Dominic N. Ashen

The Crown and the Collar

Art by jabberox

The Crown and the Collar

Chapter 2

"I can't believe that just happened."

"Me neither," I respond. "It did happen though, right?"

"Believe me, I had to stop myself from biting into the gold right in front of him," Daddy confirms. "It was real."

We're headed back to the farm several hours earlier than we normally would be after a day at the market, Momma driving the cart behind us. Both of them are completely empty, except for the crates we used to carry the crops, which are also now empty. We've had good days before, but we've never sold everything—not until Prince Makseka.

I still can't believe it. Why was he even there? He was just ... wandering around the market. Until he saw me. Then he kept asking me all those questions until he decided to just buy everything. He was probably the one person at the market who didn't need a single thing there!

The way he kept looking at me, his eyes, his smile... They're burned into my brain.

He and his knights got everything loaded pretty quickly—must be all that werewolf strength—and then returned all of the empty crates. Which makes me think that one of those carriages must now filled with loose fruits and vegetables just rolling around on the floor. I guess it's not really my problem. He can do whatever he wants with his food.

We make the turn at the mill, home just ahead in the distance. Lamplight Farm isn't the biggest, but we're still a decent size at fifteen acres. About half of that is empty fields of grass, but the rest is still a lot of land for the three of us to work. We've got a small stable for our two horses, a decent sized barn for our three dairy cows, and a small wooden chicken coop. The farmhouse where we actually live is an old wooden building with two floors, covered in a layer of faded blue paint.

"I don't know what you did to get the prince's attention like that," Momma says as we park the carts next to the farmhouse, "but I think it just paid for a new roof."

"Whatever it was, you'll have to do it again the next time we have a royal in town," Daddy jokes as we step off.

"I'm going to put this away," Momma tells us, hugging us both before she steps inside. "It feels dangerous carrying around this much money."

While Momma stashes away today's earnings in the safe, Daddy starts to pull the empty crates from the carts, stacking them in the shed near the fields so they'll be ready for the next harvest. They're light enough that he can handle it on his own, so I unhook Bess and Kino from the carts and bring them to our small horse stable.

We've had these horses for as long as I can remember, and they're both getting up in years, but they're gentle-natured and hard workers. I get them both in their stalls and make sure they've got fresh water and plenty of forage to eat. Before I leave, I feed them both an apple, a reward for all the work they did today.

My stomach starts to rumble after I leave the stable, so I head back to the farmhouse for lunch. Momma usually packs us sandwiches and a few snacks to eat while at the market, and I join her and Daddy at the dinner table to eat. When we're finished, we each head off to take care of what we need to on the farm.

Even though we woke up early to finish a few things, since we normally expect to spend most of the day in the marketplace selling, there's still plenty to be done around farm. The chickens and cows were taken care of this morning, so with the horses fed, that should be all of the animals. I think that just leaves some hay bales in the barn that need to be stacked.

"Good afternoon, ladies," I greet the cows as I enter the barn. "Don't mind me. Just moving some hay."

"Mooooo," Holly greets me in return, coming up to the edge of her stall with her sisters Molly and Polly at her side.

"Yeah, it was a really good day," I start to tell them about our morning as I pick up the first bale, starting a pile in the corner. "You'll never believe it: Prince Makseka was at the market today. Just wandering around like it was nothing."

"Moo?" Polly asks while I grab my second bale.

"Yeah, he came up and started asking me all these questions about the farm." I move another, already starting to feel the familiar burn in my arm muscles. "He seemed really interested for some reason, and then he bought everything. That's why we're home so early."

Okay, I know the cows can't actually understand me, and no, I can't understand them either, but that doesn't mean they don't like being talked to. They're friendly girls, always eager to say hello. Sometimes I feel like they understand me anyways, and even if they can't, it's just nice to have someone who listens, you know?

"Moooo." Sounds like Molly wants to hear more about the prince.

"He was really nice, actually," I tell her as I pull off my shirt, already soaked through with sweat, tucking it into the waist of my pants. "Not that I expected him to be mean. He was maybe a little weird, too. Kept asking me about what it's like living and working on a farm, how much I liked it. And then like I said, he bought everything we brought with us. Down to the last onion."

"Moo?" Holly seems skeptical.

"No, that was the other weird part. Even though Momma and Daddy were right there, Iwas the one he kept talking to." I finish with one pile and move onto the next. "I'm not sure why he was so interested in hearing from me. They've been doing this a lot longer, especially Daddy."

"Moo." Polly always did get to the right to the point.

"Yeah, okay, he was nice to look at, too," I admit, stopping for a second, taking off my shirt, and using it to wipe my brow. "He's really tall, and he has these bright blue eyes I noticed from all the way across the square. I don't think he'd shaved in a couple of days, but it looked really good on him."

"Well, that's a nice thing to hear." The voice makes me yelp in surprise and drop the bale in my hands. Turning around, I see Prince Makseka leaning against the barn door. "Though I swear, I shaved just yesterday."

"Your Highness!" I blurt out, probably a little too loudly. "What are you doing here?"

"I happen to have it on good authority that you were given the rest of the day off, so I thought I'd come and see what your farm was like for myself." He steps farther inside the barn, his icy blue eyes scanning my body again. "Though it kinda seems like you're still working anyway."

"I... I'm sorry, sir." Why am I apologizing? "There's just a lot of work to be done on a farm." I gesture to the half-finished stack of hay bales.

"I can see that." Instead of looking there, his eyes are glued to my sweaty, shirtless torso, my chest hair matted to my skin.

"W-Would you ... like a tour of the farm, sir?" I'm right back to feeling that mix of nervousness and being drawn in, just like in town.

"I would." He nods once, stepping closer. "I really enjoyed meeting you today. So much that it made me start to consider some things."

"What kind of things, Prince Makseka?" It feels like he wants me to ask.

"Please, call me Max," he says before his expression turns more serious. "How much do you know about consorts to the royal family?" He looks almost worried about what my answer might be.

"I... I know a little," I lie, the question making goosebumps break out over my body. "I've read a few stories and heard about some other things from other people in the village."

"Well, I can promise you that only about half of them are true," he teases, putting back on his charming smile. "But I'm glad you're at least a little familiar because I have another question to ask you."

"Sir?" My throat suddenly feels very dry.

"Would you do me the honor of becoming my consort?" he asks, taking a step toward me.

"I... You... What?" There is no way I just heard him right.

"I want to claim you as my consort," he repeats, stepping closer.

"But... But why? We just met today. Why me?" Everything around us has gone dead silent. Even the cows are watching the two of us closely.

"To start with, Sunshine, you're gorgeous." He grins at me cockily. "But even if I didn't find you incredibly attractive, you also seem kind, and gentle, and you're obviously a hard worker. I think I wanted you from the moment our eyes met across the town square. And your scent?" He leans in and inhales through his nose, a pleasant smile crossing his face. I knew he was smelling me at the market!

"Th-thank you, Your Highness." I reel in my shock enough to force the words out. "B-But I'm sorry, sir. I c-can't be your c-consort."

"What?" His head swings around at the obviously unexpected answer. "Why not?"

"Well, my... my family. The farm." I look around the barn and over at Polly, Holly, and Molly. "My parents are getting older, and they can't do as much around here as they used to. They need my help. I quit school to be here for them. I can't just leave."

"Of course you'd be selfless too." He sighs, wearing a sad but still hopeful smile. "But maybe we can find a solution for that. Come with me."

"W-Where are we going?" I follow as he turns and strides swiftly out of the barn.

"To talk to your parents," he answers without ever looking over his shoulder. What is he going to say to them?

We reach the main house, walking in through the already open back door and through the kitchen. Seated around the dinner table are both my parents, Kamo, and two of the royal knights, with the other two on our couch. The knights and Kamo all stand when we enter, my parents hastily doing the same.

"Is everything alright?" one of the knights asks Prince Makseka, looking concerned.

"Yes, I just need to discuss a few things with Mr. and Mrs. Lambert here." The prince takes a seat in the only empty chair at the table. Everyone else returns to their seats as well, leaving me to stand awkwardly behind him. "So, to cut to the chase, I have asked your son if he would do me the honor of becoming my consort."

"You did what?"

"You did what?!"

Kamo's question sounds a lot angrier than my mother's. The knights all look surprised, their gazes moving between me and the prince, while Momma and Daddy are a mix of shocked and confused. Just like I was when he asked me. And mostly still am.

"I would like your son to come back with me to the capital, live with me in the castle, and claim him as my consort," Prince Makseka explains in the simplest terms possible. "Unfortunately, he told me that he can't because you need him to keep the farm running."

"Yes, he's a big help around here." Daddy seems hesitant to answer. Both my parents are looking at me confused and worried, like neither knows what to say.

"That's something I can understand. He's obviously devoted to this place and to the two of you." He nods. "So what I would like to propose is that in exchange for bringing your son home with me, I compensate you with a monthly stipend you could use to hire a farmhand to work in his place. Would a thousand gold cover it?"

I feel like the air is knocked out of me. One thousand gold a month!? That is the kind of money we could only dream of. We'd be able to get new equipment, new horses, fix up the house... With money like that, every month, my parents would never have to work a day themselves ever again!

Both of their eyes go just as wide as mine, sharing a look. Daddy starts to speak for them both. "I... I'm sorry, Your Highness, but there is no amount of money that could replace our son. I'm afraid I have to—"

"Wait," I cut Daddy off, all eyes in the room turning to me. "Your Highness, could... Could I have some time to think about it?"

"Of course," Makseka agrees with a too-quick nod, hope plastered across his face.

"Your Highness!" Kamo, who glares at me and my family in annoyance, puts his foot down. Literally, he stomps on the floor. "You cannot honestly be considering making this boy—"

"Do you think you get a say in this, Kamo?" The prince challenges his "keeper" with a cool look and a cocked eyebrow.

Chastised, Kamo takes a deep breath before continuing. "All I mean to say, my prince, is that we cannot delay our return to the castle any longer. We have already wasted enough time in this village and need to return home. The king and queen are expecting us."

"My parents aren't going to miss me if we stay one more night." The prince scoffs and rolls his eyes. Then he stands and turns to me. "I can give you until the morning. Would that be enough time for you to make a decision?"

"Yes, sir," I agree even though I know that's not nearly enough time for something this big. "Thank you. I promise I will give you an answer in the morning, Prince Makseka."

"I told you: call me Max." He gives me a smoldering look before taking my hand and kissing the back of it while Kamo and his knights stand, the group of them moving to the front door. "I'll see you in the morning. Sleep well tonight, Sunshine."

My parents and I are at a loss for words after he leaves, standing in silence in the dining room.

"Is today real?" Momma shakes her head and falls back into her seat.

"I need a drink." Daddy steps into the kitchen, returning with a bottle of whiskey and glass.

"What... What should I tell him?" I ask nervously as I sit down.

"You tell him no," Daddy tells me as he fills a glass.

"But ... he offered us so much money, Daddy." A thousand gold a month... I still can't wrap my head around it.

"And you are our son," Momma asserts, taking my hand. "All the gold in the world couldn't replace you."

"But Momma..." I know what she's saying, but I still shake my head. "With money like that we could finally hire some help around here. We could expand the fields. You could both retire."

"I don't care." Daddy takes my other hand. "You're our boy. This is your home. Nothing and no one is ever going to change that, even the dammed prince."

"We love you," Momma says with a squeeze to my hand.

"I love you both, too," I respond, even though my mind is still reeling. "Is it okay if I go into town for a little bit? I kind of want to talk to some friends about this."

"Go right ahead, son." Momma nods with a smile. "Just make sure you're back in time for dinner."

"Yes ma'am." I stand and hug them both.

I jog upstairs to my bedroom to replace the shirt I took off in the barn—I need to remember to grab that or it'll smell like the cows for days. Once I'm redressed, I head back downstairs and out the front door, walking down the dirt road away from the farm. Here, away from everyone else, I feel like I finally have the space to breathe.

What... What the heck just happened? Why was the prince at my house? How did he even find it? Okay, so maybe it's not actually that hard to find. But why would he want me to be his consort? I'm nobody, just a dumb hick. He talked to me for maybe fifteen minutes. What could he have possibly seen in me?

I head straight to Violet's house, knocking on the door way too hard. She looks surprised to see me when she answers, and behind her I can see two of our other friends, Monica and Ricky. Suddenly, I'm a little more hesitant to ask for advice.

Monica and Ricky are the same age and went to the same school as Violet and I. They've also been a couple for a few years now. They're fine, but the way they baby talk to each other can get a little gross. Monica is the daughter of the town baker, with brown eyes and mousy brown hair that she keeps in a ponytail. She's a nice girl, usually very quiet and shy, at least when she's not around Ricky.

Ricky is ... fine. Okay, honestly, he can be kind of a jerk sometimes. Don't get me wrong, I like the guy. He can just be kinda ... snobby. Which is saying something in a small town like ours. His family owns another farm in town, about twice the size of ours, and he lives there with his parents and two younger siblings. He's a few inches shorter than me with a slimmer build but just as much muscle, and he has light brown hair and green eyes.

"Peter!" Violet pulls me inside and leads me to where our friends are sitting. "I am soglad you came over. I was just telling them about what happened with the prince at the market this morning. I didn't have a chance to talk to you before you left!"

"I might have some more news about that..." I grimace as I take a seat on a chair next to the couch.

"Oh my god, what happened?" she asks with excitement as she takes her own seat on the couch next to me.

"He came to the farm," I start to tell them about my afternoon.

"What!?" Monica jumps up from the other side of the couch to move closer to me. "Why was he there? What did he want?"

"He... He asked me to be his consort." I let the words spill out of me. No point in beating around the bush.

Violet lets out a high-pitched squeal and clamps her hand over her mouth. "WHAT?!"

"Holy shit, seriously?" Ricky asks from his spot on the middle of the couch.

"Yeah, he said he ... really liked meeting me at the market and..." I can feel myself start to blush, and I trail off, remembering his words. He called me Sunshine. He said he wanted me from the moment our eyes met.

"You?" Ricky continues to sound shocked. "What did he see in you?"

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Violet defends me, slapping Ricky on the arm.

"Honeybun, that wasn't very nice." Monica turns and pouts at him.

"Aww, I'm sorry, pumpkin. I didn't mean it like that." Might be nice if he apologized to me... "I only meant that it doesn't make sense for the prince to want anyone from Weston as a consort. There's nothing special here."

"That's what I thought..." I ignore the way his words bring me down. "It doesn't matter because I told him I no."

"You did what?!" Violet is scandalized.

"I told him that I couldn't leave the farm, that my parents need me here," I explain, even though that was far from the end of it. "So then he offered my parents money. A lot of money. Enough for them to hire some farmhands to replace me and then some."

"How much?" Ricky asks and is smacked on the arm again. "Oww. Sorry."

"A lot," I repeat, not wanting to tell them everything. "And I'm supposed to give him an answer in the morning."

"This is amazing!" Violet claps her hands together in excitement.

"No, it's not!" I look at her like her head just exploded.

"What are you talking about?" She fixes me with a stern look. "You can't tell me you've never thought about this before."

She knows I have. We used to talk about it all the time. Moving to the city, being swept off my feet by the prince, getting to live in the castle ... and then the other, more private things that take place behind closed doors. It was one of the only ways I knew boys were even allowed to like other boys.

"That was different." I curl in on myself. Ricky and Monica both know, but it still feels weird to talk about with them. "Before, it was just a fantasy. It was never going to be real. What am I supposed to do: just say yes? Leave the farm, my family, all of you?"

"Yes!" Monica exclaims, jumping up again. "I... I mean..."

"She means it's an opportunity," Ricky explains for her. "One you should really think about taking."

"Come on. Isn't there at least some part of you that wants to say yes?" Violet fixes me with a knowing look.

"Maybe." I sigh and shake my head. "But I still can't do it. I can't just leave everyone. This is my home."

"Yeah, alright." Violet sighs, disappointed. "I understand. But I still think you should—"

A series of loud coughs suddenly rings through the house—Violet's father. She mumbles a small apology as she exits the room to take care of him. Violet is an only child like me, and her mother died when she was really young, so it's just been her and her father most of her life. She's the only one here to take care of him.

He first got sick a few months ago. It was just a small cough at the start, but then he started coughing up blood, and since then he's gotten much weaker. He's always tired, and he's lost a lot of weight. Violet has tried to step in for him, but her blacksmithing skills aren't nearly as good as his yet. She comes by the farm about once a month to reshoe the horses, and after paying her my parents always send her home with a box of food. She's having an even tougher time than we are.

The three of us sit quietly and awkwardly until she comes back, no one mentioning her father or his mystery illness. We hang out for another hour or so, talking more about the prince and some of the other things that happened at the market today. The girls in particular needle me for more details, pushing me to admit what I found attractive about him. I tell them a little bit, like about his eyes, and his stubble, but after I look out the window and see how late it's getting, I say my goodbyes and head home.

I'm glad I had the chance to talk to Violet and the others, but I'm not actually sure if it helped. It seems like they just wanted to talk about all the fun and scandalous bits, and not the "leaving behind everyone and everything I've ever known" part. I sigh to myself when I reach the farm, no closer to making a decision one way or the other. I head for the open back door, pausing when I hear my parents talking inside.

"I can't believe we're even considering this." That's my mom.

"We're not considering this." And there's Daddy.

"He is!" Momma corrects him.

"Well, can you blame him?" Daddy counters, trying to see things through my eyes. "The prince did offer us a lot of money."

"Money that would go to us, not our son." She makes a good point, but it's one that makes me lean toward saying yes. "If he accepts, it's only because of us."

"We raised a good son, Mary," Daddy tries to console her.

"Too good." I can hear her sad smile. "We can't let him do this. We're supposed to make sure he lives a better life than we did, not the other way around."

"I don't want him to leave either, hun. He belongs here with us." I won't lie. It feels really good to hear my parents want so badly for me to stay. "But that's a decision he's going to have to come to on his own."

"I know. Why do you think I'm making fried cod and scrunchions for dinner?" That's my favorite! I knew I smelled something good.

"We'll have to hope that'll be enough," Daddy jokes with a sigh. "It would be a lot of money, though."

"What are you saying?" Momma sounds annoyed now.

"Not that we should take it. But you can't blame me for thinking about what we could use it for," he defends himself, sounding wistful. "We could hire those farmhands like we've been talking about for years. Replace all our old equipment. And you know the horses are getting up in years. Just like us."

"All the new horses in the world aren't worth our son," Momma says with finality. "He was our miracle, Ron. We thought we would never—"

"I know, hun. I know." Daddy sighs again.

As good as it is to hear my parents' words, I also can't help but think about everything they could use that money for. They'd never have to work again. With even more to think about, I quietly take a few steps backward, making sure to stomp my feet when I step onto the porch this time so they'll be sure to hear me arriving.

"Oh good, you're back!" Momma calls over her shoulder as she stands over the stove. "Dinner's almost ready."

"It smells great, Momma." I lean over to kiss her on the cheek.

"Son, I want to make sure you know you don't need to say yes to the prince," Daddy tells me as I join him at the table.

"I know that, Daddy." I nod, pulling in my seat.

"But you're still considering it," Momma says as she sets a plate for each of us on the table before grabbing her own.

"It's just ... so much money." It would change our lives forever.

"We're doing just fine on money," Momma insists, even though I know that isn't entirely truthful.

"I know we're okay," I lie with her. "I'm just trying to think about the future."

"We're the parents here." She reaches out to take my hand. "You let us worry about the future."

As nice a thought as that is, it's not realistic. What the future holds is them getting older, and my needing to take care of them, on top of running the farm by myself. I can't even wrap my head around that. At least if I accepted the prince's offer, I'd know they'd both be taken care of, even if I wouldn't be here to do it myself.

We spend the rest of dinner talking about the work we need to do on the farm. Daddy wants to till the east field tomorrow so we can put down our first batch of potatoes for next season. The conversation feels a little like they're just trying to distract me, but I go along with it anyway.

When I am finished helping clean up after dinner, I decide to call it an early night and head up to my bedroom. My parents both hug me longer than usual, and I can tell they both want to ask me about my decision, but they don't. I'm glad because I still have a lot to think about.

I flop down on the bed once I'm upstairs and in my room. I keep thinking about what Momma said about the future. And it's not that I don't want to do those things—I really do love the farm, and I love spending time with both of them—it's just going to be a lot of work. Not to mention expensive. And ... would saying yes to Prince Max really be all that much worse?

I mean, if I say yes, I'll get to travel outside of the village and see a real city. I'll get meet new people and try all sorts of new things. I wonder what the food is like? But if I stay here, then I know exactly what my future is going to be. Staying in this small town, on this farm, in this old house ... alone forever.

I know I'm making that sound like a bad thing. I don't mean to. I've just never really thought about the possibility of doing anything else. I know I'd basically be signing the rest of my life away to someone else but ... maybe it wouldn't be so bad? Like Violet said, it's not like I've never fantasized about it.

That brings up another memory. I roll over to the side of the bed, sticking my hand under my mattress and feeling around. When my hands land on an old book, I pull it out, running my fingers across the worn-down cover and creased edges. This was one of my favorites.

It tells the story of a prince and the love he had for another prince of a country far, far across the ocean. The two had met only briefly, shortly before war broke out between their two nations. After learning that his love is being held captive by his tyrannical father, our hero travels to the country in secret, seeking to free him. The story is filled with all sorts of action and drama, and I swear I must have read it over a dozen times. In the end, our hero manages to defeat the evil king, end the war, and rescue his love—who he of course claims as consort. I'll let you figure out the rest.

I slowly flip through the yellowed pages, the details of the story coming back to me like an old friend. I used to eat this stuff up, constantly daydreaming about what it would be like if I could meet a prince of my own. And now I have ... so is it really so crazy if I take a chance and say yes?

I can already tell I'm going to have a hard time sleeping tonight, no closer to making up my mind one way or another. I lay there, trying to read, trying to think, trying to sleep, but none of it takes. I turn and look out the window at the night sky. The house is quiet, my parents already in bed themselves. With a sigh, I roll out of bed and throw on some clothes.

I don't always sleep great, so sometimes at night I'll take a walk around the farm to clear my head. And I could really use it tonight. I can't believe I'm actually considering telling him yes. I can't believe that this is even a thing I can say yes to. It's a fantasy I used to think about a lot... but that's all I ever thought it would be.

I stop and lean against the fence, looking up at the moon. It's only about half full, the moonlight pouring over the fields. Almost on cue, a wolf howl fills the air. One that sounds almost lonely. If I say yes, I wouldn't just be the prince's consort. I'd be a werewolf's consort. And I have no idea what that means. But maybe I'm ready to find out.

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