The Crown and the Collar

Art by jabberox

The Crown and the Collar

Chapter 1

“I think that's everything for this one.”

“Okay, I'll go help Daddy finish with the other cart.”

It's Astraday, which means it's time for another day at the Weston market. It's early in the morning, just after dawn, and I'm doing what I've done every Astraday morning for the last six weeks: helping my parents load this week's harvest so we can cart it into the town square. It's hard work, but it has to get done.

I don't really mind it though, even when I have to wake up extra early to take care of the animals. Things are usually pretty busy during the week, so I really look forward to when I finally get to go into town and catch up with everyone. It's one of the only times I get to see some of my old school friends these days.

“Just gotta load the last few crates on,” Daddy tells me, already lifting one onto the back.

“Do you think these will sell well?” I ask, handing him off another crate.

“I think so. I can't stop eating them.” He grabs two of our newest crop from the next crate I hand over, tossing me one and eating the other himself.

It's a small fruit, bright red in color and very sweet. I bring it up to my mouth and bite in, loving the way the sweet flavor bursts on my tongue. They grow on the mainland in the forests farther to the south. “Strawberries” is what they've been named, though I'm not really sure why. They don't look like straw or anything, but gosh are they good.

“We're not gonna sell any if you two keep eating them all!” Momma tells us both, hand on her hip. “Finish loading up and let's get moving!”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Yes, ma'am.” Daddy and I both answer, sharing a grin as we load the rest of the boxes.

After we finish, I run up and hop onto the front cart with Momma. Once I'm in my seat, she whips the reins once, and we're off, our horse-drawn carts following one after the other on the dirt road. As we round the mill and the town comes into view, I'm already wondering what kind of day to expect.

If it's anything like it has been the past few weeks, we'll sell almost everything we've brought. It's been a good season so far, with all of our harvests having great yields. Most of the crops aren't native to Litkalaa, and my family was actually the first to cultivate some of them here: radishes, carrots, onions, and now strawberries.

I like living on a farm. I mean, I've spent my whole life on one, so I guess I don't really know anything else. We wake up early most days, and spend almost all day in the fields and stable. It's a lot of hard work, but the reward of watching something you planted grow from nothing but a seed really does feel amazing. I know it sounds cheesy, but I love it.

Lamplight Farm isn't the biggest farm in Weston, but we are one of the oldest, and one day I'm going to take over for my daddy, just like he did for his daddy. Even if I didn't want to stay on the farm (which I do!), there isn't a whole lot else to do around here. Weston is a small village located on the (you guessed it) western side of the island of Litkalaa. If I'm remembering it right, it's also one of the earliest villages built, founded over two-hundred and fifty years ago. But other than that, we aren't really known for much of anything.

“Peter, look.” Momma nudges me with her elbow then points ahead. “Aren't those royal carriages from the capital?”

Just on the outskirts of town are three black carriages, each bearing the crest of the royal family: a black wolf head over two crossed swords. The vehicles are big and fancy looking, painted in red and black, each one pulled by two brown horses. They're large and muscular, and put our horses Abby and old Kino here to shame.

“What do you think they're doing here?” I ask, my mind racing.

“I don't know. I didn't hear about anything.” She shrugs. “Maybe they're just passing through?”

“Maybe...” I bite my lip, eyeing them as we pass by.

Kino pulls us through the open gates and into the village. Most of the buildings look the same with wooden walls and roofs, though a few of the older homes are thatched with straw. Old memories are stirred up when I see the schoolhouse, the red paint on the walls having long since faded. They're mostly good memories. I'm not the smartest, and I was never really very good at it, but I miss school sometimes. I dropped out when I was sixteen, three years ago. I had to, for my family.

My parents had me a little later in life than a lot of my friend's parents, when they were both in their thirties. They're both in their fifties now, and every year it gets harder and harder for them to do things around the farm. Daddy's actually been talking about maybe hiring someone to help us out, but I'm not sure how he'd pay them. Sales have been good, but not that good.

I shake off the thought; none of that matters right now. I wave to a few people as we pass the church on the way to the town square. It's a good thing we're not very religious because working on a farm doesn't leave you a lot of time for church. We always make sure to say a prayer to Father Sun and Mother Moon on the solstices and equinoxes, but I know Momma and Daddy wish we did more.

We pull into the square and make our way to our usual spot west of the center fountain. Wooden stalls have been set up courtesy of the village council for us and other merchants. I help Daddy unload while Momma brings the horses to the nearby hitching post so they can rest. Daddy has a bad habit of pushing himself, so I try to do most of the heavy lifting when I can, stacking the heavier crates closer to the stand.

Ronald Lambert, my father, is about 5'8” and 140 lbs. He's got blue eyes, brown hair that's already starting to gray (including his beard), and while he's not out of shape, he did just turn fifty-five. My mother, Mary Lambert, is four years younger at fifty-one. She's two inches shorter and a little stouter, weighing a little more than Daddy does. She wears glasses over her brown eyes and usually keeps her dark blonde hair pulled back in a tie. My hair is just about the same color as hers, though I hear it get called “dirty blonde” more often than not, and I have blue eyes like my dad. I'm only nineteen, but I'm way taller than both of them at six feet even, and I weigh almost 250 lbs. Most of that is muscle—I've got a bit of a tummy. Momma says I've always loved eating.

We only have about twenty minutes until customers will start arriving, so the three of us quickly get to work. We empty the first few crates in no time, filling the stand's shelves with our best-looking offerings. Daddy always takes a little extra pride in the way he sets everything up. He says it's like a puzzle, making sure the colors all blend together in a leafy rainbow.

Before I even realize it, we've started. I swear, I go to grab another crate of radishes, and when I turn back around, the streets are full of people, Weston citizens making their way to each of the market stalls, including ours. It's practically a routine at this point. They come over, maybe make some small talk, pick out some fruit or vegetables, pay, and then leave.

“Hi, Peter!” Violet, one of those old school friends I mentioned earlier, steps up to the side of the stall with a wave.

Violet Ferrier is my best and probably oldest friend. We're the same age, or I guess she's technically older by a few months. She's a short girl with dark brown skin, brown eyes, and black textured hair that reaches her shoulders. Like I said before, we went to school together, although unlike me, she's smart and actually finished. Her father is the town blacksmith, or at least he was before he got sick, and she's been trying to pick up the slack.

“Hey, Violet,” I answer her with a smile. “How are you? How's your dad doing?”

“He's alright,” she lies. He's been really weak lately and tired all the time, but no one, not even the village doctor, can figure out what's wrong with him. “Did you see the royal carriages on your way in?”

“Yeah, I did.” I look over at my parents to make sure they can handle the customers while I step farther off to the side. “Why? Do you know what's going on?”

“I heard the prince is here!” she whispers to me loudly, looking around like she just revealed a big secret.

“Prince Makseka?” I pull back, not believing her. Why would the crown prince be in our dinky little town? “Are you sure? Why?”

“That's what Monica said. And I dunno.” She shrugs, still smiling and leaning in to speak low again. “Maybe he's looking for a consort.”

There aren't a lot of things to do in a small town like this. There's drinking, card games, and gossip, and you can do all three at the local tavern. Gossip is probably the most popular, and the only one I really partake in (I don't really like the taste of beer, and I'm not very good at cards), and the royal family is a very popular topic in particular.

Like a lot of other countries, Litkalaa is ruled by a king and a queen. But unlike most of those countries, Litkalaa's rulers and royal family are all werewolves. Actual cursed-to-turn-into-monsters-during-the-full-moon werewolves. Or at least that's what they say. I've never met or even seen a werewolf myself before.

I remember the story from school. A long time ago, there were two groups of people living on the island: a tribe of werewolves, and a faction of non-werewolves. The wolves had been living here for hundreds of years, but this new faction had migrated to the island from somewhere in the east, across the ocean, to establish a new kingdom here.

The werewolves lived in the forests to the north while the others built their cities on the plains in the south. For a long time, the two groups lived in peace, not bothering each other or even interacting much, until the day the new kingdom came under attack. It started with seaside towns being raided, but eventually, these attackers started moving inland.

They soon learned the raiders had far more men and firepower, and that they wanted to control the island. The attacks became more and more frequent with themlosing more and more land to these invaders each time. Finally, just when everything seemed lost, their king traveled north to beg the leader of the werewolves for help.

The werewolves were not worried about these invaders. Not only had they not yet been attacked, the thick forests of the north provided a lot of natural defense. Still, the werewolf chief was not heartless and did not want to see these outsiders wiped out. So he agreed to help them, on one condition: their king would step down, and the werewolf king would rule in his place. He would even marry his queen, tying their two families together. Not having any other choice, the king accepted.

And that's where this consort business comes into play. Because you see, the human king didn't go away after stepping down. In addition to marrying his wife, the werewolf king claimed the former king as his consort. A consort is almost like the king's second wife, with some, uh, key differences ... like being a man. Ever since then, it's been a tradition for all members of the royal family to claim and collar a consort. From what I've heard, it became so popular that it even started to spread outside of the royal family with a lot of nobles and other upper class people taking consorts of their own.

“Are you blushing?” Violet teases me.

“What? No.” Oh gods, am I? I quickly turn away, stacking a few of the empty crates back on our carts.

“I always heard Prince Makseka was really good looking.” She keeps talking like I'm not trying to ignore her.

“People say that about all the royals. So what?” I try to play it off, but I know she's messing with me. Prince Makseka is only about five years older than us, and to say that only a few of our school mates had crushes on him would be a serious understatement.

“Sooooo...” She just gives me a knowing look, swaying on her toes a little.

“Peter, go grab us some more strawberries, please.” Daddy touches my shoulder, rescuing me with his request. “Hello, Violet. How are you doing?”

“Hello, Mr. Lambert. I'm well. Thanks for asking.” Violet puts on her best talking-to-parents voice. “My father says hello.”

I take my time getting the fruit for Daddy, Violet's words bringing back even more old memories. I used to maybe be a little ... obsessed with the royal family. Specifically the consort and collaring stuff. Like I said before, consorts can be men or women, and well... I like men. I'm gay, or at least I'm pretty sure I am, because I've never been interested in women. It's not something I really talk about a lot. Some people can be weird or even mean about it. Violet was the first person I told, then some of our other friends, and eventually I got the courage to tell my parents. I was scared about how they would react, but all they did was hug me and tell me they'd love me no matter what. I'm less nervous about it these days, but I still don't know anyone else like me, at least not in Weston.

But no one bats an eye when one of the royals takes on a consort of the same gender. Kind of the opposite, actually. There are a lot of books on the subject, romance novels, about the forbidden love between a royal and their consort. Like the prince who risked war to bring his kidnapped love home, and the knight who fought through an army of demons to free his consort from a deadly curse. I used to sneak them out of the library and take them home, where I would read them over and over and over. I'd even hide them under my mattress, worried my parents might find them.

But that was years ago, and I haven't read one of those books in ages. While I mighthave crushed on the prince myself when I was younger, I don't give that stuff much thought at all these days. I have other responsibilities to worry about. Speaking of... I shake off the old memories and finally grab the crate of strawberries Daddy asked for. Thankfully, Violet is nowhere to be seen, so I can go back to work without feeling embarrassed.

Sales are pretty steady the first couple of hours. All our regulars stop by and catch up with us while they shop. Mrs. Osbourne's grandchildren are going to be visiting from Eastport for a week, and she needs a good recipe for pie. Mr. Plakard needs to repair his fence after last week's rainstorm knocked part of it over and asks Daddy if he knows where to find some cheap lumber. And the Rizzo family just got a new pet dog and want to know what they should avoid feeding it.

We help out everyone with the questions we know the answers to and direct them to others for the ones we don't. Daddy always says we're a community and that it's important to support each other. Just as I'm handing Mrs. Marrow her change, I notice something happening on the other side of the town square. A lot of people are gathered around one spot in particular, and I can see those in the back whispering to each other. The crowd eventually parts to reveal the source of the commotion: Prince Makseka.

My breath catches in my stomach when I see his rugged face. I've never seen him in person before, only heard about what he looks like from stories and rumors but... wow. Violet was right—he is really, really good looking. Hot even. He's tall, maybe even taller than me, with wide-set shoulders, muscular looking arms, and a natural tan. He's got short, jet-black hair, and his face is covered in a dark layer of stubble, right below his bright blue eyes. He's dressed up like you'd expect a royal to be, wearing a red shirt over a black pair of pants with a small red cape on his shoulders.

Standing around him are four knights in full armor—his bodyguards from the royal court, no doubt sworn to protect him. Not that he needs it. I've heard he's just as strong and fast as any other knight, and I'd bet that would still be true even if he wasn't a werewolf. There is another man with them, older and shorter, with graying black hair and dressed in similarly fine-looking robes, walking next to the prince. It seems like he's trying to talk to the prince, but the prince either doesn't hear him or is pretending not to, the shorter man getting more and more flustered.

The people gathering around to stare and whisper are sure to give them all a lot of space, parting around them automatically as the group moves through the market. The prince stops at the various stands, talking with the owners who can only speak back nervously. I don't even realize that he's coming our way until we lock eyes, and he smiles. I look away in a panic, already feeling my face start to heat. What was that?

“I told you, it really is Prince Makseka!” Violet says excitedly, joining me by the carts I'm trying to hide behind until my heart stops pounding. “What do you think he's doing here?”

“How should I know?” I almost snap at her. Why do I feel so nervous? Anyone would after almost meeting the prince... right?

“Maybe I was right about the consort thing too,” she replies with a nudge to my side, before looking over my shoulder with wide eyes and then grabbing me by the arm and shaking. “Oh my gods, he's coming this way!”

“What?!” I look up and see that she's right. He's coming right toward us, his eyes locked onto our stall.

“Quick, get over there!” Violet tells me with a stronger shove than you'd expect from someone so short.

“Good morning,” Prince Makseka greets as I stumble to the counter. “Is this your stand?”

“H-Hello, Your Highness,” I stammer nervously. “Everything for sale is ours, b-but the stand belongs to the town. Th-the council sets them up for us and the other sellers to use on days like today.” Why am I explaining this to him?

“I see. Well that sounds like a great way for your village to support its economy. I'll have to make sure my father thanks them for it.” He flashes me another smile as he looks over the rows of fruits and vegetables. “Did you grow everything here yourself?”

“I... I helped?” I answer, confused as to why he's asking me these questions, or anything really. “I live on a farm right outside of town with my family. Lamplight Farm. It's just me and my parents.”

“Good morning, Your Highness.” Daddy steps forward and manages to not stumble all over himself like me.

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Momma tells him next, holding her dress and taking a small curtsey.

“Please, no need for the formalities.” He waves them both off and shakes his head. “Just pretend like I'm any other visitor just passing through your village.”

“We appreciate your visit, Your Highness,” Daddy says next, ignoring the request to be informal.

“We have some farms near St. Kizis, but would you believe I've never actually seen one?” He picks up a radish as he talks, still aimed at me. “All the space you'd need for all the fields and animals, and having to tend to all of them... It must be a lot of hard work.”

“I-It can be,” I admit, swallowing nervously. “You have to wake up really early most days, and you spend a lot of time outside, no matter the weather.”

“But you like it?” He puts the tomato back down as he asks.

“I do.” I nod, feeling my heart start to beat faster again. “Sir,” I quickly tack on. Are you supposed to call a prince “sir”?

“Sir, huh?” He smiles with a warmth that reaches his eyes before he continues. “Well, I won't pretend that I'm familiar with a lot of physical labor, but it looks good on you.”

“Th-thank you?” I'm not actually sure what I'm thanking him for, but I can feel that I'm starting to blush again.

He leans in close, smiling again (at my nervousness?), and... Did he just sniff me? He reaches for a strawberry and pops it into his mouth. His eyes grow when the sweet flavor hits his tongue. “Oh wow, that is really good. What are they called?”

“S-Strawberries, sir,” I answer him, not even caring that he didn't pay for that. “Th-they're new.”

“They're very good.” The way he says it makes me think he's not talking about the fruit. “Is this everything you've grown, or do you get to keep any for yourselves?”

“This is most of it,” I start to tell him. “We keep some of everything for our own pantry, and sometimes if a crop looks ugly or weird, we'll feed it to one of our animals instead of selling it, but this is everything else from our last harvest.” Seriously, why am I still explaining all of this to him?

“Are you out here every weekend, selling your crops?” Part of me feels like he can't actually be this interested, but his face and tone say the opposite.

“We actually only started a few weeks ago,” I start to explain. (I mean... he asked.) “We had to wait for the first of our spring crops to be ready for harvest. We will probably keep going until the end of fall.”

“How long are you usually out here for?” He turns to look at some of the other stands, and I only just realize how everyone nearby is staring at the two of us talking.

“Usually most of the morning and part of the afternoon,” I answer. “We will be here at least a few more hours today, unless we manage to sell everything. Sir.”

He chuckles, turning back to face. “I probably should have asked this sooner, but what's your name, Sunshine?”

“I, uh, it's P-Peter.” I almost choke on my own spit. Sunshine?!

“Peter.” He rolls my name around on his tongue, and I feel my chest start to pound again. “It's nice to meet you, Peter. I think I'd like to buy your stuff.”

“You'd like some strawberries, Your Highness?” Daddy steps forward quickly, already prepared to do business.

“No, sir. I mean all of it.” His eyes move from Daddy to me with a pleased expression. “Everything you have here.”

“I'm ... sorry?” Daddy is as confused as I am. He wants to buy everything?

“Your Highness, no.” The older man who has been standing at the prince's side finally speaks up, an exasperated look on his face. “We cannot purchase all of this man's goods. We have no need for them.”

“Oh come on, Kamo,” the prince tells the old man with a sharp slap on his back. “We have a huge castle full of soldiers and servants, and even the stuck-up people in the court have to eat sometime. Are you telling me Mona won't be able to find a use for all this in the kitchens? She'll love it. Especially these.” He pops another strawberry into his mouth. “So good.”

“Your Highness, I just do not think we need to—”

“I've already made up my mind, Kamo.” He looks at me again with a grin, his lips red from the fruit's juice. “Now pay Mr. Lambert here so me and the others can start loading everything into the carriages.”

The older man sighs, looking like this is an argument he's had before. He adjusts his glasses as he turns to my father. “How much will it be for everything you have for sale here?” Kamo waves his hand over the stands.

“Well, let me see.” Daddy and Momma start to count everything on the counters, doing the math in their heads.

“Don't forget about what's in those carts either!” Prince Makseka calls out, stepping around to the side of our stand.

“Th-thank you so much but ... why?” I dare to ask him. “Why did you do that?”

“How could I not buy everything from someone like you?” He shrugs, but the way his eyes move down my body makes me shiver. “Besides, I figured this way, you and your family will be able to go home early today. I'm sure you could use a day off.”

“That's very generous.” I don't bother to tell him that there is no such thing as a “day off” on a farm. I don't want him to change his mind. I'm glad my parents are handling the money because I can't even imagine how much it must be. Probably more than our family has seen in years. “Thank you so much, sir.”

“There's that ‘sir' again.” He grins as he picks up the first crate of crops, the royal bodyguards behind him doing the same. “It was really nice to meet you, Peter.”

“I-It was nice to meet you too, Your Highness.” I stare at the back of his head as he turns and walks away, afraid that I might start shaking.

“Peter, get over here and help me get the rest of the crates for Prince Makseka.” Daddy's gruff request snaps me back to reality.

“Yes, sir,” I reply, my body moving automatically.

As I help my parents unload the last of our crops and my brain starts to work again, I wonder what the hell just happened. I see Violet standing off to the side, looking like she's ready to explode with questions, but I ignore her for now. I try to focus on the work and clear the silly thoughts from my head, but every time I close my eyes, all I see are a pair of blue eyes and a warm smile.

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