before letting go. This time, the arrow glanced off the edge of the target.
“How long are you going to keep missing the target?” Arthit snapped, momentarily forgetting who he was speaking to. Luckily, Prince Kongpob didn’t seem to notice.
“Until I learn,” Prince Kongpob said calmly.
“Do you want your father to think your lessons are useless?”
“Archery is a skill that takes time to perfect. I’m sure he’ll understand.” Prince Kongpob was irritatingly calm as he spoke and Arthit’s hands twitched from where they were pressed against his legs.
“And you’re going to risk my reputation on that assumption?” he demanded.
Prince Kongpob paused as he took out another arrow. Arthit had tried not to let any of his worry slip out, but he didn’t seem to have succeeded based on the prince’s expression. A frown slipped over his normally cheerful face, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he drew his arm back and let the arrow loose. Arthit watched it fly straight ahead, landing with a solid thunk on the outermost ring of the target. The next three arrows followed suit, each barely hitting the target.
“My father wouldn’t punish you for my failings. And besides, I would never risk harm coming to you,” Prince Kongpob said firmly, and there was so much certainty in his voice that it made Arthit’ cheeks warm. He had no response, but Prince Kongpob didn’t seem to need one. Arthit watched as the prince nocked the next arrow. He drew his arm back, fingers grazing his jaw before letting the arrow go. The prince continued until there were no more arrows left, and Arthit glanced at the target. Unlike their previous lessons it wasn’t empty, but rather holding a perfect semi-circle of arrows on the edge of the target.
For a moment, silence fell between them as they looked at the target. Then Prince Kongpob collected the arrows before he turned to look at him, eyes soft and serious. “When you meet my father,” he said, “tell him the truth.”
“And that would be?”
“I have skill, but not consistently.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” he said at last.
A frown flashed across Prince Kongpob’s face but it was gone just as quickly as it had appeared.
“I look forward to our next lesson,” Prince Kongpob said, slinging his quiver over his shoulder. Arthit bowed automatically as the prince left, leaving Arthit staring after him.
Three days later, he repeated the prince’s words in the report he gave to the king. All the while, the memory of Prince Kongpob’s dark brown eyes staring into his stuck in his head.
Arthit didn’t go to the castle often.
He preferred the quiet of his home, where he only dealt with the occasional barking from Bonus. Everything was familiar and he didn’t have to worry about speaking out of turn. Today though, he found himself wandering the castle grounds. He’d gone to visit the castle’s master archer to ensure he was prepared for Prince Kongpob’s next lesson. But now he was lost in the castle’s hallways, a wrong turn having led him to a part of the castle he was unfamiliar with. Occasionally he passed a maid or other servant, but Arthit shied away from asking for their help. There was no point in bothering them about something he could figure out alone.
Eventually he opened a door and his eyes widened when he realized he’d stumbled across the castle’s large dining hall. The smell of minced pork filled the air and he could see someone already inside the room, their back to Arthit. Just as he muttered an apology, the person turned and Arthit stared at him in surprise.
“Master Huntsman.” Prince Kongpob smiled at him, turning fully so that he was now facing Arthit. “What a surprise.”
“Your Highness,” Arthit said, bowing belatedly. The prince smiled and Arthit gave another quick apology as he said, “Excuse me.” He’d barely taken a few steps back when the prince spoke.
“Yes, your Highness?” Arthit stopped on his way out of the room, lingering by the doorway uncertainly.
“Sit with me,” Prince Kongpob said, gesturing to the seat across from him.
Arthit blanched at the words, and the casual tone they were said in. “ What ?”
“Sit with me,” Prince Kongpob repeated, again gesturing to the second seat. Arthit stared at him with wide eyes. Surely the prince was joking. No prince, even a third born prince, would be so friendly to a mere huntsman, much less offer to him a seat at the table as though they were equals. As though they were friends. When he continued to stand in his place, shifting uncertainly, the prince sighed.
“Please?” he asked, and were he anyone else, Arthit would call his expression pleading.
“Ah, of course your Highness.” Arthit swallowed and then took a few tentative steps forward, half expecting Prince Kongpob to say he was joking, however out of character that would have been. He didn’t, and after a few moments Arthit found himself seated at the same table as the prince, though he’d moved the chair down to the end of the table. He would not presume to be so bold as to sit across from the prince. From here, he could see the prince’s food and became abruptly aware of how long it had been since he’d eaten. In the back of his mind, Arthit wondered why the prince was eating alone, and at such an early time rather than a few hours later with his family.
“Did you want to discuss something with me?” he asked hesitantly. “About your lessons maybe?”
Amusement flickered across the prince’s face as he shook his head.
“Then,” Arthit paused, unsure of his next words. He bit his lip and then continued, “please forgive my bluntness your Highness, but why am I here?”
At those words, Prince Kongpob almost looked flustered. Then he seemed to compose himself.
“Do you not want to be here?” He sounded sincere, and Arthit found himself at a loss for words. How strange, to be asked what he wanted.
“If you want me to be here, I will be here,” he said at last.
To his surprise, Prince Kongpob didn’t seem pleased with the answer. “I’m asking what you want,” he said. Arthit stared at him. “If you wish to leave, I will not stop you.”
“I-” Arthit stopped, unsure of what to say. He was not known for his eloquence or way with words, and the confusion tinted surprise was not a help. “Why would you want to speak with me?”
Prince Kongpob gave him a soft smile. “I wanted your company outside of our lessons.”
Again, Arthit found himself at a loss for words at the unexpected declaration. He couldn’t understand why the prince would want his company. Huntsmen like him were not meant to know princes, even third princes. Arthit could feel Prince Kongpob’s gaze on him and he looked down at the table, unable to meet the other man’s eyes.
His eyes wandered to the food in front of Prince Kongpob, a plate of pad krapow that Arthit could only imagine being able to eat. He lingered on the pile of chilies carefully picked and placed on the side of the plate.
“Are you hungry?” Prince Kongpob’s words startled him and Arthit’ head snapped up to look at him before he quickly lowered his gaze.
“Uh, no,” he lied, and placed a hand on his stomach in an attempt to stop any sounds it might make.
“Are you sure?”
He nodded, but the prince looked unconvinced. Prince Kongpob’s eyes darted from Arthit to his food before a now familiar smug smile crossed his face. Arthit watched him push food onto his spoon before lifting it and moving his hand toward Arthit.
“Here.” Prince Kongpob moved the spoon closer to Arthit and Arthit instantly leaned back, staring at him with a slack jaw.
“Your Highness,” he said weakly, shaking his head. “That’s not, I don’t,” he stuttered and Prince Kongpob smiled charmingly.
“Eat,” he said coaxingly.
Arthit shook his head. “That food is meant for you, not- not me.” Not someone like Arthit, so low-born he was barely above commoners in rank.
“Sire, I couldn’t take food that was prepared for you,” he tried again. Simply sitting at the same table as the prince was already too much.
“It’s too spicy for me, I probably wouldn’t finish it anyway,” Prince Kongpob tried again, and Arthit frowned at him. His eyes flicked to the small pile of chilis set aside that he’d noticed earlier.
“Is that why you’re not eating those?” he asked carefully.
Prince Kongpob nodded, unconcerned if a little confused. He was still holding the spoon and Arthit frowned.
“If you don’t like spicy food then why would you get it?” he demanded.
Prince Kongpob shrugged, an easy movement that Arthit briefly followed before scowling when he registered the words. It infuriated him how casual Prince Kongpob was at not eating something just because he didn’t like it.
“You’re just wasting food and your cook’s time. If you get them, eat them,” he snapped.
Prince Kongpob blinked, finally setting the spoon down. Arthit swallowed. Beneath the table, he fiddled nervously with the hem of his shirt. He couldn’t believe he’d scolded the prince as though he was a child, or as though Arthit had any right to. Yet Prince Kongpob’s easy going and often childish demeanour had the unfortunate side effect of making Arthit forget that he was speaking to royalty. Stiffly, he waited for the inevitable punishment, but inexplicably the prince just nodded.
“You’re very thoughtful,” Prince Kongpob said quietly.
“ What ?”
Arthit stared at him with wide eyes. Surely that couldn’t be the only thing Prince Kongpob had to say to him. But it seemed to be, the prince merely picking his spoon back up for another bite, this time with the chilis. Then the rest of the words truly sank in and Arthit stared at him. No one had ever referred to him as thoughtful before, and it was a baffling reaction to being scolded.
He struggled with a proper response, but nothing seemed right. Just when he thought that he had finally come up with an appropriate reply, Prince Kongpob threw him for another loop.
“For what?” Arthit asked, that off-kilter feeling he so often had around the prince intensifying.
Prince Kongpob smiled at him. “For reminding me to do better,” he said, and Arthit felt his cheeks grow warm at the words.
“All I said was not to waste people’s efforts. That’s not something you need to thank me for,” he said roughly.
“But you made such an effort to remind me,” Prince Kongpob said, and his tone was both teasing and genuine. “Thank you. I’m glad I have you,” Prince Kongpob said, and his smile made something in Arthit’s stomach go warm.
Despite the strangeness of his encounter with the prince, Arthit made certain to put it out of his mind. It was a chance meeting, certainly not one that would be repeated. No, once Prince Kongpob stopped pretending he needed archery lessons they would no longer meet. The prince would no longer need him.
That thought did little to reassure him, so he focused on ensuring his own archery skills remained sharp. Although his home was modest, he had enough space to practice on the days he didn’t go into the forest. Today was one of those days, and as he glanced up at the sky, he hoped it wouldn’t rain as he set up the targets before beginning to practice.
It was calming, the repetitive motion of drawing an arrow back before letting it fly. Pull, aim, release. Pull, aim, release. Each dull thud of the arrow as it hit the target grounded him, clearing his head. Arthit continued shooting until he’d emptied his quiver, setting his bow down. He surveyed the target, smiling in satisfaction when he saw each arrow exactly where he’d wanted.
As he collected them, Arthit found his thoughts wandering to his mother. He had not visited her lately, and Arthit felt slight guilt at the thought. He should visit her soon, perhaps after his next hunt. Then he could gift her whatever he caught.
He pulled the last arrow from the target and bundled it with the rest of the ones he’d collected. Arthit frowned, noticing the slight wear on them. He’d have to make some new ones soon. Picking up his bow and quiver, he slung it over his shoulder before walking back inside. He’d have to wipe the arrows down and wax the bow string before he went to the market.
As he entered, Bonus bounded up to him, tail wagging furiously in greeting, as though Arthit had been gone for days rather than a few hours. Arthit smiled, bending down and scratching behind Bonus’ ears.
“Hey buddy,” he muttered quietly.
Bonus licked his hand in response and Arthit laughed, giving him one last pat before standing up. Putting away his hunting gear, he started making his dinner for the night, Bonus padding along at his heels. There used to be the sound of Bonus playing with Lotus and Obsidian, but now it was just the two of them surrounded by silence. He had become used to it over the years, though sometimes he wondered what it would be like to have someone else there. Someone to talk with, to laugh with.
His mother worried about him, he knew, always asking when he was going to settle down and get married. Arthit had never had the heart to tell her he didn’t think he’d ever get married. He was too abrasive, too awkward, for most people. The few interests he’d nursed when younger had never moved beyond a one sided admiration, and now at 29, he was still unsure of how to actually move into the courting stage with someone. Assuming of course, there was a someone to begin with.
But that was a useless thought — he had no real interest in finding a partner. Beyond the occasional wish to have someone to spend his leisure hours with, Arthit was fine with his life. He had Bonus, he had a purpose, and he had no impossible obstacles in his life. He was content.
At Prince Kongpob’s next lesson, Arthit arrived to see that Prince Kongpob was already there. Again. He hid a frown as he bowed and greeted the other man. Was the prince always this early?
“Your Highness. I apologize for being late.” He bowed. “I hope you weren’t waiting too long.”
“Master Huntsman.” Prince Kongpob tilted his head in acknowledgement, lips curved into a smile. “I just arrived. I look forward to our lesson.”
“What are you smiling for?” he demanded, Prince Kongpob’s smug expression throwing him off guard. “Get started.”
Prince Kongpob’s expression didn’t waver as he nodded, picking up the bow. Arthit watched him carefully, scowling when the first three arrows missed. Why was the prince still holding back? It didn’t make sense.
“How did your assessment with my father go?”
The question came without warning, leaving Arthit briefly floundering for an answer. He thought back to his meeting with the king, remembering how nerves had kept him up the night before, only for the meeting to go so quickly it almost seemed unnecessary.
“He was…” Arthit trailed off uncertainly. He’d been surprised to see that the king hadn’t appeared concerned about Kongpob’s progress. After Arthit’s brief assessment, the king had simply nodded before dismissing him without asking any questions.
“He wants you to do better by the next assessment,” he said at last. A small white lie, one that might encourage the prince.
Prince Kongpob turned to face him, hand halfway to the next arrow in his quiver. He raised an eyebrow. “Him or you?”
Arthit scowled. “Your father.”
Prince Kongpob didn’t look entirely convinced but nodded, drawing another arrow.
“So you’re going to keep teaching me then?” Prince Kongpob sounded surprisingly eager about the idea of continued lessons.
“What the king wishes, is my command.”
“Hmm.” Prince Kongpob turned to look at him, smiling so widely that Arthit was abruptly aware of the dimple in his left cheek. Arthit had always been partial to dimples and he was horrified to find this was also true in regards to the prince. Prince Kongpob leaned in, so close Arthit could see that there was a small scar beneath his left eye. Arthit swallowed. “And what about my wishes?”
“What?” It came out high pitched and far too flustered. Silently, Arthit swore.
“If I made a wish, would you grant it?” Prince Kongpob asked, and Arthit swallowed. The way that the prince was looking at him, almost coy and a little hopeful. It was… unexpected and Arthit covered his confusion with bluster.
“What are you babbling for? You still have nine arrows to go.”
Prince Kongpob’s lips curled upwards in amusement at the response, but he nodded. Arthit watched as he continued with the lesson. Each arrow soaring into the air before falling to the ground. It was almost impressive, how Prince Kongpob was able to mask his talent so well. Again, the nagging question of why he would continue to fake inability lingered in his mind. It remained even as the quiver of arrows slowly dwindled, until he had to ask. When Prince Kongpob went to collect the arrows, Arthit accompanied him. As he picked up a cluster of arrows behind the target, he turned to look at the prince.
“Why do you pretend you don’t know how to use a bow?” he asked. He’d asked before, usually with varying tones of irritation, but the prince had always deflected.
“What makes you think I’m pretending?”
Arthit sighed. He’d expected as much but it still irritated him. The sound made Prince Kongpob look at him and he grimaced. Why did he keep behaving so informally around the prince?
“Have you considered that I really don’t know how to use a bow?” Prince Kongpob asked, pausing from where he was standing beside the target. There were three arrows in his hand and his head was tilted. He looked genuinely curious to hear Arthit’s answer.
“You’re a quick learner,” Arthit said. “The Sword Master said you learned faster than your brothers and your tutors said you are well versed in your studies. Others were similarly complimentary. I find it difficult to believe you’d be so abysmal at archery with how long you’ve been learning it. Especially since you learned the basics before I was assigned to teach you.”
“You know so much about me,” Prince Kongpob said. He sounded inordinately pleased and smug about that, a smirk pulling at the corner of his mouth.
“I was making sure I wasn’t teaching an idiot.” Arthit ignored Prince Kongpob’s pout and narrowed his eyes. “So, why pretend?”
There was a long silence where the prince just looked at him, all amusement disappearing from his face. It was a serious kind of silence, heavier. The sun beat down on them and despite the discomfort the heat caused, Arthit remained motionless. At last, Prince Kongpob spoke.
“What do you know about my brothers?” he asked.
Arthit blinked at the non-sequitur. That was not what he’d expected. “I- Not much, Your Majesty,” he admitted.
Prince Kongpob nodded. He tapped the curve of his bow seemingly absentmindedly as he spoke. “My oldest brother, Mongkut, excels in diplomacy and is quite popular with women. That, along with his age, makes him the best choice to inherit our father’s title. However, our father has not yet made his decision on that because of the conflict with the other kingdoms.”
Arthit nodded, unsure of how this connected. It was well known that the neighboring kingdoms were currently at the mercy of a drought, and rumors of small skirmishes for food had become common.
“My other brother, Suchart, is my father’s best general and strategist. He hopes that his talent as a swordsman and archer will sway father to his favor. If the conflict worsens, it might. Our father favors men of action over men of words.”
Prince Kongpob stared into the distance, his unnaturally serious expression turning pensive. “Either choice would work well, I think. But I know they worry about me.”
The way the prince said the last sentence did not sound as though his brothers were particularly caring people.
“I see,” Arthit said quietly. He thought back to the many tutors and masters he’d spoken to while learning about Prince Kongpob. There had been many a comparison between the brothers, most in Prince Kongpob’s favor.
“You could be better than either of your brothers.”
Surprisingly, Prince Kongpob nodded, for once a solemn expression on his face. He looked at the target beside him, where a single arrow was lodged at the bottom.
“But I would rather have my brothers.”
Privately, Arthit thought that was a sweet but ultimately useless wish. Whatever Prince Kongpob’s intentions, it would not change the fact that princes were not meant to live in harmony forever. If something as simple as talent with a bow was enough to threaten a relationship, he doubted it would last. Still, he kept the thought to himself.
“I understand,” he said softly. “And what about you?”
“Do you want to be king?”
Prince Kongpob smiled, but it was a different, tired kind of smile that seemed too serious for someone so bright. “I have never wanted to be king the way my brothers do.”
Arthit nodded. Prince Kongpob went to retrieve the rest of the arrows, and Arthit found himself lost in thought. It was a relief to have the answer he’d wanted for so long even though it was not the answer he had expected. Shamefully, Arthit had expected a more childish reason. Perhaps to waste his time or anger the king. Now though, he felt embarrassed to have misjudged the prince. He also was surprised at the worry the prince’s words brought him. For all Prince Kongpob’s consideration and faith in his brothers, there was no hint his brothers felt similarly.
As he watched the prince finish collecting arrows for the next round, he could not help but hope that this prince would not be one destined for quests and danger and a princess.
Despite his efforts to maintain a distance from Prince Kongpob, Arthit found himself learning more about the other man. Prince Kongpob seemed to have taken their conversation as an opening to spend more time with him, treating him as though they were friends.
He’d taken to drawing Arthit into conversation after their practices ended, often about the most random topics. It was from these talks that he learned Prince Kongpob was far different from how he’d initially assumed. Although he knew how much the prince found the opinions and feelings of those around him — even a huntsman like himself — important, Arthit was surprised to learn just how different the prince was from his first impression.
Of all his wide ranging interests, the prince had a particular fascination with astronomy. He often spoke about star patterns and the movement of celestial bodies Arthit had never heard of. A surprising amount of the prince’s stories featured the castle’s falconer, whose son Prince Kongpob had often played with. He’d named several of the falcons, and each name was stranger than the last. Prince Kongpob seemed to have a fondness for animals in general, much like Arthit himself. Upon discovering Arthit had a hunting dog, he had immediately requested to meet Bonus. At the time, Arthit had been taken back by the request, resulting in a surprised agreement that he still had yet to uphold.
In fact, there were many moments that surprised Arthit during their talks, not the least of which included just how much Prince Kongpob was able to coax out of him. Somehow Arthit found himself sharing his own stories, that despite their boring nature, Prince Kongpob appeared intrigued by. His tales of training Bonus and rambles about yew versus ash bows were received with attentiveness and eager questions.
It was strange, but not unwelcome. Arthit was used to a mostly solitary existence, apart from his interactions with the marketplace aunties and the scattered times his few close friends could visit. Prince Kongpob was fast becoming a constant in his life, a thought that was equally thrilling and terrifying. And yet. Arthit found himself unable to keep the same distance he had in the beginning, now that he knew Prince Kongpob’s penchant for sweets and how wide and earnest his eyes could get when he was pleading with Arthit.
Those eyes were how Arthit had ended up here, staring at the prince in confusion.
“You want to do what?”
Prince Kongpob smiled brightly, just a hint of mischief in his eyes. “Go on a night hunt with you.”
Arthit scrutinized him, unsure of what had brought on the request. “Why the sudden interest?”
“A change of scenery might help me to improve.” Prince Kongpob said easily, as though he’d expected the question. “Besides, wouldn’t you like to go somewhere besides the training field?”
Arthit narrowed his eyes. He didn’t know what Prince Kongpob wanted but there was nothing wrong with the request. “I suppose we could plan for next-”
“Actually, I was hoping we could go tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Arthit asked incredulously.
Prince Kongpob nodded eagerly.
Arthit narrowed his eyes. A single day was far too short to plan and prepare for a typical night hunt; there would be virtually no time to gather the needed men, hunting dogs, and falconers. The prince had to realize this.
“I’m not sure there would be enough time to prepare for a night hunt,” he said, though it sounded less tactful than he’d like.
“Even if it was just the two of us?”
“Just the two of us?” he asked uncertainly, and Prince Kongpob nodded.
“Unless you don’t want to?” Prince Kongpob pouted, eyes wide and bottom lip jutted out. Arthit looked away to cover the way his heart softened.
“Very well,” he said gruffly. “If that’s what you wish, Your Highness.”
His response elicited a wide smile and Arthit watched as a sweet, childish joy he rarely saw spread across Prince Kongpob’s face. Arthit still didn’t quite understand why Prince Kongpob seemed so insistent on this, but he supposed if it made the other smile like that, he could find out tomorrow.
As he prepared for bed, he wondered what Prince Kongpob wanted from a ‘night hunt.’ He was certain there was some underlying reason for it, he just didn’t know what it could be. Surprisingly, Arthit wasn’t worried about it either. Curious, without a doubt, but not worried. Presumptuous as it was to think he knew the prince, Arthit felt confident in his assessment that Prince Kongpob’s motives were well meaning if vague.
Despite his lack of worry, he couldn’t help feeling frustrated as well. He didn’t understand why Prince Kongpob couldn’t simply say what he wanted directly, why he seemed so intent on hiding so much of himself.
The night passed slowly, sleep eluding Arthit despite his efforts. What rest he did achieve was scattered, filled with dreams he couldn’t quite remember but left him reaching out for a faceless figure each time he woke.
When day came Arthit busied himself with packing what he needed, ensuring there was enough for a typical two person hunt. He made sure to feed Bonus a little extra as an apology for leaving him for the night, and left a quick message for Fang so that Bonus would be fed dinner. Once he was done with his preparations, he left his home to set out for the castle’s stables.
It was a fairly quick walk there, and Arthit was unsurprised to see Prince Kongpob already at the stables when he arrived.
“Your Highness.” He bowed and the prince smiled warmly.
This was another change Arthit still hadn’t become accustomed to. Prince Kongpob had switched from his title to his name for reasons Arthit didn’t understand. Still, it seemed to please the prince and so Arthit had only protested a few times before allowing it.
He fiddled with the hem of his shirt as he waited for the stable hand to bring him a horse, looking over Prince Kongpob contemplatively. There was a relatively large pack over the prince’s shoulder, and Arthit frowned at the strange box shaped imprint bulging out the side. Before he could ask, the stable hand was back, leading two horses over to where they stood.
Arthit quickly looked away, climbing onto the horse with ease as he asked, “Are you ready, Your Highness?”
Beside him, already settled atop his own horse, Prince Kongpob nodded. Arthit watched as the prince made a sharp clicking sound, guiding his horse out of the stable. Arthit followed and as they left the castle grounds, he raised his eyebrows when Prince Kongpob pulled out a map, a small lantern perched precariously on his lap.
“Do you have a trail you’d prefer to follow?”
“Mhm.” Prince Kongpob flashed him a quick smile. “I heard about it from a friend.”
In a rare turn of events, they rode in silence. Prince Kongpob seemed intent on the map in his hands, and any questions were answered with an easy deflection. The farther they rode, the more skeptical Arthit became of Prince Kongpob’s supposed trail. In all of the hunts he’d been a part of, none of them started out this far. Not to mention, this section of the land was less than ideal for hunting. It was nearly barren, far too open for a successful hunt. Yet it was here that the prince slowed to the stop, Arthit following his lead a beat later.
“Your Highness?” he asked tentatively.
Prince Kongpob rolled up the map, sticking it carefully into his pack. The lantern in his lap wobbled as he turned to face Arthit, light spilling onto the ground and Arthit’s horse.
“We’re here!” he said excitedly and Arthit gaped at him.
“There’s nothing here,” he said. This was, in fact, possible the least prosperous part of the castle’s extensive lands.
Prince Kongpob didn’t answer, instead dismounting and stretching his arms behind his head.
“I thought we could wait here, just until it becomes night.” Arthit determinedly did not notice how Prince Kongpob’s eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. Instead he put on a frown that he usually reserved for when Prince Kongpob made a mistake in practice.
“It is night,” he pointed out. Prince Kongpob waved his hand dismissively.
“Well, we should let the horses rest then,” he said.
Arthit stared at him suspiciously but Prince Kongpob just smiled brightly and a little mischievously at him. Clearly, he was not inclined to move from this spot before he was ready. Arthit sighed. It wasn’t as if he had actually expected tonight to be a real night hunt. Still, he couldn’t let the prince think he was so easily convinced.
“The horses have rested all day.”
“Well, perhaps the rest is for me as well. It’s been a tiring day.” Prince Kongpob stepped closer to Arthit, a pleading look on his face. “Have mercy on your prince, won’t you Arthit?”
Arthit’s cheeks burned at the way Prince Kongpob said his name, low and warm like a secret between them. He quickly leaned back, putting distance between them. Disappointment flickered in Prince Kongpob’s eyes.
“If that’s what you wish, Your Highness.”
Even in the yellow lantern light, Arthit could see the way that Prince Kongpob’s eyes brightened at his acquiescence. He turned away, busying himself with dismounting his own horse while Prince Kongpob pulled things out of his pack. When Arthit turned around he saw that Prince Kongpob had pulled out a large blanket and a small box. Arthit hovered by his side uncertainty, not sure what he was meant to do.
“Can I assist you Your Highness?”
Prince Kongpob shook his head. “No need, this will be quick.”
True to his words, Prince Kongpob didn’t take long to finish his preparations. Arthit watched with rising confusion as the prince laid out a blanket and then placed the box and lantern on top of it before gesturing for Arthit to sit down. Arthit glanced down at the blanket. It was thick and well made, almost elegant and far too expensive for the rough grass of the hunting grounds. Still, it was preferable to the prickly grass so Arthit carefully climbed onto the blanket, Prince Kongpob joining him without hesitation.
It should have been awkward, sitting alone with the prince. Yet it wasn’t. Arthit was unsure of when it had happened, but at some point the prince had become someone he liked being around. Even though he didn’t understand why the feeling was mutual. They sat in a companionable quiet, Prince Kongpob offering him the box Arthit had noticed earlier, which contained a multitude of fruits. After a few weak protests Arthit accepted a longan, and he was in the middle of peeling it when the prince spoke.
“Have you ever gone star gazing?”
Arthit looked up from the fruit in his hand. “Star gazing?” When would he have had time for that? He shook his head, looking back down at the now half peeled fruit.
“Tonight’s a good night for it.”
Arthit bit into the longnan, listening intently as Prince Kongpob continued speaking. He pointed out several stars, explaining their patterns and stories his tutors had shared with him. Sometimes, he would lean into Arthit’s side to point out a particular star, so close that their shoulders were pressed together. When that would happen, Arthit found himself unable to focus on anything but the heat of the prince’s body beside him. Each time it happened, despite the prince’s thorough explanations, he couldn’t have found the star if it was the only thing in the sky.
Mostly though, Prince Kongpob kept enough distance that Arthit could listen to his stories. He had a habit of straying slightly from the story, interspersing his opinion throughout, but his voice was smooth and pleasant to listen to. Prince Kongpob spoke for so long his voice grew hoarse before finally lapsing into silence. The last of his words lingered in the air, painting the melancholy image of a man who looked too soon at his wife, only for her to disappear. It was a hauntingly sad story, one Arthit had never heard before but knew he would remember long after.
Without the buffer of the prince’s voice, Arthit was all too aware of how close they were sitting, of how if he were to move a few centimeters to his left, he could once again press their arms together. The thought startled him with its boldness, and he quickly shifted the opposite direction.
“Your Highness?” he asked, blunt and abrupt before the stillness of the night brought other even more improper actions to mind.
Arthit swallowed. In the darkness, alone and surrounded by an empty expanse, his name sounded intimate on the prince’s lips. He looked at Prince Kongpob only to find the other staring directly at him. It was overwhelming, all that attention focused on him when he was merely sitting beside the other.
“Why-” The rest of his words became muddled, sticking to his throat and refusing to leave his mouth, all of his courage spent on looking the prince in the eye. Arthit swallowed. Prince Kongpob’s eyes were soft and patient, seemingly content to wait as long as needed for Arthit to speak.
“Why did you bring me here?” he managed at last.
“I thought you’d like to see the stars,” Prince Kongpob said easily.
“So you lied to me about a night hunt?” Arthit asked, torn between frustration and reluctant fondness. Prince Kongpob instantly moved closer, hands hovering uncertainly over Arthit’s, his expression apologetic but without regret.
“If you really wanted to go night hunting, I would have,” he said and Arthit frowned. Good intentions aside, he wished Prince Kongpob had made his purpose clear from the start.
“You didn’t tell me the truth,” he said, and was surprised at the hurt that managed to seep into his tone.
“I’m sorry.” Prince Kongpob’s words were heartfelt, the sentiment reflected in his expression. It amazed Arthit sometimes, how fully the prince wore his feelings on his face. “I just didn’t think you’d come otherwise.”
Arthit refused to acknowledge the fact that the prince had been correct in that conclusion.
“Don’t lie to me again,” he said. He shouldn’t, not when he had no place to ask anything of Prince Kongpob, but it felt easier to let go of his usual rules and inhibitions here, surrounded only by the night and the stars.
“I won’t. I promise.”
Prince Kongpob even held out his hand, pinky extended. Arthit huffed but reached back out, gently entangling their pinkies before quickly looking away from Prince Kongpob’s earnest expression. He wished the other man wouldn’t look at him like that. It did funny things to his heart. It made him think of wishing for improbable, impossible things.
“You brought him!”
Arthit looked up to see Prince Kongpob striding toward him and Bonus, sounding far too excited to simply be meeting them. Arthit resisted the urge to roll his eyes as he bowed in greeting.
“Of course I did. How else will you learn how to work with a hunting dog?”
Prince Kongpob shook his head, a smile tugging at his lips. He didn’t say anything in response as he knelt down to face Bonus. Offering his hand, Bonus sniffed him curiously before nuzzling the open palm. Prince Kongpob immediately made a soft cooing noise, running a hand over Bonus’s head before beginning to scratch behind the dog’s ears. His hands were surprisingly gentle in their motions.
“Awww, aren’t you a good boy?” he asked sweetly. Bonus nosed at Prince Kongpob’s hand again before moving closer, sniffing at his shirt. A low whine slipped from Bonus’ throat before he began pawing at one of the Prince’s pockets. Arthit was quick to admonish Bonus but Prince Kongpob merely laughed and shook his head.
“I think he smells the treats I have,” Prince Kongpob said. Immediately Bonus’ ears perked up.
Arthit raised his eyebrows. “You have treats?”
Prince Kongpob nodded eagerly. “I asked Tew for them.” He patted the pocket of his pants where Bonus had been sniffing. He hesitated, and then asked, “Can I?”
Arthit was met with two pairs of wide, pleading eyes. If he didn’t say yes, Arthit suspected Bonus would somehow end up with them anyway, but he nodded all the same. Prince Kongpob’s smile brightened and Arthit quickly looked away, instead watching the eager way Bonus lapped up the treats.
Arthit watched their interaction carefully. He had long believed that Bonus was better than most people at reading others and while he liked the prince, he wanted to see if he’d been right. Unsurprisingly, Bonus seemed to like the prince. It was both irritating and relieving how quickly Bonus had come to the same conclusion Arthit had.
“How long have you had him?”
Arthit shook his head, bringing himself back to the present.
“Since he was a puppy. Almost eight years.”
Prince Kongpob nodded, glancing down at Bonus. “Eight years old huh?” he asked the greyhound affectionately, eyes soft. They made a domestic picture, Prince Kongpob sitting beside and almost leaning against Bonus as he fed Bonus treats. Prince Kongpob looked back up at Arthit after a moment. “He’s older than I thought,” he said.
“He was the oldest of his litter,” Arthit said proudly.
Arthit’s smile turned melancholy. “There were six. Three of them went to other people, and I got the others.”
Arthit’s voice trailed off at the end. He hadn’t thought of Lotus or Obsidian in some time.
“Where are they?” Prince Kongpob asked, and Arthit swallowed.
It was silly, to still be so affected by a pair of dogs after so many years, but he couldn’t help the way his throat tightened. They had been his constant companions since they were first brought to him, and kept the loneliness at bay on the nights the world seemed a little too large for a man alone in his home.
He still had nightmares about the hunts they had died at. When he didn’t answer, understanding crossed the prince’s face. Prince Kongpob reached out, placing a hand on Arthit’s shoulder. He didn’t say anything, and somehow that was more of a comfort than any words he could have said.
A low whine broke the silence, Bonus having stepped away from Prince Kongpob to nuzzle at Arthit’s hand. His fur was soft against Arthit’s fingers, a welcome warmth that grounded him. Arthit blinked rapidly to push away the wetness gathered in his eyes, petting Bonus gently in thanks.
“Bonus loves you very much,” Prince Kongpob observed. His left hand was still stroking Bonus’ back.
Arthit cleared his throat, quickly looking away. “He does.”
“I can see why.”
Prince Kongpob looked up at him from where he was still kneeling on the ground petting Bonus. Arthit swallowed, the intensity on Prince Kongpob’s face leaving him unable to look the prince in the eye.
“Your Highness,” he said lowly, the title half admonishment, half thanks.
Prince Kongpob seemed to recognize his discomfort, pulling back slightly. Arthit breathed easier when Prince Kongpob’s eyes turned back to Bonus.
“Have you thought of finding new dogs?” he asked lightly.
“I have,” Arthit said. He was grateful for the quick change of subject. “But they’re often already promised to others.”
The prince hummed in acknowledgement, a thoughtful expression on his face. He fed Bonus another treat before speaking again, easily drawing Arthit into conversation about how he’d trained Bonus. Bonus lounged comfortably between them, looking nothing like the fierce hunting dog he was trained to be, nudging Prince Kongpob’s hands for treats. Arthit soon joined them sitting on the ground, all thoughts of the day’s lesson gone as he debated the uses of greyhounds versus falcons in hunts.
It was late, nearing dusk as Arthit made his way through the castle. The air was hot, the humidity thick against his skin. Without any breeze to cool him, Arthit tugged at the top of his shirt, a poor replacement for a fan. In the near dark, the castle’s shrubbery that followed its winding pathways were little more than indistinct landmarks. Still, he had traveled the path to the garden’s first gazebo often enough that he no longer needed to count the number of turns or look for familiar bushes.
As Arthit continued down the path, golden seeped into the air ahead of him, turning the near black of the shrubbery into a dark, rich green. Curiosity quickened his steps until Arthit caught sight of the gazebo. His steps slowed as he looked at the small building. Along with the lanterns that hung from its ceiling, new lanterns of gold and blue now encircled the gazebo, turning the air a gentle gold. When he was close enough to see inside, he raised his eyebrows. There were strings of tiny Ratchaphruek lining the gazebo’s walls, their yellow petals a stark contrast to the dark wood of the gazebo. The air smelled distinctly of orchids, though Arthit thought he could also detect the smell of cooked meat. A delicate blue cloth now rested atop the gazebo’s center table, where a large basket sat in front of the man who had summoned Arthit.
“Your Highness.” Arthit spoke quietly as he bowed, as though deferring to the calm and still of the night.
Prince Kongpob turned to look at him, quickly standing.
“You’re here!” His smile far outshone the lanterns around them and rivaled the moon above.
The clear joy in his expression made Arthit’s breath catch. It was truly a privilege, to see Prince Kongpob like this, with the golden light softening his sharp features and casting a gentle haze over the night.
“Did you think I would ignore your summons?” Arthit teased, and Prince Kongpob laughed.
“I knew you would come.” Prince Kongpob strode forward, placing a careful hand against Arthit’s back in an attempt to lead him forward. Despite the layers of clothing between them and the prince’s light touch, Prince Kongpob’s palm was heavy and Arthit quickly stepped forward, shaking his head. Prince Kongpob frowned but said nothing, instead waiting for Arthit to sit down before proffering the basket to him.
“I brought this for you.”
Arthit had guessed Prince Kongpob had summoned him for a similar purpose, and despite his worries about how easily Prince Kongpob seemed to forget their differences, was touched. Still, he murmured a protest he knew would be pointless, and was proved right when Prince Kongpob simply smiled and pushed the basket closer to him. Arthit frowned at him but opened the basket.
There was a surprising assortment of fruit inside, what looked like sangkhaya, and-
“Pad krapow,” Arthit said, looking over at Prince Kongpob in surprise. There was a large container filled with it, and beside it a small container of red chilis.
“Your Highness,” he started.
“Just take it Arthit,” Prince Kongpob said firmly. “It’s a gift.”
Arthit considered arguing but quickly decided against it. He decided to blame it on the calm atmosphere and scent of familiar food that made him soft as he said, “Of course. Thank you, Your Highness.”
To keep his hands busy and to avoid looking too long at the prince, Arthit began to take the food out and divide it between them. The fruit went onto a plate between them, and Arthit carefully split the pad krapow between them, taking out the small bowl of chilis but avoiding placing any chilis in Prince Kongpob’s. He left the sangkhaya inside the basket, deciding they could take it out later.
“Thank you,” Prince Kongpob said, smiling at Arthit in that way that both thrilled and worried him.
Arthit gave him a shy smile in return as they began eating, fidgeting slightly in his seat. The food was some of the best he’d ever tasted, the gazebo was well-lit and beautifully decorated, and he was with someone who had inexplicably become more important to him than Arthit preferred to admit. And yet… Arthit felt uncomfortable.
Such pleasures were not meant for people like him, no matter how much he enjoyed them. He was merely a huntsman, and it should be a princess where he sat now, or at least someone whom it would not embarrass Prince Kongpob to be seen with in the day.
“Arthit?” Prince Kongpob’s voice was worried.
Arthit fidgeted with the spoon in his hand, resisting the urge to fiddle with his sleeves.
“Is something wrong?”
Yes, Arthit knew he should say. He was not unaware of the change in the way the prince viewed him, was well aware of how… intimate this meal was. He knew he should scold the prince, knew that the Arthit of just a few months ago would have. But today’s Arthit knew Prince Kongpob, liked him even. He knew his favorite food and the way he would ramble when bored and worries he had about the future. Today’s Arthit was selfish.
“I,” he started, but stopped just as quickly. There was a hesitant smile on the prince’s face, but beneath that, worry.
Foolishly perhaps, Arthit did not want to make that worry turn into sadness. For tonight, he decided he would be selfish. Just this once and then he would reinforce the boundary between them. He made an effort to relax, letting his shoulders loosen and giving Prince Kongpob a cheerful smile.
“Nothing, Your Highness. I was just worrying about Bonus,” he lied.
“Oh? Is something wrong with him?” Concern colored Prince Kongpob’s expression, and it was terribly endearing how worried he seemed for a dog he’d met twice.
“No. I was just thinking he’ll be upset I’ve been gone for so much of the day,” he said.
Prince Kongpob nodded solemnly. “I’ll apologize to him next time I see him,” he said seriously, though there was a hint of laughter in his tone.
“Your Highness,” Arthit said, letting some of his exasperation leak into his voice.
Prince Kongpob laughed, dispelling the uncertain air of before. Arthit relaxed further, allowing himself to simply enjoy this moment so he could remember it later. He let Prince Kongpob guide the conversation as they ate, making their way through the pad krapow while they spoke about Bonus and the prince’s last hunt. Once that was gone, Arthit listened to Prince Kongpob’s latest stories from his tutors as they finished the fruit and over the sangkhaya they discussed the falconer’s newest acquisition.
“Emeret? I thought you named Pak’s newest falcon Zazu,” Arthit said, raising an eyebrow.
Prince Kongpob’s eyes brightened as he smiled warmly at Arthit. “You remembered.”
“It was a memorable story, Your Highness.”
Prince Kongpob nodded in acknowledgement. He took another bite of sangkhaya before looking at Arthit.
“We’ve known each other for some time now. You don’t have to call me so formally. You can use my name,” Prince Kongpob said easily.
Arthit’s reply died in his throat as he realized the implications of the prince’s words. Prince Kongpob had always said he saw Arthit as an equal, but this was the closest he’d come to acknowledging they weren’t. That they could never be. Not really, not when there was so much of a divide between them.
You don’t have to call me so formally. You can use my name. He knew Prince Kongpob had meant it as a kindness, a way to bridge the gap between them, but for Arthit it merely reminded him of how different they were.
“I could not be so informal, Your Highness.”
“What if I asked you to?”
Arthit swallowed. He wished the prince would stop giving him such ridiculous hopes.
“I would like to hear my name on your lips, even if just once,” Prince Kongpob continued. Surrounded by golden light and with the lingering cheerful atmosphere, it almost felt like a request Arthit could grant.
“If you could only hear it once, would you really want to hear it now?” he asked in lieu of an answer.
“I would hear it whenever you wished to say it,” Prince Kongpob answered immediately. “Today, tomorrow, a fortnight from now. I would wait until this year’s first frost arrives or longer. As long as you are the one speaking, I will always be ready to listen.”
Arthit inhaled sharply at the declaration, unable to look away from Prince’s Kongpob’s intense expression. He struggled to find some combination of words that would make sense, that could encompass all that he was thinking and feeling but there was too much going on in his head. The words tangled together like wind battered wires, catching on his teeth and tongue, scattering all the words he can’t bring himself to say.
“I- you,” he tried, but the words he wanted were just out of reach.
Prince Kongpob’s voice was gentle but he still jumped in surprise.
“I will always be here to listen, but only when you’re ready.”
Arthit nodded, though the words only slightly lessened his anxiety. He let Prince Kongpob shift the conversation and spoke at the correct moments, silently resolving to do better at maintaining the distance he’d let lapse over the past months.
Despite his resolve, Arthit found it difficult to keep distant from Prince Kongpob. The prince continued to seek him out, often at the most unexpected times, and Arthit enjoyed their meetings too much to truly dissuade him. Not to mention they still had their archery lessons, which Prince Kongpob insisted on continuing. Those had devolved somewhat from the original lessons, becoming less for learning and more of an exercise to see how many times Arthit could convince Prince Kongpob to hit the target.
Today’s lesson was no exception. If anything, both were more distracted from the original intent than usual, Arthit’s attention often wandering to the large gift he’d brought, obscured by a thick brown cloth. Prince Kongpob had asked about its presence, but after being told he could look at it after their lesson, redirected his attention without further questions.
There was the dull thud of an arrow hitting its mark, just the fifth for today’s lesson Arthit noted. It was an abysmal number for how long Prince Kongpob had been practicing, but Arthit was far too nervous to scold the prince like he usually did. He watched Prince Kongpob nock the final arrow in his quiver, right hand just brushing the side of his jaw before letting the arrow fly. It landed with a solid thunk in the outer rings of the target, tearing the paper of the target. Prince Kongpob glanced over at Arthit.
“One more round, and then you can be done for the day,” Arthit said.
Prince Kongpob nodded. Arthit watched carefully, studying the prince’s form as he nocked the next arrow. He made a striking figure in the moments before he let the arrow fly. A dark silhouette against the fading light, he could have been a painting. The lines of his body were sharp and clear, the strength of his arms visible in the steady way he drew back the arrow until it was parallel to the lean lines of his torso.
Arthit watched as Prince Kongpob adjusted his hand until his fingers just grazed his jaw before letting the arrow go. It glanced off the side of the target as Arthit expected; he had long ago observed the prince’s lack of hits came from the angle at which the prince released the arrow. The prince continued until the quiver was empty and a total of three arrows were stuck in the target. By unspoken agreement the two of them collected the arrows, and it wasn’t until the last arrow had been collected that Arthit spoke.
“Your Highness,” he started but Prince Kongpob cut him off.
“That’s not my name you know.”
Arthit frowned at him as he said, “It’s what is proper for me to call you.”
“Arthit,” Prince Kongpob said softly, but Arthit quickly interrupted him. He had an idea of what the prince was going to say and it would do him no good to hear it.
“One of your tutors informed me your birthday is in two days,” he said.
Across from him Prince Kongpob blinked and then nodded slowly. His eyes moved to the cloth covered shape behind Arthit and a flicker of excitement crossed his face.
“It is.” There was a mix of excitement and curiosity in his voice.
“I will not see you then, but I wished to give you a gift.” Arthit stepped backwards until he was behind the cloth covered object, gesturing to it as he said, “This is for you.”
To his surprise Prince Kongpob stayed where he was, an expression between a frown and a pout on his face.
“How do you know we will not see each other?”
Arthit wondered when they had become so familiar the prince would ask such a question.
“I’m sure you will be too busy with the celebration in your honor to think of visiting me,” he said, pretending to count the arrows in his quiver. Prince Kongpob’s celebration was one that had been weeks in the making, and though closed to people such as him, widely anticipated.
“I could never be too busy for you,” Prince Kongpob said, flashing Arthit one of his brightest smiles that never failed to make Arthit simultaneously fond and embarrassed. Arthit’s objection died in his throat as Prince Kongpob moved forward and kneeled down to reach for his gift. Arthit was abruptly uncertain of his choice of gift. It wasn’t anywhere near the quality Prince Kongpob deserved or was used to, and now that he thought about it, seemed too practical for something as personal as a birthday.
As Prince Kongpob pulled back the cloth to reveal the large yew bow Arthit had spent the last few weeks preparing, Arthit began to babble. It felt important to make Prince Kongpob aware of how though Arthit was not an expert in bowmaking, he’d gone to the castle bowyer to ensure the bow was made of the best yew wood and accompanied by the smoothest poplar arrows Arthit could carve. Prince Kongpob lifted the bow experimentally, and for a moment Arthit thought he was going to dry fire the arrow. Thankfully, Prince Kongpob only seemed to be testing the bow’s weight before studying the arrows and their fletching.
“You made it well,” Prince Kongpob said eventually, effectively stopping Arthit’s babbling.
“I don’t think-”
“Arthit.” Prince Kongpob’s voice was firm but fond. The well of insecurities that had steadily been making its way out of Arthit’s mouth abruptly dried, rendering him silent. “You made it well,” Prince Kongpob repeated. He carefully set the bow down beside the quiver of arrows, rising to his feet so that he was standing in front of Arthit.
Arthit swallowed, acutely aware of how close they were standing. Of how if he were able to look up, he’d be able to see the small dimple and fluffy cheeks that only appeared when Prince Kongpob was at his happiest.
“You’re welcome, Your Highness,” he said, just barely avoiding stuttering.
“Your Highness,” Arthit whispered, and he wasn’t sure if it was an admonishment or plea.
“Say my name, please,” Prince Kongpob whispered back, leaning forward just enough that their foreheads touched. Arthit inhaled sharply, eyes darting up to see Prince Kongpob looking at him with wide, pleading eyes. “Just once? For my birthday?”
Arthit wondered if Prince Kongpob knew just how powerless he felt in this moment, so close to being able to give what Prince Kongpob wanted but knowing he shouldn’t. The hope in Prince Kongpob’s eyes was so bright.
“I already gave you a present,” Arthit pointed out.
“But I would much prefer to hear how sweet my name sounds when you say it.”
“You shouldn’t say such a thing,” Arthit murmured, barely a whisper. Prince Kongpob heard it clearly from how closely they were pressed together.
“Why not?” Prince Kongpob asked, as though it were merely a matter of Arthit shaping his mouth around the syllables of his name. “It’s the truth.”
“Your Highness,” he said again, feeling his resolve wavering.
“You can call me by name. I would like you to.”
The last sentence was spoken softly, a whisper in the still summer air that lingered. Arthit tore his eyes away from where he’d been staring at Prince Kongpob. Distance, he reminded himself.
“Perhaps for your next birthday.”
“I will take this as your promise then.”
Rip the whole month that it took to post this 😅 If anyone would like to be an accountability buddy and make sure I actually write the rest of the chapters, my Twitter dms are open.