There was a lively hum of the common room, the thick scent of roasted meat wafting from the inn's kitchens. Merchants of many corners of the country jeered with drinks and cards in hand, coins clattering on wooden tables in eager wagers. Aside from a particular patron being granted a wide margin around his corner table, everyone was packed in the inn like sardines to enjoy the joyous occasion.
Nearby, a card game was reaching its peak, the tipsy players particularly loud as they raised their bets around the table. Majority of them were seasoned travelers, celebrating another year of fruitful trade ahead as the days of harvest began. Amidst tanned, callused hands and wrinkled crows feet, however, a fresh face had squeezed himself into their company. Looking nothing more than a farmer's son at first glance of his withered clothes, his pockless warm, brown skin and relentless smile made him shine like a diamond in the rough. He pursued his hand with a sly glint in his eye, not a hint of hesitation as he raised the bet on his turn. His senior of many years elbowed him in the side.
"A bit cocky, aren'tchya? Luck hasn't been your friend yet, kid, no sense betting on her now!" the boisterous older man cackled in his gruff voice as he took a swig of his drink, foam sticking to his bristled facial hair.
The 'kid' was by no means even a teenager, but the aura of overwhelming youth around him made him appear nothing but green to these practiced veterans. The callow young man in question innocently propped up his shoulders in defense.
"What does it have to do with luck? I believe in fate, sir, and fate tells me I'll be the winner of this hand," he declared with utmost confidence. His conversation partner sputtered his drink as he laughed at him and delivered a hearty slap to the back of his shoulder.
"You're a funny kid, Leland, a funny kid. What's someone so big for their boots doin' here, anyways? Shouldn't you be helpin' your family pick peaches or something?"
Leland's eyes flickered as he played idly with his cards. "Sure, sure, but we can't sell what we can't grow. You wouldn't happen to have heard of this orange rot stuff, have you? I heard it started around here."
A round of grumbling came from the rest of the party, the topic apparently not a favorite. A new participant joined their exchange, a crotchety, sneering face with a voice to match.
"Nothing but trouble, that. Damn farmers couldn't be bothered to not drag everyone else down with 'em!" a few others mumbled in agreement.
Leland's brows arched dramatically.
"The farmers? What did they do?"
The first gentleman patted his shoulder in good faith. "Easy, easy, nothin' to say about your lot, but everyone 'round here knows the farmers dumped their rot in the fields, see."
The less savory man spoke up once more "Aye, just couldn't let the sheep be, had to cull a lamb for every spot of orange on their leaves. You either gotta be stupid or itching for someone to drag down with ya."
"Or careless enough to let your stock near it?" Leland quipped, his expression sharp as he clattered a coin down for his next bet. He coolly rested his hands on his cards as the air around him began to simmer. A half drunk mug sloshed as it was slammed onto the table.
"Don't get wise with me, kid. All you lot do is drink yourselves silly on sweet wine while you climb your little trees," the man spat, his cheeks pink with ale. Leland's response was lazy as he fiddled around with the order of his hand.
"Clearly, we're the ones who can't hold their drink."
His neighbor guffawed, a wary eye first warning him before assessing the stupored victim. The man was absolutely fuming.
"I think you mistake yourself a bit more tall than you really are, boy." Slapping his cards down for the end of the round, Leland's rival curled his lip as disgruntled groans rose around them. Even the man beside Leland tossed his cards away in defeat. Only Leland held his hand steady.
"No, I think not," he sighed airily, a devilish smile suddenly splashed with his playful eyes. Sweeping his cards in front of him for the rest to see, the illustrations of a full royal court faced them. Leland busted into a victorious fit of laughter, filling his arms with the pile of change he'd won.
"Why you sneaky, no good, fruit picking little hustle!" His dethroned contender spat in fury. He lunged across the table, grasping for Leland's collar with a fist raised. Other patrons leapt to, trying to push the man back to his chair. Leland stooped over the table, shoveling only a handful of coins into his pocket before patting his first companion on the back as he ushered him the rest.
"For the good conversation, friend."
However, before he could take his leave, the sore loser being ushered out the door roared his final words.
"All you Syna folks are all the same! Lyin' cheats, don't know a damn thing about real work. Allsyou do is swindle and dance, can't take a shite of responsibility, just like your bastard king!" Nobody paid his slurried words any mind, but Leland had stood from his chair abruptly with a dangerous expression. As he motioned to step forward, a firm hand squeezed his shoulder, holding him back.
A hush fell upon the card players that remained, eyes bulging and faces turned pale. Leland whipped around to face the one who dared to lay a hand on him, but stopped suddenly when he met his gaze. A strong brow, furrowed and stern, and waves of raven black hair pulled neatly into a tail. Everything about this person was direct and neat, nothing without a purpose or out of place. Leland froze as he heard the man speak, a wave of anxiety catching in his throat.
"You've caused quite a stir, it seems. Perhaps it would be best for you to sit with me?"
Of course the locals could only guffaw- Why shouldn't they? This man that approached from that lonesome corner was none other than Prince Donovan, crowned prince of Anin. Though known to lurk the border towns on his regular duties, to think a peasant squabble was enough to warrant his intervention was nothing short of dramatic. Truly, this poor son of Syna picked an awful night to try his luck.
Leland had some mind to utter an excuse, but under the scrutiny of so many and this undeniable figure that held him, he had no choice but to comply. Dark eyes unblinking, Prince Donovan released his hand from Leland's shoulder and led the way to his quiet corner. Following as though a dog with a tail between its legs, Leland drifted behind him, his boisterous confidence completely fizzled out with this turn of events. Behind him, that bristly old merchant shook his head in shame, doing his best to ignore his guilt as he shoveled the table's coins without a sound.
He cleared his throat as idle chatter once more filled the room. "Another round, then, boys?"
And just like that, as though Donovan's table didn't exist, the tavern moved on with their night. Leland, however, was still pale in the face, a cold sweat prickling his back. Now that he was seated right across from him, Leland cursed at himself for not noticing Donovan sooner. Exquisite embroidered details swirled onto his clothes, silver fastenings curled in his hair, even his aura, though quiet, demanded an immediate respect- an air of royalty cultivated from a life of courtly living. Perhaps Donovan was merely a fifth son, cast to the borders outside his castle walls, but at the end of the day he was still very much a son of the king.
Leland chewed on this thought, pondering just how many other royals passed his eyes unseen, when Donovan posed him a question.
"What do you know about the orange rot?"
Leland hesitated at first, unprepared for such a direct question and specific subject. He felt as though he should begin to expect this from this person. Raising his chin a slight, he immediately took on the defensive.
"Nothing more than anyone else. Sheep are dying, trees are falling. Everyone says everyone's to blame." This, ultimately, was only the truth of Leland's knowledge.
Donovan only stared for some time, hands woven together in front of his face as though studying Leland, deciding if he would accept his answer. Dark eyes unmoving, he asked another.
"Why are you here?"
Ah… Leland once more was caught in his words, unsure what to say. Surely, Prince Donovan heard his conversation with the merchants, so why bother asking him again? Wary of the questions intent, Leland gave a half hearted response, putting on airs as he shrugged.
"I came for work. My father is particularly worried about this rot affecting his land, so I came to make up for the money we've lost this season. May as well find the root of the problem while I'm here, hm?"
Donovan at last unraveled his posture, scrutiny gone from his gaze as he leaned more casually in his chair. Leland sighed to himself in relief, but it was alas short lived.
"Then it seems we have a common goal."
"A-ah, so you're here to investigate? How generous of the crown to lend us his son, we're truly lucky…"
"Hm, perhaps, but I'm not making much progress. Both sides are riddled with hearsay, but the Syna side is understandably… let's say less cooperative with me."
Of course they'd be. Anin sticking their nose in the orchards, the farmers would be quick to expect bias and unfair judgement. With that said, Donovan would be a fool to stir the already tense rivalry by trespassing, prince or not. Thus, he would need to approach the right family in the right way to get any progress done, somehow earn their trust or prove his goodwill…
Leland cleared his throat, "I see."
As expected, Donovan spared no time getting straight to the point- "I'd like you to accompany me to investigate, if you'd be so kind as to guide me."
Shit, Shit, Shit!
Wasn't this a scolding? Why has it become like this?
His mind in turmoil at the mess he'd fallen into, Leland was quick to muster up some excuses.
"Ah, my family may miss me, being gone for too long…"
"Didn't you say you came here for work?"
"Yes, yes, work in the orchards, they'll think I've run off."
"To work instead for a prince. Any family would rejoice with this promotion, no? And for a noble, local cause, at that. I'll argue on your behalf if I must, and your expenses are of course paid for. Is there anything else to argue?"
Leland was completely stunned, his usual lazy or playful demeanor all but wiped clean by this man before him. With nothing but a short exchange, Donovan had completely overcome him, his fate already decided without any room to argue. And for what?
"I-I must ask, if you'll pardon me, Your Highness, but where did this come from? Local cause? All expenses paid? We've only just met, yet you offer me the moon. Do you often offer such lustrous jobs to strange men in taverns?" The last question came out strange, and though unintentional, Leland was happy to hear it become so abrasive. He admired the initiative, but he couldn't help but feel rubbed the wrong way by Donovan's domineerance, even if well intentioned. Perhaps an offensive question would be enough to shoo the princeling away.
Unexpectedly, Donovan only paused a breath in surprise before letting out a low laugh that spilled into a hum, unsuited for the uptight persona he'd shown so far. His dark eyes were suddenly bright as he met Leland's curious gaze.
"And what may I call this 'strange man'?"
Leland was deflated, his scolding soaring well over the other's head, none of his inquiries answered, incredibly ineffective. Without another plan of escape, he had no choice but to laugh lightly himself, leaning back in his chair in defeat. Even still, life seemed to return to his eyes.
"Leland. But Your Highness may call me 'Lee'."
The corner of Donovan's mouth twitched, as though he heard something funny, but nevertheless extended his hand.
"A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Leland. I am Prince Donovan, fifth son of King Elmond," clasping hands, they thus made their agreement, "I look forward to working with you."
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