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THE BOY IN THE BOX
Daniel Hauer balanced along the edge of the half-pipe ramp staring down the fourteen-foot vert. His truck kept catching the edge, and he’d tumbled to the flat in his last two roll-ins, cursing like an angry drunk and blaming everything from the brand of skateboard to the quality of the Masonite for the failure. Though he’d never fully embraced skate culture back in Glen Burnie, he knew he was at least better than this.
“Your Grace … our lesson,” Allyn Grey said somberly. He stood behind the teen with placards denoting Aandor’s various noble families and their banner men—a long hierarchy that stretched down to the humblest country squire. Daniel wanted to tell the reverend to bug off, but bit his tongue. Grey tapped his wristwatch, peering judgmentally at Daniel over glasses perched at the tip of his nose.
It was one of those days, Daniel thought—the one where the iPhone shuffled one wrong song after another, and you suspected Steve Jobs of putting impish AIs in those little fuckers just for shits and giggles; the kind where no number of four-leaf clovers, rabbits’ feet, or Saint Christopher medallions could change the dice from coming up craps. Daniel tuned out the reverend, just as he tuned out his etiquette lessons, histories of Aandor, geopolitics of the Twelve Kingdoms, songs of Udiné, dances of Bradaan, sword fighting, hand to hand, battle tactics, and several other disciplines Callum MacDonnell had tried to cram into his beleaguered fourteen-year-old brain the past five months. He couldn’t care less about who his great-great-grandfathers were. Luanne Gillie was what he cared about.
They’d been physically kept apart for “security reasons,” their rapport limited to social media—but recently, their conversations had turned awkward. Last week, a day before her seventeenth birthday, she’d blocked him on Facebook. Colby said she’d moved to Buckhead—an Atlanta neighborhood she could never afford. Daniel suspected his “guardians.” A generous bribe seemed to be Malcolm Robbe’s style. What right had they to mess with his paltry social life? Reverend Grey cleared his throat and continued to tap his watch.
Spring’s full vibrancy was in effect at Malcolm’s vast Dutchess County compound, beckoning him to frolic after a cooped-up winter. On the helicopter field rose the standing stones of a henge, which Reverend Grey had just completed to draw magical energy from Rosencrantz’s lay line at the meadow several miles away. This estate was home base for the retaking of Aandor. Rosencrantz and Lelani perpetually refined the return spell, keeping it at the ready, so when to execute really was up to the guardians. Callum and Mal continuously argued over timing. At the rate with which they bought soldiers of fortune and equipment, they might bankrupt the billionaire. This caused Daniel some guilt, as, unlike the others, he had mixed feelings about returning to the universe of his birth. He wanted to meet his real parents, of course … but Aandor had dominated his life lately to the point where it wasn’t his life any longer. They offered him a kingdom—sort of. Daniel would only ever be prince regent. He had the blood of ten kings, but he fell two kings short of a quorum that would allow him to become the king of Aandor and emperor of a re-formed empire. That honor would go to his progeny depending on whom he married. To his handlers, Daniel was a chess piece—a sperm bank.
He was lured by money, magic, and a helicopter that day they found him in North Carolina … and fear of assassins hunting him for belonging to the wrong family. It’d been USDA prime cuts and Idaho potatoes ever since, but he realized he had accepted the guardians far too easily. Living with Luanne off the grid in normalcy appealed to him more each day.
Malcolm Robbe’s generosity was a formidable leash; and yet Cal warned him of it, telling Daniel that dwarvs were miserly by nature and expected their favors repaid for the smallest of boons. Daniel didn’t know how he could ever repay Malcolm, but he appreciated the skate park immensely, even though it riled Callum to no end (which Malcolm appeared to enjoy). But nothing that the billionaire could buy would abate his lonesomeness. Cal’s family was the exception—Catherine treated him like a younger brother. But they could come and go from the compound at will while he was perpetually “under protection.” They even balked at Adrian and Katie visiting. The isolation was depressing. Tilcook had offered him a professional escort as a distraction; Daniel was deeply offended, though he made no show of it because the mobster was being sincere. No one understood; when his face was plastered on the evening news and everyone under the sky hunted Daniel for the reward, Luanne stood by him. She had been Daniel’s only loyal friend, even lying to her own uncle. Her rejection stung more than Daniel wanted to admit—more than Katie Millar’s just friends speech.
Before the guardians, before Clyde’s death, the future had been an open slate. Daniel could have become an artist or writer, joined NASA, or married the girl of his dreams. Now his handlers laid out his future like a toddler’s Sunday clothes. If not for the chance to meet his parents (and the skateboard park), Daniel might already have run off.
He pushed off, cleared the edge of the ramp, and surfed down, across, and up the other vert. Instead of catching air, he ground the coping, held it for a second, and reversed direction. He continued, navigating the half-pipe with rediscovered dexterity. When he came to a sweaty, exhilarated stop, life had become a smidgeon less claustrophobic.
“Got it out of your system?” the reverend asked.
“Need to work on my fakies,” Daniel said.
From the reverend’s expression, it was a sure bet he didn’t know a fakie from a doughnut. “Do you give MacDonnell this much sass at sword practice?” Grey asked.
“Swordplay is actually fun, Rev.”
“Says the boy who has never been to war.”
“You’d never know it from my bruises.”
“And Cal’s only pretending to try to kill you.”
Daniel wondered about that … Callum always seemed disappointed with him. He excelled at his studies, at fencing, horseback riding … but something was missing. Maybe Daniel was just Cal’s job, and a friendship was asking for too much.
“Can I ask you something, Padre?”
“You may ask me anything, Your Grace.”
“Why did Luanne quit me?”
If the reverend knew of some nefarious plot, he didn’t tip his hand. He scratched his tight salt-and-pepper hair and gave the matter serious thought. “You’ll find many writings on the fickleness of teenagers,” Grey answered.
“But we were good…”
“You knew her but a few days. The excitement and attention around you perhaps was an aphrodisiac. Relationships need interaction, and you two are always apart. As your first love, she resides in a special place in your heart, but remember … you were not her first. Think of Luanne’s perspective, and try not to judge her harshly.”
“So Mal and Cal didn’t do anything?”
A flurry of whistles and shouts across the compound cut off the reverend’s response. At first, Daniel thought it was Cal’s training drills for the mercs, but when MacDonnell emerged from the maple trees flanked by his top mercenary lieutenants, Francois Ladue and Graeme Van Rooyen, Daniel knew there was more going on. All three wore relieved expressions at seeing the prince safe.
“The schedule says you have a lesson,” Cal said. His distaste for the skate park was written on his face. “Why aren’t you in the mansion?”
“It’s stuffy in there. I needed to catch some air.”
“There are no skate parks in Aandor.”
“There are in America!” Daniel sniped. “People invent things here—like SKATEBOARDS!”
“You have too many obligations to be wasting—”
“Gentlemen!” Reverend Grey cut in. “What’s going on?”
Callum recalled his purpose and said, “Our wayward court jester, Balzac Cruz, and the frost giant, Hesz … they just showed up at our front door.”
Copyright © 2018 by Edward Lazellari