A Toy Prince

[StoryADay May Prompt:”Write A Hansel & Gretel Structured Story“]

[Inspired by “A Toy Princess” by Mary de Morgan.]

The Good King Rockfall in a kingdom of ice and mining presented to his son, Prince Aaron, a gift. “I have had crafted for you a friend.”

The prince briefly mistook the strange being for a mirror. It stood about his height and encompassed about his build. The hair on its head waved black though not with as much curl. It’s age seemed to be eighteen, the same as the prince’s age, except it seemed unnaturally silent and rigid in stance for a young man.

“A friend, father?”

Before a firstborn prince selects a princess and asks her to be his queen, the King believed he should surround himself in youth with capable male friends and through their coming of age experience the triumphs and turmoils of brotherhood, thereby arriving in adulthood and later during his reign with only the most loyal and cunning of companions, a court of allies to last his long life. In the kingdom of ice and mining in an age of particularly persistant winter, the young men of the kingdom had from an early age become journeymen in the industries of their fathers and grandfathers. This had left poor Prince Aaron frequently alone and without companionship from others his age. His father encouraged him to learn and experience all industries in the kingdom practiced by men, but even among those other boys, he was protected and apart. He arrived to train, he departed to return to the castle, and when he did experience moments alone with other boys, the subjects were careful and courteous and impossible to befriend in so short a time. His mother, the recently deceased Queen, had also found ways for him to interact with other children, but there was little to be done about isolation when the hot blood of endowed rule moved in his veins and the ice blood of adaptation in difficult times moved in the others.

The King swept a draped arm toward the rigid young man standing at attention beside his throne. “I asked, after your dear mother passed, of great engineers, artists, magicians, and tinkerers in the kingdom for plans and demonstrations of a mechanical friend. Here, then, is more that I ever expected. You may call him Quinn.”

In fact, the King had grown quite angry when first presented with dozens of mechanical monstrosities. Metal and wire and frequently wood in various configurations demonstrated wildly varying capabilities in his court that day: puppets that required someone small and hidden to operate them and provide vocals, lever and pulley contraptions that looked more like looms than people, mannekins that moved their eyes and little else, and great beastly walking giants more likely to squash his son underfoot than befriend him. While rising from his throne to denounce the lackluster offerings, the King held his tongue when he noticed the Grand Wizard Mimfalla arrive late with a shy and befuddled young lad.

“But how,” the King asked after Mimfalla introduced the boy as his mechanical creation, “am I to know if this isn’t just some boy you have dressed up for the part. Did you come here to trick me? Are you that foolish?”

Mimfalla pulled aside the boy’s cloak, waved a hand over his torso, and revealed behind a panel in his side the mechanical nature of his creation. Thin and precise clockworks spun, ropes of wires pulled taut or relaxed in turn, brilliant jewels instead of organs glittered, and brilliant high speed fogs and temporary flashes of light hinted at the magic infusing the creation with animation.

“Can it speak?”

The King was amused that Prince Aaron asked the same question he had asked next of Mimfalla.

“Greetings, Prince Aaron,” the automaton spoke. “I am Quinn and very happy to be your friend.” Quinn bowed deeply.

What to make of him then, the prince thought. The ready voice, deeper than his own, animated Quinn in a satisfying way even before the bow. If a little rigid, then Quinn still seemed recognizably human in shape, voice, and manners. Prince Aaron poked at one of Quinn’s soft cheeks. The automaton took one step back and tilted its head.

“He’s amazing, father, but why again did you have him crafted?”

There were the reasons King Rockfall was willing to give his son, and there were the reasons he kept to himself, remembering his wife’s warnings. “It is fine to want what is best for your son,” she told the King frequently, “but remember, too, to let him forge his own path, even if you find yourself confused by him, or perhaps even in disagreement.” The King had always trusted her, and so he listened to her even in death. She had given him permission, however, to try what he would with his loving and fatherly wisdom, and it was a male role model and constant companion for the prince the King most desired, someone who could bring back a young man who seemed even more distant and unlike his father, or any of the other men in the kingdom, than he had been when the Queen was alive.

Good Prince Aaron and his new mechanical companion became inseparable. The King insisted the prince’s education in the ways and industries of the kingdom accelerate. Quinn accompanied him for ever instruction. The automaton proved itself to be a capable learner. Frequently Prince Aaron and Quinn practiced what they had learned long after the training had ended for the day and late into the night. They parried with wooden swords, they wrestled and pushed each other to new extremes of athletic ability, they completed their reading and written lessons and found opportunities for further research, they turned a corner of the stables into a makeshift workshop for practicing metal work and other crafts, they visited the mines together to listen and later actively participate in pulling necessary resources from the bowels of the Earth, and they began to mingle with the guards and other staff on hand. The King had every reason to be proud and he sent Mimfalla additional funds on top of the original fees out of gratitude.

The prince, it is true, performed these activities without complaint out of respect for his father, but in his heart of hearts the warmth there was for other callings. Quinn provided the opportunity to share his burdens, and to ease with his companionship even the most difficult of tasks. Quinn did not speak much. Quinn was devoted. Quinn stood in the dark at night and waited for Prince Aaron to awaken in the morning. Quinn was the easiest friend to have.

Prince Aaron found other ways for Quinn to be with him. “There’s no need to stand there, even if you don’t need sleep. Come. Come into my bed with me. Be sure to be out of it in the morning before the servants arrive to prepare me for the day. Be on the look out for my father and other interruptions at all time. There, is that better, Quinn? I think it is better. I think there are other lessons to be learned, these in bed.”

How their friendship quickened is not to be ignored but to be left in the largeness of their making a space of their own. Nearly twenty years old, Prince Aaron had known as long as he could remember that accepting a princess as his bride was a future duty of his, a necessity of his reign, and through her his own eldest son would succeed him. He had no interest in princesses beyond the King and the kingdom’s expectations for him. With Quinn, then, the interest was truly his own, and he guarded it shrewdly.

Even so, as the seasons passed and he emerged as well trained as his father had hoped, Quinn by his side day and night, though the latter time was secret, Prince Aaron heard a new calling. It had been there quietly in youth and was here again at twenty-one when the annual Festival for Stories, his favorite time of the year, arrived in spectacular fashion. Distant travelers who braved the treacherous paths to the kingdom of ice and mining found this year that winter had relented. Storytellers and artisans who did not regularly visit found reason to attend this year. The kingdom swelled with them. When the festival began, the visitors told their stories and reenacted news from far away lands. These stories made Prince Aaron believe in fairy tales, made him pine to travel, inspired his own imaginative stories, and left him desperate for a way out of his very blood’s destiny.

He and Quinn sat in the raised cushioned royal box overlooking a round theater space occupied by a menagerie of performers and storytellers. The Narrator, face painted white, cheeks grotesquely blushed, in garb that suggested both fine attire and a beggar’s colorful rags, recounted a story about a visitor from above the mountains, beyond the moon, out among the stars. Around him the performers dressed as strange beings, a few of them mechanical, some of them resembling animals, and others that made no sense at all but delighted the senses. The Narrator held in his hand a feathered writing prop almost as tall as him and he pretended to write in big sweeping gestures on the faux pages of an impossibly large book carved out of wood and dragged out by several men.

Prince Aaron was amused to see among the performers several he found quite attractive, but he had little interest in acting or juggling or performing other tricks for audiences. He thought the Narrator, too, was too public a role to enjoy. In many ways, that was who a King was: a storyteller about his own kingdom, telling stories meant to brace his subjects as they toiled in their industries of ice, rock, and metal, The King, too, by necessity a public figure and his own industry. Neither Narrator nor King, then, he thought without hope.

He thought of the books in the library and those he regularly smuggled into his room. He wanted not only to read them, but to write them. A perfect life. Sitting so near to the imaginative performance in the theater, the bizarre show unfolding before him in unexpected and thrilling ways, he imagined that different life. In his fantasy he was a writer of fantasy, speculating about things unknown to him, documenting not real history or industry but imagined. He saw how happy he could be.

Instead, he would someday be king.

Prince Aaron remained through the rest of the show, though his thoughts and fantasies were of other occupations, both literary and related to Quinn. Quinn, his toy prince, a better friend than he had ever known, and much more besides. Quinn, who also watched the show as if rapt, though Prince Aaron was uncertain if that was the automaton’s honest reaction or a sturdy fabrication. The prince often wondered what to make of Quinn, what to think about Quinn’s abilities and mysterious mechanical thought processes. Did Quinn have desires? There were many nights when Prince Aaron lay next to Quinn convinced of it. During the day, much less so. Is Quinn, he wondered, a man despite his mechanical insides, or is he merely a good approximation, operating according to the mechanisms inside of him rather than directing them?

The festival came to an end and Prince Aaron hid his questions and frustrations to the best of his ability. When the King suggested it was time for him to begin meeting princesses, his internal struggles gained urgency.

“Are you unwell,” Quinn asked him one night. These hours, so many of them, had been there for them alone. Servants who arrived early in the morning found Quinn standing quietly near the bed or gazing out the great thick glass window that so few rooms in the castle warranted. His attention was always focused on Prince Aaron, even when it did not seem that way.

“I’m fine, Quinn.” Prince Aaron had kept his current concerns his own, though until then he had shared everything with Quinn. If Quinn minded, the prince was unable to find it behind the devotion he thought he always saw in Quinn’s eyes.

But that night and the next, Prince Aaron grew increasingly restless, and in the mornings, listless. The King asked the prince why, and the King asked Quinn why privately, and the King inquired why of the servants, but he could not find a reason why for the prince’s new behaviors. He summoned the Grand Wizard Mimfalla and asked if the cause could be the automaton. Mimfalla took his time examining Quinn, nodded to himself with increasing certainty, and provided the King with no explanations but a gentle reproach when the King asked if Quinn should be removed.

Not his friend, then, the King thought. What to do?

Prince Aaron had already made his decision. As the firstborn prince, and in fact the only child to have been born to King and Queen Rockfall, he had no choice but to be the prince and then the new king when the time came. He had no choice but to marry and have children of his own. He had no choice in his calling, in his activities. The nights with Quinn had let him make secret choices, but those nights were in hiding as mechanical as the automaton. There would eventually be no choice but to limit his time with Quinn, for the sake of his father, for the sake of his bride, for the sake of his kingdom.

He had no choice.

The King rounded up his most trusted servants and soldiers and tasked them with searching the castle and the kingdom. When they returned without clues, he thought to proclaim to everyone that his son must be found. Instead, he called for Quinn. It took time for the servants to find him. He was found standing in a tiny and forgotten storage space under a stone stairs near the prince’s room.

Quinn would not speak.

The King again summoned Mimfalla. This time, though, the Grand Wizard made no detailed inspections, only peered at the automaton thoughtfully.

“Well? Why won’t he speak?”

Mimfalla provided no answer, but suggested an alternative solution. When the King agreed, Mimfalla gestured at the automaton for several minutes. Then, quietly, he suggested the King call on the toy prince again.

“He will answer to Aaron?”

In time, few people in the kingdom remembered that good Prince Aaron had had a companion. Fewer could tell that he was different now, because no one had known him well enough before. When Prince Aaron picked a princess, the kingdom continued its usual industrious ways, content that a wedding and the birth of noble children, including a firstborn son, would occur soon, a process that repeated like clockwork along a long chain of kings going back hundreds of years.

The Storyteller returned only once, to hear stories at the annual festival for them, and to see what had become of the kingdom of ice and mining after King Rockfall’s death and the ascension of his son. He watched Quinn from a distance and missed him, but he missed his own life outside of the kingdom even more. He watched narrators and performers adapt his many works and then he returned forever to the happy and eventful life he had written for himself elsewhere.

StoryADay May 2016 Day 10

Published by

Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.