I. The Wheel of Fortune

Less than a month had passed since he received the news. He was certain of that not by memory, but from Sir Martin reminding him of that date when he informed him about the king wanting to see him. He was too drunk to think that far back. By noon, he had already drank more than most men would over a week, and by evening, he was still drinking. If not for years of excessively downing any alcohol he could find, he would be out cold. Given his state, he was impressed he was able to stand and even more that he sounded relatively fluid when he spoke. Martin initially gave him looks of pity, but by the fourth day, he stared at him with disappointment and under that, disgust. He was certain that was definitely there, hidden behind a thin mask. With that knowledge, he saw no reason to pretend he was anything but a wreck. If Martin was already disappointed with him, what was the point, he thought. "I know you are still...recovering from what happened, but you must see the king. Please, make yourself as presentable as you can. Given the situation, I doubt he expects you to be at your best, but you must..." Martin's words were a mix of sternness and attempts at sympathy. He had no interest in either. "Not at my best...This is how I usually was before. I'm exactly what he expects of me." "You were doing so much better when..." Martin started to say. "Forget that. That wasn't me. That was an illusion, as was everything from then." He walked over to the door. "I'll go on my way. I know I embarrass you enough as is. I won't make it worse in front of the king." "Luke," Martin said as he put a hand on the other man's shoulder. "You don't need to lock yourself up like this. I'll listen for however long you need. Don't let it destroy you." "There's nothing to say." Luke replied. He did not face Martin. "There's no reason to think about me. I'll be back to how I was soon enough and you'll be yelling at me for flirting in public or leaving the wrong person's bed in the morning. You should take on someone new to train up. That will get people thinking differently of you, at least." "You've always been so stubborn. It's a shame they died. You were finally..." "Enough with that now." Luke shook his head. "What does the king want of me?" Martin had so much more to say, but there was no time. "King Philip has a task for you, a task that must not be made known to the general public. Or me, for that matter. He wants to keep this very secretive. That is all I can tell you." Luke put his hand on the wall to balance himself. He wasn't as stable as he thought. "A secret task? Why on earth would he want me for that? Is this going to be another one of his 'quests' that will require me to be away for a year chasing some superstitious nonsense so I'll be out of his hair?" Martin bit his tongue. "I don't know what he wants, but I don't think it's anything like that. If it was, he would have told me." Luke stumbled down the hall. "It doesn't matter. It's not like I can refuse him." Martin made one last attempt to reach him. "Luke, when you're done meeting with the king, let's talk. At least, let me help you to bed. You look as though you can barely stand." Luke kept moving forward. "That's nothing new. Go on to bed, old man. I'll be up far longer than you, I can assure you." "Are you going out tonight?" Martin asked. "I'm not so old yet. I'm sure someone would enjoy my company tonight, and I won't have to exchange lengthy words with them." Luke wondered how long that would last. He was getting closer to thirty, and he would never admit it to anyone, but he noticed some grays the last time he looked in a mirror. Martin sighed. "Don't go too far out. The war may be over, but it is still unsafe to be alone, especially at night." Luke waved as he walked on. "I won't need to. Plenty will have me here." A year ago, he would have said those words with a flashy smirk and a seductive pose. He could not muster the energy nor care to bother with that flamboyant act. There was too much weighing him down from within. As he walked to the throne room, his mind wandered to other nobility. He stopped for a moment by a window to get some fresh air. The cold night bit his skin. He glanced up at the night sky. A storm was coming in again. All the stars were hidden away behind dark clouds. The only light outside was that of the full moon, its brilliance barely breaking through the veil of clouds. He felt over his chest to where he used to wear an amulet. The protective necklace now sat in a box of things he couldn't look at anymore. All he felt in its absence was the deep scar down the center of his chest that someone else gave him. In his disoriented state, he whispered to the moon. "You told me we'd meet again, you demon. If you've run off, why haven't you told me? You're really dead, aren't you?" Luke rested his head against the cool stones of the window. "You're both dead, aren't you? You promised me...you made me want to believe in so many things...but I am still here waiting, and you're..." Luke remembered he needed to hurry along. He did his best to walk down the hall. Under his breath, he cursed. "Damn the both of you to Hell." The king was waiting for him. When he entered the room, the king ordered the guard outside to lock the door. When the king called on him to give him a quest, there were often others in the room with them. Usually, the king's son, Prince James, would be beside him, mocking Luke for something or another. He was alone with the king now. The quietness of the room made him uneasy. Luke bowed before King Philip. "Your majesty, you requested my presence?" "Yes. Sir Luke, how have you been? I haven't seen much of you lately since the war ended. I've only heard rumors of your usual shenanigans." The king said. "Ah, well, I've been going out a lot late at night and...my sleeping patterns are strange. I'm sure it won't last." Luke stayed bowing as he spoke. "Given how recent it was, I'd say you're doing pretty well. Which is why I've called you here." The king lowered his voice. "I have a task for you. You must not speak to anyone of what it entails beyond myself." Luke had a feeling he wasn't going to like what he was about to hear. The king had a nasty habit of giving him tasks that were either too dirty or too lowly to waste on his other knights. His majesty often claimed this was because he trusted him most, but Luke knew the real reason was that no one liked the commoner bastard who'd managed to worm his way into knighthood and sit amongst those of more prestigious births. Sometimes the king gave him quests far away simply to keep him gone for months on end. Luke didn't care. He didn't want to be around anyone right then anyway. "Yes, your highness. How may I serve you?" "This will be the most important task I have ever given you. The very fate of the kingdom depends on this task being carried out without fail. Do you understand?" The king's face grew pale. Luke nodded. "You know of the north tower?" King Philip asked. "Yes, sir. It is forbidden to enter." Luke said. "Do you know why it is forbidden?" "No, sir." "Listen well, but never speak of what you hear tonight. I have many enemies, as you know. If word of this were to spread to even one..." The king cleared his throat. "Twenty-four years ago, that's when it began. That year, Prince James was born. You see, my son...is not an only child. That day, my wife bore a pair of boys." That was the first Luke had ever heard of there being another prince. He knew all sorts of rumors since working for the king, but never anything like that. "What happened to the other son? Did he die?" "No, he is very much alive. That night, a mysterious soothsayer came to the castle with a prediction for my sons and a gift of a rose. She told me, to ensure the future of the kingdom, the second born must become the next king and the first born must be confined. I was to lock him away in the highest tower, and should he ever leave it, it would spell ruin. Prince James is my second born son. The other one, he dwells in the north tower." It took all of his strength to not roll his eyes at the king's stupidity. He was certain the soothsayer asked for compensation for such an important "warning" as well. "If you don't mind me asking, if it troubles you so, why not have him executed?" "I cannot. If his life were to come to an end before he would naturally die, the results will be the same." The king said. Luke found something morbidly entertaining about the fact that infanticide was avoided solely because it wouldn't end well for the king. That the king could be so moved by the mad ramblings of an attention-seeking stranger was even more laughable. Noblemen were often more daft than commoners when it came to protecting their possessions, he thought. "I see. And what is it you would like me to do in relation to this? Guard duty, perhaps?" "No, this is more important than that. I need you to entertain him." Luke looked up at him in confusion. "Excuse me, sir?" Philip explained. "He needs entertainment and care. For years, I've had various maids look after him, but none of them lasted long after Lady Violet. She passed away a few years ago. None of my new maids can handle him. He's a horrid monster to them. I can't send my maids up there anymore. I tried sending some of my manservants up, but they fared no better than the maidservants. I need someone with a stronger hand to deal with him. He needs to be calmed and distracted, so he doesn't try to escape, and kept firmly in place if he resists that." Being trapped up in a tower alone with someone who didn't want him there was certainly not how he wanted to spend his time. He would have preferred the king sent him halfway around the world instead. At the very least, he could find plenty of nightly company abroad. He tried to politely decline. "I don't know if I'm the person best suited for this..." "Of course you are. I can't think of anyone more capable for this than you." The king continued to explain what the task entailed. "You must spend every day with him. Make sure he eats and such, has whatever he wants, and keep him disciplined." "Your majesty, I do not mean to be disrespectful, but it sounds as if you are asking me, a knight, to do the duties of a servant and a nanny." Luke said. He was certain the king would not expect anyone else of his status to take on such a task. "It may seem that way, but it is more than that. You will understand when you meet him tomorrow. The cook will have three meals prepared for you in the morning to give to him. You may eat before and after you leave the tower. You must not disobey this rule. If food is consumed within the tower by anyone who isn't the prince, the walls will begin to crack. You are to give him anything he wants, except the key." The king said. Another absurd detail. Luke struggled to pretend he cared, but his inhibitions were too low. He decided to play around with the king instead. "I can't give him just anything. What if he wants a woman to satisfy himself with?" "Bring him one, and get rid of her after you leave that night. I can't risk any leaks." The king responded quickly. Luke expected that answer. Women meant nothing to the king. In jest, he asked. "And if he asks for me as his entertainment? Surely, I must refuse that request." The king leaned forward in his throne, hands shaking. "I don't think you understand how important this task is. You must be willing to do anything, absolutely anything. The fate of the kingdom is at stake." Luke could hardly contain his laughter at hearing the king, in such a terrified state, suggest to him it was his duty to the kingdom to sleep with the king's son. "I suppose, for all the men I've bed, I certainly cannot refuse your majesty's son. That would be quite rude." "Now that we're clear on that, there is more you must know." The king continued his explanation of the task. "There are rules you must adhere to while you are in the tower. You cannot eat or drink inside the tower. You must leave the tower every night before midnight. You must enter the tower by eight in the morning every day. If it is past that time, you may not enter the tower that day or leave it. You may leave the tower as many times as you like between those points, but the first time you enter the tower for the day must be by eight and the last time you leave must be before midnight. Do not bring any food in there that has not been handled by the cook first. You must ensure he bathes every Sunday without fail. This goes without saying, and I know I needn't worry with you, but love must never grace him. Should he ever love and that love be reciprocated, his lover will set him free." 'What a bunch of bullshit.' Luke kept his thoughts to himself. "I can assure you that won't be a problem." "I know. That is part of why I'm choosing you. You are not so easily swayed by emotions. The pleasures of the world are your domain. You are the most fit person in this kingdom for this task." The king said. 'Sure I am. And you've not asked me to do this until now because why? Oh, because it has nothing to do with your son, and everything to do with wanting to get rid of me now that the war is done. Do you think I am stupid?' Luke wanted to say to the king, but he kept that inside. "Your son, what is his name?" "His name is Alan." King Philip said. "Tomorrow, I will expect you to be in the kitchen by a quarter till eight at the latest to retrieve his food for the day, and at the tower door before eight. Do you have any questions, Sir Luke?" "How do I get in? Don't I need a key?" "Oh, yes." The king picked up a small chest covered in chains and three locks from near his throne. He unlocked each of the locks. Inside was a rusted key. He took it out and offered it to Luke. "This is the key you need. There are only two copies of this key. Do not take this key lightly. I expect you to keep it on you at all times, and you must never let anyone other than me touch it. Not even Prince James is allowed to order it from you. Once you take this key, you accept all responsibility for him until I give order otherwise. Should he be freed or this key taken from you, I will have no choice but to put you on trial for treason." Luke accepted the key. "I understand, your majesty. For such an important task, I would expect nothing else. Is there anything in particular he likes? How should I entertain him?" "This is a new strategy. You will have to discover that information for yourself. I doubt you will have trouble with that." The king said. 'You're a worse person than I am. That's truly an accomplishment.' Luke bowed to the king. "I will serve you as best I can. Is there anything else you wish to tell me, your highness?" "That is all for now. I will expect regular updates on how things are going with him. For now, you are dismissed. Spend the rest of today getting familiar with the area around the tower, and time yourself to determine how long you need to get to where you have to go tomorrow. Until I order otherwise, this will be your one and only job for me." King Philip's last few words irked Luke, and confirmed his suspicions about why he was being chosen out of all the others in the kingdom. "I will. Thank you, your majesty, for granting me the privilege of performing this task for you." Luke bowed deeper. He thought to himself, 'I'm going to drink myself to sleep after this.' With everything discussed, Luke left and went to the cellar to grab something to drink in the room he was currently staying in. He drank late into the evening, fell asleep for about five hours, then woke in the early hours of the morning before sunrise. Luke woke with a terrible headache, but he didn't mind. He'd forgotten his dreams when he woke. Luke was grateful for that. He didn't need to test how long it took to get to the tower or the kitchen. The kitchen was a ten minute walk, and the tower was about seven minutes from there. Coming back from the tower to his bedroom would take twelve minutes. He'd been around that area enough times to know that by heart, but the king didn't know he often used to visit the tower. On days when he wanted to get away from the world, the north tower was a perfect escape. Since it was forbidden to go there, no one else was ever around. He could sit with his thoughts in peace. However, being forced to go inside and that place now being tied to a job, annoyed him. That was his special, private place. He didn't want the king or anyone else being connected to that space. He sighed and got dressed for the day. Luke mumbled to himself as he washed off his face. "Should've drank in town. Could've done with a good fuck before this bullshit." Low rumbling caught his attention. Luke looked out the window. A thunderstorm raged outside. It was winter, but since he'd gotten back from his last battle, the kingdom was hit with a strange warm front. It had rained heavily on and off the entire time he'd been back. "Of course. Can't you stop for me today?" He said to the sky. Luke clutched his head. "I need a drink." Luke picked up one of the bottles he brought back yesterday. Empty. He checked the others. All were empty. Luke sighed again. He grabbed the old key and went down to the cellar. He drank from the first bottle he could get his hands on, downing half of it. Luke walked out toward the tower. He looked at it from underneath an archway. Once he went in there, it wouldn't be his place anymore. Given the king's words, he wondered if he would have a place at all in the castle if he were taken off the task by anything short of another war. He laughed at his own misfortune. "You've finally found a way to cage me, you damn old fool." Out of protest, he walked over to the tower and leaned against it in the spot where he always used to. He held his cloak from within to keep the wind from uncovering his body to the rain and listened. He could hear the kitchen servants talking amongst themselves, just coming in to start on things before the cook got up. Farther away, he heard other early risers talking as they went on to wherever they needed to go. The cold water sprayed on his face by the wind felt good. His anger subsided some as he rested there. Luke glanced up at the top of the tower. Before yesterday, he never really questioned who or what was at the top of the tower. He assumed it was used for storage, since he never saw anyone go in or out of it when he rested in the shelter of its great shadow. That someone else had been in his secret space the entire time, possibly watching him from above, made him a little uneasy. "Thief." He whispered to the tiny window high above him. His mind wandered to somewhere else, a set of dreams he once had about the top of that tower. Those dreams were warm and frightening, where he met with someone who sounded and looked like Prince James. Those were dreams he wanted to forget, because they made him think of someone else. Even if the man at the top of the tower did have the same appearance as James and the room there looked the same as in his dreams, it wouldn't matter. Nothing good was going to come of this, he told himself. He was done with pleasant dreams. Luke intended to forget every single one of them. In silence, he listened to the rain for a little while longer. Then, he walked over to the kitchen. He had nothing to do for a while, so he chatted with the kitchen servants about trivial things. At six, the cook came in and got to work. He noticed Luke right away. He said. "You're not supposed to be here for at least another hour and a half." "Couldn't sleep. I'm hungry." Luke said. He snatched an apple from the table and took a bite. "So, the king's sending you up there, huh? He must really hate you." The cook said. "What else is new?" Luke took a seat at a table and watched the cook. "You're not being very covert about matters. I take it what's going on in the tower is an open secret within these walls." "Everyone here knows about Alan." One of the servants said. "It'd be hard for us to not all know. We're expected to prepare most of his necessities. The king makes us warm his bath water too." Another servant said. "Be glad he doesn't make you scrub his toilet or wash his clothes. That'll be Sir Luke's job now." The cook looked directly at Luke. "I take it you already know how to do things like that, right, bastard knight? You weren't born with a silver spoon up your ass like those others. Or perhaps you've gotten used to servants wiping your ass at this point, have you?" "Don't be ridiculous. I was born poor, and I don't care what other noblemen think. I can clean myself. They act like they're infants." Luke took the cook's comments in stride. He could tell the cook was testing Luke more than trying to aggravate him. "Have any of you been up there? Do you know if this...what was it, Alan? Do you know if he's good looking or not? Because, well, you know me." "I saw him once when he was about this tall." The cook held his hand up to his waist. "Don't know what he looks like now. He's James's twin, so I'd assume he looks about the same as that shithead." Luke laughed. "I didn't even think about that. That really dampens my mood. Well, maybe he's different enough. James has a nice face. It's everything else about him that's nauseating. How long do you think this rain is going to keep up?" "Who knows. This is some strange weather for January." A young servant girl said. She giggled. "Are you going to seduce the prince in the tower?" "I need to get something out of this job." Luke said in jest. "You would be the first to succeed in that, though you are not the first to attempt." The cook said. He finished off a dish he was preparing. "Couple years ago, they sent a pretty lady up there to try and seduce him. He picked her up and threw her out the door. She was a beauty too. Don't know if he's so isolated he doesn't understand human things anymore or if she didn't interest him." "He threw her?" Luke asked. "That's what she said. That girl always exaggerated. Think he probably shoved her more than threw, but who knows. Poor girl's dead now." The cook started on the next dish. "Dead?" Luke's mind came up with the most horrid and plausible reason he could imagine. "Let me guess. She failed in her task, so Philip let her hang." "Philip's always been a rotten one. When I was young, I almost got a job working for King Christopher in the next kingdom over, but his son, Argus, was a piece of shit too, and I didn't wanna work for that asshole. But Christopher and Argus are both gone now. It's Wren, right? He's the one in charge now. You know him, don't you? Would you say he's alright to work with?" The cook asked Luke. Luke's shoulders tensed. He didn't want to think about Wren right then. "Wren, he's a nice man. I don't think you'd have any problems if you worked for him." "It's a shame how many died that last battle of the war. You lost your older brother, and you were friend's with Wren's older brother too, from what I heard." The cook's words made Luke tense more. "Can't believe those two are dead. I always heard they were great warriors." Luke got up from the table. "Do you have any beer?" "Yeah, we got some. I wouldn't recommend drinking much before you go up there. You're in for a long day, and a long walk up and down those steps." The cook warned him. "I'll be fine." Luke waved at him. He changed the subject. "Is that his food you're fixing?" "I'll let ya know when I'm done." The cook said. Luke drank some beer while he waited. The cook finished everything around seven. The cook stacked the covered dishes and tied them up together for Luke to carry more easily. Luke took the stack and waved goodbye to everyone on his way out. "See you tomorrow." Luke put his hood on. He glanced out at the weather outside. Lightning scattered across the sky. The wind nearly knocked his hood back off. "Damn. It's worse. Well, wish me luck." "Good luck." The cook said. Luke walked out to the tower. The storm raged above him. He took out the heavy key and stared out at the door. He had plenty of time left before he needed to go in there, but he didn't want to wait any longer. He walked up the small set of steps to the tower door. He put the food down for a moment and held the big, heavy lock and unlocked it. Luke wondered what he was supposed to do with the lock after that. On the other side of the door, Luke was greeted by the beginning of another flight of stairs. He picked up the food and went inside. As he closed the door, he saw several latches on the inside. Luke latched the door and carried the big lock with him. There were no windows outside of the single one at the top of the tower. When he shut the door, all the light vanished. He unlatched the door again to see if there was something he could use as a light. Reinspecting the entrance, he found a lantern directly beside the door. He rolled his eyes as he lit it, then he latched the door back. At the top of the tower, he found another door with a lock that looked identical to the one that was on the first door. Since he was given only one key and there didn't appear to be any others inside, he assumed he was supposed to use the same key on this one. As he suspected, it worked. 'Is all this really necessary?' Luke opened the door. When he entered the room at the top of the tower, most of the room was covered by darkness. A small window, too tiny to lean out of, let in the only source of natural light. The storm outside left him little light at all beyond the lantern in his hand. He could make out a table nearby with a few candles. He lit them and the rest he was able to find in the room. This felt odd to him, having so many lit early in the day. He sarcastically thought to himself, 'Is that also what the soothsayer told you to do?' His stomach turned. The room looked like the one from his dreams, but he pushed aside that uneasy feeling it gave him. 'I'm misremembering and convincing myself it looks the same. It's not the same at all.' Luke noticed the prince was still in bed. He pulled the sheets back as he sat beside him on the bed. The man sleeping unaware didn't appear to be anything special. He didn't look like someone who terrorized servants, and certainly not like a demon hellbent on crushing the kingdom. He was perfectly ordinary, Luke thought, though very handsome. As he expected, the prince looked similar to his twin brother, but with shorter hair. His appearance sent a shiver down Luke's spine, but he told himself once again that what he was thinking was wrong. His dreams were different. He was misremembering. There was nothing more to it than that. Those thoughts were pushed out. He focused instead on how attractive the prince was. "How old did he say you were, twenty-four? Huh, is James really that old?" He brushed back the prince's bangs. "So, you're three years younger than me." He put the lantern and the locks on the table beside the bed. Luke examined the man's appearance more closely. He was thin, much thinner than his twin brother, and very pale. His appearance made Luke wonder if the man was ill or being underfed. His twin, James, was also on the thin side, but nowhere near so thin. Luke leaned down and whispered into the sleeping prince's ear. "It's time to wake up, your majesty." The prince opened his eyes. In that moment, when their eyes met, Luke forgot his surroundings. The room around him wasn't there. He saw something beyond it, a view from far past the castle gates. A hot, white bolt struck the north tower, setting it ablaze. The flames consumed everything they touched, spreading outward across the land. The entire castle burned. Screams pierced his ears. He blinked and the vision faded. Everything returned to normal. 'What the hell was that?' The prince appeared to be just as startled as he was. He sat up and backed away from Luke so quickly he accidentally fell off the bed and dragged the blanket off with him. The prince peeked back over the side of the bed. "Who are you?" "Your new nanny." Luke joked. "You're awfully manly for a nanny." The prince kept a safe distance. "I tried my best." Luke got up from the bed. He picked up the food and walked over to the table in the center of the room. "Well, Prince Charming, it's time to get up. I have breakfast for you." Alan got back onto the bed. He wrapped the blanket around himself. "I'm not hungry." "I don't give a shit." Luke put the stack of food on the table. He untied it and uncovered the dish meant for breakfast. "If you don't want to eat, starve yourself then. That's none of my concern." "Then leave me be. I'm not interested in speaking with you." The prince said. "Coincidentally, neither am I." Luke looked at the food. He was still hungry. He ate some of the food off the plate. "What are you doing?" The prince asked. "You said you weren't going to eat it." Luke sat down at the table. "You're the first person I've ever seen eat in here." The prince let the blanket hang more loosely off his body. "Is that so? Some of your father's servants are very stupid then." Luke helped himself to the prince's breakfast. "You're a very rude man." He said. "Why, thank you. I've always valued honesty over appearances." Luke got up. He was tired again, and he wanted to get out of this job as quickly as possible. The prince was clearly already annoyed with his presence. Luke decided to rile him up more. He went over to the prince and lay on the bed. The prince moved over on the bed to keep some distance between them. "Do you also find it appropriate to lay on the bed of a stranger whenever you please?" "Oh, I prefer it." Luke grinned at him. "Does it bother you...Alan, was it?" "You're also the first to not use my title." The prince grew more annoyed, but he also would not leave the bed, as if he were defending it as his territory. "I would think you hardly need it in here." "Even if I am a prisoner, I am still a prince. You should use my title." Alan caught on to what Luke was doing. "Are you intentionally trying to aggravate me?" "Listen, Alan, I'd honestly rather be anywhere else but here. You have a habit of scaring off your other caretakers. Let's get this over with already so I can go back to my real job." Luke made himself comfortable on the prince's pillow. "If you didn't want to come up here, then why did you accept this task?" Alan asked. "Your father didn't give me an option to decline. Now, if you will, please, dismiss me already. I'd like to get a drink and the cook only left water." Luke yawned. He wanted to take a nap. Alan went quiet for a moment, then said. "I refuse." Luke looked up at him. "Why? Don't you want me to leave? You made the others leave." "I'd rather be left alone, but I will not indulge someone so willfully disrespectful." Alan glared at him. "Now, get off my bed." Luke sat up and glared right back. "Make me." Alan attempted to push Luke off the bed, but Luke was much stronger than him. He easily overpowered the prince and pinned him down. Alan squirmed underneath him. "Let go of me!" "Cocky, aren't you? You really thought you would be able to overpower a knight?" Luke said, holding Alan's hands down above his head. "So, you are a knight. Why on earth did he send a knight in here?" Alan attempted to knee him between the legs. Luke moved back enough for Alan to miss. "It's because you've been so difficult with the others. He wanted to send someone with a firmer hand, as it were." "If he picked you, he must not think too highly of you. Shouldn't you be off fighting battles?" Alan tried to get under his skin, in hopes of making Luke leave on his own. "We're at peace at the moment, though I don't see that lasting. You are right, but don't misunderstand. It's not about a lack of skill or anything like that. It's more about public image." Luke wasn't having it. "Image?" "Well, you see, I have quite the reputation with men." Luke said bluntly. Alan gave him a confused look. "What does that mean?" "Really? Well, you have been up here your whole life. I suppose I shouldn't think anything of your innocence." Luke leaned in close to Alan's face and whispered seductively. "I bet you'd like the sort of things I do with men. Should I show you?" Heat rose in Alan's face. He locked eyes with Luke. "In other words, the king hopes to make you a prisoner here too." "At least until he needs me again. He's hungry for another war. I am very skilled in combat. When the time comes, he'll send me out." Luke released his grip on Alan. He got up and grabbed the food from the table to eat. He returned to the bed to eat it. Alan sulked on the other side of the bed. He watched Luke eat, glaring at him the entire time. "Something you want to say?" Luke asked. Alan wrapped himself back up in his blanket. "I haven't asked your name." "My name is Luke." He said. Though distant and angry, the prince was also very intrigued. He never had such a caretaker before. Luke's refusal to follow any rules at all excited him as much as it aggravated him. He asked. "How old are you?" "What does that matter?" "I was only curious. If you're going to be here a while, we might as well talk about something." Alan said. "I'm twenty-seven." Luke groaned internally at that number. In November, he would turn twenty-eight. 'How am I getting so close to thirty so soon? Where did all the time go?' "That means you're older than me. I'm..." Luke cut him off. "Twenty-four." "Yes. I assume my father told you that." Alan spoke more freely to him now. His curiosity was getting the better of him. Unconsciously, he leaned in a little closer to Luke and let the blanket hang loosely off his body. Though he demanded solitude from his new caretaker, he could not contain his loneliness. "Are you married?" Luke scoffed at the idea. "Hell no." "But you're nearly thirty. Does your family not care? Are you engaged?" Alan asked. "I don't care what my family thinks. I have no intentions of bringing any honor or wealth into my father's domain, and absolutely not by marriage." Luke said. Thinking about all that made his skin crawl. "You don't get along with your father?" Luke tensed up. "He's a demon worse than any I could ever be. That's enough about me. What sorts of things do you like to do for entertainment?" Alan watched Luke carefully. He noted to himself how Luke reacted to that topic. Alan responded to him. "I read sometimes." Luke glanced over at him. "That's it?" "I don't know much about the outside world. When I was a child, my caretakers would bring me toys and books, or things to study with. No one brought anything new in once I was an adult. I don't really know what to ask for or what would entertain me." Alan said. Luke looked around the room. It was mostly empty, and the king did tell him entertaining his son was a new idea of his. The prince was truly being kept as a prisoner. "I see. What about food? Are there certain foods you prefer?" "I don't know. Every week, it's the same three dishes." Alan said. "You've been eating the same food all this time?" Luke asked. Alan rubbed his chin. "Well, when I was really little, I had different food. But yes, it's been the same since I was, I think eight or so." "No wonder you got rid of your other caretakers." Luke said. Alan scooted over on the bed to get a little closer to Luke, still hesitant about being too close. "I don't mind the food. It's not important. What do you do for fun?" "Well, nothing good, I assure you. I don't like sleeping alone, and I'm very fond of ale and gambling. Priests know my name in many kingdoms." Luke lay back on the bed. He rubbed his eyes. 'Why am I so tired? Must be the rain.' "What kind of gambling?" Alan asked. "Any kind, though I have become partial to card games lately. Not many I keep company with can afford such a luxury item, so I had a deck of playing cards commissioned for myself a couple of years ago. I bring it with me anytime I go out." Luke said. "What are playing cards?" "They're about this big, flat, and have pictures on them. I'll bring them tomorrow. We could play a game together." Luke showed him the size of the cards with his hands. "I have nothing to bet you with." Alan said. "You don't have to wager money or items. I've made bets before where the loser had to wash the other's clothes, or where the winner was exempt from cleaning up. You can bet things like that." Luke rubbed his eyes again. It was getting harder to stay awake. "Oh, I see." "Not worried?" Luke asked. "About what?" "Gambling is a sin, you know." He said, to gauge Alan's reaction. Alan tilted his head. "I don't really care about that." "Then you and I will be getting along better than I thought." Luke's drowsiness was briefly interrupted by another call from his body. He sat up and looked around the room again. "Where do you relieve yourself at?" "Oh, I'll show you." Alan got off the bed. He walked over to a curtained off area of the room. "Over here." Luke got up and walked over. The conditions in regard to that were better than he expected. Judging by where it was placed, he presumed everything went out into the moat. He was very grateful for that. Luke expected he'd be carrying down buckets of waste daily. Having to scrub a toilet was better than having to dump it and clean it. Alan pulled the curtain back and walked back to the bed. Luke thought to himself, 'Looks relatively clean in this area. The room itself is quite clean as well. Is he like that or was his last caretaker very thorough?' When Luke was done, he walked back to the bed and collapsed. To annoy the prince further, he did not wash his hands. He saw the bowl designated for that directly outside the curtained off area of the room on a small table with a pitcher of water and a small towel. As he lay on the bed, he made a point to brush one of his hands against one of the prince's. "Wake me in an hour." "I didn't say you could sleep here." Alan said. He pulled his legs in and moved away from Luke. "Too tired to care." Luke said. He noted Alan did not appear to react in disgust. He presumed Alan either didn't care that much about that, or he was too afraid to notice such things. As he thought of other ways to try and get out of this job, Luke quickly fell asleep, not waking for another four hours. He dreamt something, but he forgot it soon after. When he woke, the storm outside had gotten worse. Alan was at the table eating. Luke called out to him. "Why didn't you wake me?" "I don't take orders from you." Alan said back. "Well, I suppose you're right." Luke got up and joined him at the table. "Am I fired yet?" "No, I'm not throwing you out." Alan had changed out of his sleepwear. His clothes were ragged and made of dark brown cloth. The shirt was decorated with several patches in it. "Why not? You did it to everyone else. I want to quit." Luke ate off of Alan's plate. Alan pulled the plate closer to himself. "It's because you want to quit. I'm not giving you the satisfaction. If you want to quit so badly, you can do it yourself. I'm not throwing you out." Luke yanked the plate away. "We'll see how long you can put up with me." Alan yanked it back. He grinned. "I assure you I can annoy you more than you can annoy me." "So I have to quit of my own accord, huh? That's the only way you'll have it?" Luke didn't want to admit it, but this was exciting him. The prince's challenging nature made him want to seduce him. "Perhaps, I'll make you want me, then leave and watch you beg for my return." Alan let go of the plate. Luke's pulling on it knocked him back against his chair. Alan looked away. "That would make you my cruelest caretaker yet. Fine. Do as you please. It doesn't matter in the end. You'll leave at some point, and I will stay here until the day I die." Alan left the table. He returned to bed and hid under the blanket. Luke said. "You know the door isn't locked right now. You could run. Might outrun me if you got a good enough head start." "My father will execute you if I do that. If you quit, he won't do something like that to you. You're a knight. Even if he didn't see you as a valuable asset, he wouldn't want to cause any trouble with your family." Alan said back. "I doubt my father would care that much. He doesn't care about anyone." Luke got up from the table. He joined Alan on the bed. "I suppose this does give me an excuse to not be around anyone for a while. Should I bring my cards tomorrow? Or do you want to play a different game?" Alan turned over. His cheeks had a faint red tint. "Could we play with the cards?" "Sure. I'll bring them then." Luke rolled over to face Alan directly. He put his hand to Alan's cheek and brushed back a few loose strands of hair. "How should we entertain ourselves today? You must be lonely up here." Alan gave him a look of longing, then averted his eyes. "I am not...interested...in what you are suggesting." "I have a question for you, Alan. Are you a virgin?" Luke asked. Alan's face went a deep red. "Yes." "And you've not interest? You're twenty-four. Surely, there is some...curiosity within you..." Luke leaned in closer. Alan kept shifting his gaze between Luke and the bed. "I...don't think I want to...do that yet. I haven't even kissed anyone before." 'He's so shy.' Luke played with Alan's hair. "Oh, I see. Then, perhaps one day we could explore kissing first." Alan fumbled through his words. "I-I don't know...You'll get bored and leave...before then...Uh...could we talk about cards instead?" Luke laughed under his breath. He pulled his hand away. "Alright. We'll talk about that whenever you want, but I am very willing. You wanted to talk about cards. What did you want to know?" "I don't know. Is it hard to learn to play?" Alan's face stayed red while they lay on the bed together. Luke expected Alan would turn away or move out of embarrassment. The more he watched him, the more he realized Alan's demands of isolation were the opposite of his true desire. Alan wanted company more than anything. They had only known each other since that morning, and Luke was convinced if he stayed for a while at this job, he'd sleep with the prince sooner or later. He could feel the desperation for human touch within Alan's spirit. Luke wanted that too. He hadn't slept with anyone in a long time now. Foolishly, he had spent nearly a year courting someone who was already with someone else. He was never going to get anywhere with that man, he knew that, but he was mostly content to share that man's company. Now that that man and his lover were both dead, Luke was left with emptiness. When he returned home, rumors spread around about him like they always did, but outside of his constant drinking, none of it was true. He didn't care to correct anyone. 'Should've went drinking in town last night.' He thought to himself. "It's not that hard. You'll get the hang of it after a few games." "Really?" Luke gazed into Alan's eyes. He saw that strange, fiery vision again. He blinked and it vanished. 'Am I losing my mind?' "Luke, I have a really strange question to ask you. Actually, uh...nevermind..." Alan looked down at the bed. "Go on. I've heard plenty of strange things. I doubt you could say anything shocking to me." "Do you know...uh, any fairy princes?" Alan asked. He was blushing so deeply his ears were red. "Fairy princes? No, I can't say I do. Why?" Luke was perplexed by the odd question. "Ah...it's...stupid. I keep having dreams about a fairy prince. He always tells me someone is coming soon, someone with long blond hair and brown eyes." Alan touched Luke's hair. "When I saw you this morning, I was a little...shocked." Luke laughed. "Oh, a fairy told you I was coming. What else did he say about me?" "He said you were...a little...difficult, but...that you were a good person." Alan hid his face partially with one hand. "Ah, I'm sorry. This is stupid. They were only dreams." "Dreams are best forgotten. I do wonder, why did your fairy prince tell you I was coming?" Luke asked. "Ah, well...he said...it was something impossible. He said that person would free me one day, but that won't be." Alan rolled over onto his back. "You're right. Dreams are best forgotten. Fairies don't exist, do they?" "Actually, they do. I've met quite a few beings from the other side. I met a unicorn once." Luke said. Alan's eyes widened. "Are you being truthful?" "My older brother was taken in by a river nymph as a baby. I'm not lying to you. The stories you've heard about beings like that may be off, but they certainly exist. A dragon also killed my brother." Luke sat up. He looked over at the small window in the tiny room. The rain poured down heavier than before. "Oh...I am sorry." "It's alright. You didn't know." Luke said. "It happened a month ago." "And my father has you working already? How cruel." "It's fine. I was spending my time drinking anyway." Luke shrugged his shoulders. "Don't worry over that. He died with his lover, so at least they walked with Death together." "Would you like to leave early today? You don't have to stay with me all day." Alan's true nature shone through. He went to put his hand on Luke's, then pulled it away, unsure of how to react. Luke noticed, but said nothing of it. "I'm a knight. I can handle death. Let's talk about something else. Your fairy prince, what does he look like?" "Um...well, he has raven hair and eyes that match. He's in between our heights. Hmmm...and he doesn't have wings or anything like that. At least, I haven't seen any. His voice is deeper than yours, and reminds me of the color of a light rainstorm's sound." Alan's voice grew softer. "He was very handsome." "Sounds like your mind conjured a nice fantasy for you." Luke teased him. "Well, am I everything you ever dreamed of?" "I don't know if it's supposed to be you...but I suppose...it's probably that no one is. They're only dreams, and I'll always be a prisoner in this tower." Alan said. 'As will I.' Luke thought to himself. He too used to have dreams about a handsome prince with jet black hair and eyes that matched who promised him something impossible both in his dreams and when they walked together during waking hours. Alan looked like what he was shown in his dreams, from what he remembered, but those memories were fading quickly. He was sure, he thought to himself, he was misremembering and making Alan fit what he remembered dreaming of. Soulmates weren't real, he told himself, and even if they were, Luke was certain he wouldn't have one. If such wonderful magic were real, the one he loved and his brother wouldn't be dead right now. Fate, he wagered, was either heartless and cruel, or did not exist at all. For each brief moment of happiness he had, life found a way of making sure it never lasted and when it did end, it ended in the most horrific way possible. That cycle of misery repeated endlessly through his life. Luke gave up hope until last year, when his hope was briefly, faintly reignited. Winter came and extinguished it once more. Now, he was left with nothing. 'Such a beautifully foolish fantasy, soulmates. They certainly don't exist. If they did, that would mean I could have happiness that lasted longer than a breeze. What a joke. How foolish could I be?' Luke laughed at his own misery. "As one prisoner to another, let's forget about those silly dreams. Tomorrow, I'll teach you how to gamble. Then, we can do whatever else you want. I have a few suggestions, if you can't think of anything." "Like what?" Alan asked. Luke leaned over and whispered in Alan's ear. "I could take your virginity, for starters." Alan turned red. "I'm not rushing into that. I've just met you today." Luke snickered. 'He's not at all denying that desire.' "What's so funny?" Alan narrowed his eyes. "Nothing." Luke laughed more. The two prisoners spent the remainder of the evening like this, getting close only to push away from each other. Around ten, Luke left the tower with the dishes from the day. He dropped them off at the kitchen. The cook, prepping something for tomorrow, asked him. "How was he?" "Is he really the one the king is so worried over? He's so innocent and gentle. I can't wait to corrupt him." Luke joked. The cook laughed. "Is that so? You really are a devil, Luke." "Why, thank you." Luke grinned. "Suppose I better head off to bed then. Ugh, I hate getting up early." "Might do you some good to get back into a routine. Getting paid always stops me from getting too drunk on the wrong nights." The cook said. Luke waved as he left the kitchen. He stared up at the sky. The moon was hidden away behind the storm clouds, but he could tell it was full. He wished the rain would stop so he could catch a glimpse of it, then he wished for neither the sight of the moon nor the rain. A cloudy sky with no stars suited his heart better. Luke retired to his room and wished to dream of nothing.
II. The Hanged Man