True to the king's promise, the feast was spectacular. He spared no finery, no extravagance, no splendor for the engagement banquet of Sir Gavin and his daughter, Princess Kiara. The giant boar of the wildwood had been cut and roasted to serve all gathered. The courtiers and huntsmen praised Gavin's feat with cheers of acclamation, glasses upraised in toasts to his might and power like he were the saviour of the kingdom. Even some of the soldiers joined in the accolades, swayed by the proof of Gavin's capabilities now displayed three times.
The boar was the last, and now he was prince. Ruler of half the kingdom, and engaged to the princess of the other half. A princess who did not share the appreciation shown him by the others.
She had avoided him all evening. Amidst the pomp and pride, a familiar sensation began to creep over Gavin, and at the nearest opportunity, he slipped outside onto the balcony terrace, leaving the glimmering dining hall behind.
It surprised him that night had not yet fallen. Walking to the rail, Gavin stared skyward into the crimson tainted clouds of the mid-summer sunset. Ever constant, was the sky. Always changing, but always there. It breathed gently on him, the wind snaking against his skin and hair, and he closed his eyes for a moment. He remembered back to the lonely days after the plague. How sad and empty the village had been, like a tomb, and all the fresh mounds behind the old church.
Reaching up, Gavin slipped the gold circlet from his head, and turned it over in his hands, watching the fading light reflect of its gleaming brilliance. Never had he held so much wealth in his hand before in the entirety of his life. Now it was his, all of it, half an entire kingdom at his command. Gained through cleverness.
He smiled a little. His mother loved his cleverness. In the reflection of the thin band of gold he could almost see her face, but though he tilted the surface to better catch the light, it eluded him.
She'd be so proud of him. This transformation from tailor, to prince. From boy... to man.
Heavy footsteps approached from behind. Gavin turned. Dressed in full military regalia, Kristian strode toward him. The young commander needed not a golden circlet to inspire respect. Though Gavin gave no outward show of guardedness, inside he knew Kristian had not come to join him merely for the pleasure of his company.
"Good evening, Captain."
"So I'm told." The dark haired Captain of the Guard acquiesced to nod in greeting. "Absent from your own celebration?"
"There's wine," Gavin conjured a smile. "They won't notice."
"Indeed not." Slowing to stand beside the new prince, Kristian gazed out over the palace garden.
Gavin resumed his stance, folding his arms, the circlet dangling from his fingers. In spite of himself, he straightened in the shadow of the warrior beside him. He glanced sidelong and caught the sheen of the buckle clasping the captain's cape about his broad shoulders.
"Seven in one blow," Kristian said at last.
Gavin blinked, shaking himself. "Hm?"
"Two giants, a unicorn... And the Boar of the Wildwood that Supreme General Alexander himself couldn't wrestle to the ground."
There was a pause. Gavin didn't know what he was meant to say.
"Extraordinary." Kristian finally turned his head to look at him.
Gavin met the captain's gaze with warmth and a smile, but found there only ice, like the foreign chill of the gold circlet against his palm.
"You do not like me." Gavin tried, letting the smile play in his expression a moment longer.
"I do not like liars. Or cowards."
The smile faded. He wanted more than anything to wrench free of Kristian's intense scrutiny and leave him behind on the balcony alone, escaping to the adoration of the now hopelessly drunk banqueters.
"It's denial then, is it?"
"Convince me otherwise."
"I have brought the proof before you and the King himself," Gavin said. "If you cannot accept the facts--"
"The facts," Kristian turned to face him fully. "These are the facts I see. I see before me a boy, who has gained half a kingdom through deception. Your tricks, Sir Gavin, will not save you when true strength is required to care for the treasures you have acquired. Tell me, do you remember their faces?"
"Those seven men you killed with one blow, do you remember their faces? Their expressions when you took their lives in a single strike? Did you bury them near their families, or leave their bodies where they fell?"
Kristian's eyes burned now, Gavin could feel the flames licking towards his heart. His jaw tight, he clutched the circlet, and met the captain's onslaught with defiance swelling in his chest.
"Would you like me to tell you what they were wearing, as well? Or perhaps the speed with which I ended their lives, the placement of their bodies as they fell, the scent that filled the air after their deaths."
Kristian snorted. "You have never killed another human being in your life. I can see it in your eyes. You are weak."
Gavin snapped. Unfolding his arms he faced the broad captain just as he had the giants in the forest, the boar, and the unicorn. "You stand here and speak of weakness like you were the one who met the challenges I have overcome. Do you hear the people shouting your name?"
"Your tricks do not make you strong, they make you clever, and cleverness is no substitute for integrity. There will come a time, Gavin, when the people will shout your name in condemnation, not praise. You will lose everything. And everyone."
"Starting with you, I assume."
The Captain held Gavin's gaze for a few moments longer. "Starting with Kiara."
Gavin's thoughts halted.
Kristian left. The sounds of the banquet spilled out for a moment, then died down again as the servants closed the door behind Kristian once again, leaving Gavin alone with the sky by the balcony rail. A thousand thoughts whirled through Gavin's head like a swarm of angry bees.
He was just jealous. The people must have cheered for him before Gavin came along. It was easy for the great Captain of the Guard to speak of strength as he did. He'd been strong all his life. Just looking at him anyone could imagine he could take on a horde of trolls without flinching. Bare handed.
But Gavin. All Gavin had was his tricks. That's all he'd ever had.
And Kristian was right. Who valued tricks?
Were the truth to be known now, he would lose everything, whether it were discovered or he confessed. It didn't matter either way.
Turning his back on the festivities, Gavin lifted the gold circlet once more. He tilted it, trying to catch the reflection again, but the illusion of his mother had vanished.
Everything inside him trembled.