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The Huntsman and the Prince

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Arthit knew he was destined to be the villain of someone’s story. The title of Huntsman didn’t allow him to be anything else. The only mystery to his future was what hero he would anger. 

~

As a child, Arthit’s mother had told him he was fortunate to have been born as the son of a huntsman to the king. He would never have to brave danger to rescue a princess, never have to prove himself with perilous tasks. As a huntsman, he would never go without food and there would always be someone who wanted his services. 

As a child, he believed her. Until his father was summoned by the king and the princess’s body was found the next day. They moved kingdoms but the story followed them.

She didn’t tell him about the fear that would follow his name. She didn’t tell him about the blood that would stain his clothes or the whispers that would surround him. She didn’t tell him how extraordinarily lonely it would be. 

Living in the kingdom neighboring the one Arthit grew up in, whispers followed them. Arthit became used to the stares and hushed conversations that surrounded his family. His father’s smile became harder to come by and his mother no longer visited the noblewomen. It was a lonely childhood, the other children pulled away by concerned parents before Arthit could make friends with them. As the years passed, Arthit filled his time learning his father’s craft. 

Years later, it was this skill that granted him his first meeting with the prince. 

Not the eldest prince of course. The eldest prince was destined for greatness beyond knowing a huntsman, as all eldest princes were. Not the second prince either, whose fate was no doubt just as wondrous, if less prestigious, as the eldest’s. No, the prince whom Arthit knew was the youngest. Third born Prince Kongpob. Third born princes were destined to live in mediocrity in the shadow of their brothers or to overthrow them. 

When Arthit first met the youngest prince he had been certain he was destined for the first future.

~

“Pull your arm farther back so your hand touches your jaw.”

Arthit watched the prince correct his arm, nock the arrow and let it fly. It flew above the target before falling to the ground. The other two princes’ arrows had both hit dead center. He could see now why he had been chosen to teach Prince Kongpob. 

They met once a week, and Arthit swallowed the complaints about wasted time. He corrected the prince’s stance, reminded him to wear the protective leather brace for his hand and arm. Prince Kongpob enjoyed talking during their lessons, and it was through this that Arthit slowly became privy to several facts about the prince. He learned that Prince Kongpob was not particularly talented at archery but he worked hard. He learned that Prince Kongpob was fond of his brothers and loved his father. He learned that Prince Kongpob was soft but unyielding in accomplishing his goals. 

And yet, months passed and the prince failed to improve. Arthit wondered what would happen to him if the prince’s aim didn’t improve. The thought made his tongue sharper, his hands rougher. 

“How were you chosen to be my teacher when you are so clearly not meant for it?” the prince asks once. There's a challenge in his voice, but no real malice behind it. 

“I am the kingdom’s best huntsman. I have never needed to learn how to teach.”

The prince hummed, nocking the arrow again. It missed. Arthit frowned. It should be impossible for Prince Kongpob to continue missing every target, every time. He should have hit one after all these weeks, even if by accident. He kept the thought to himself but studied the prince more intently. 

~

For their next lesson, Arthit was late, having lost time due to sleeping in. He rushed to the training grounds, unsure if the prince was still even there. He had apologies already prepared when he slowed to a stop, frowning at the sight that greeted him. Prince Kongpob seemed to have forgone waiting for his arrival. Instead, his bow was fitted with an arrow already, and Arthit silently cursed the open field where they held their weekly practices. There were few places to remain hidden, save for the cluster of hay stacks used as extra targets. It was here that he hid behind, curious to see what would happen next. From his place out of sight, Arthit could see that the prince had already begun practicing. Fourteen arrows were stuck firmly in the dead center of the target. He waited, watching from his position behind the prince among the bales of hay. 

After several minutes, Prince Kongpob picked up his bow, nocking the arrow. Arthit watched him concentrate, brows furrowing. A moment of complete stillness, and then the arrow flew straight to the bullseye. Arthit’ eyes widened. Despite his suspicions, he hadn’t expected to see such accuracy. Prince Kongpob’s lips curled into a satisfied smile, and then he moved to the target, placing a hand on the target as he pulled the arrows out. Arthit waited for the last arrow to go back into the quiver before he spoke.

“How long have you been able to do this?” Arthit demanded. He stepped out into the open field. 

Prince Kongpob startled, his grip on the bow faltering. He rearranged his features quickly enough but Arthit had already seen the surprise on his face. 

“You’re late,” he said, and then, “Are you accusing me of something?” His tone was cool, and if Arthit hadn’t seen the amusement in his eyes he might have been intimidated.

“You’ve been wasting my time and yours by pretending you can’t shoot,” he snarled.  Anger curled up his spine, slipping beneath his skin as his hands curled into fists. He had spent hours trying to teach the prince, wasted time he could have used to do something useful, time the prince could have spent learning something he actually needed taught. Arthit’ lip curled into a sneer, and were he not speaking to the prince, he would have said more. But he was and he had already said more than he should, so he bit his tongue; Arthit knew better than to risk his life on the moods of royalty.

“Well, I guess you’re smarter than I thought,” Prince Kongpob said, grinning widely.

Arthit blinked. “What?” he asked dumbly.

“I was wondering if you’d catch on, you know.” Prince Kongpob smiled at him, leaning back against the target. “I was starting to think you never would.”

“I was starting to think it was lucky you had other people to catch your food,” Arthit replied before he could stop himself. He gulped, half expecting the prince to take him to the king. To his surprise, the prince laughed. He had a rough sounding laugh, the kind that invited you to laugh with him.

Arthit blinked. 

“I knew you weren’t as polite as you pretended,” Prince Kongpob said, and he sounded oddly delighted. Straightening, he stepped forward and put his hand on Arthit’s back. Arthit stiffened but Prince Kongpob just smiled at him again.

“I’ll see you at my next lesson,” he said, and walked away leaving Arthit staring after him. 

~

Despite his suspicion that Prince Kongpob could use a bow nearly as well as himself, Arthit found himself showing up to the next lesson. Prince Kongpob was waiting for him, bow and quiver clutched firmly in his hands. No arrows in the target this time.

“No hiding in the targets today?” he called out cheerfully, grinning brightly as Arthit approached. 

Arthit scowled at him. “No more pretending you can’t shoot an arrow?” He paused, abruptly aware and horrified at his boldness. “Your Highness,” he added hastily, and Prince Kongpob laughed before he shrugged. 

“That day must have been a fluke.” His words were easy, and Arthit wondered if he was really going to try and pretend Arthit hadn’t seen the results of fifteen perfect shots. 

“We’ll see,” he said shortly, and then gestured to the target. “Let’s start.”

“Whatever you say,” Prince Kongpob said, and shot Arthit a sharp grin. 

He nocked his arrow, pulling his arm back smoothly with none of the usual shakiness most beginners had. Privately, Arthit wondered how he hadn’t noticed that earlier. And yet, despite Prince Kongpob’s perfect stance, Arthit could see the split second change in direction right before the arrow left its bow. And just as he expected, the arrow went sideways, glancing off the side of the target to land a few feet away. 

“You didn’t hit the target,” he said, eyeing Prince Kongpob carefully.

The prince smiled, bright and mischievous, as though they were sharing an inside joke. “Well,” he started, “I suppose that means you still have a lot to teach me.”

Arthit clicked his tongue impatiently. Clearly the prince was determined to keep up this ruse, though Arthit couldn’t understand why. And unless he could prove it, he was still the prince’s teacher. 

~

Their next three meetings followed much the same pattern. Arthit would arrive to see Prince Kongpob waiting for him and then Arthit would watch as he missed the target every time, Arthit biting his cheek to stop himself from commenting. He was certain Prince Kongpob was pretending. 

Curiosity had led him to finding Prince Kongpob’s other teachers, all of whom were quick to share how polite and intelligent the prince was, how quickly he picked things up. And yet, here he was, lying to Arthit’s face each time he picked up a bow. It was as infuriating as it was confusing. Despite hours of wondering, he couldn’t understand why Prince Kongpob would pretend and waste both of their time. Still, Arthit was a mere huntsman. He did not pretend to understand how the minds of others worked, much less someone so different from him. And as he could do nothing so long as the prince pretended, he simply watched each arrow fall to the ground with gritted teeth, resigned to waiting until there was something he could do.

His chance came a mere fortnight later, three months since their lessons began. Upon his arrival back home, he caught sight of a letter waiting for him. Written in rich black ink and stamped with the king’s seal, Arthit skimmed it to see it demanded he come to the king in three days to report Prince Kongpob’s progress. Arthit’s hands curled tightly around the letter, swallowing as his stomach clenched. 

How could he tell the king his son refused to show the full range of his skill? Even if he did, would the king believe him? Worry kept Arthit restless that night, and the next morning dark circles were clearly visible beneath his eyes. 

Arthit continued his usual routine automatically, eating and getting dressed as he pondered what to say to the king. The problem was a heavy weight in his stomach as he made his way to the training ground. Upon arrival to the practice field, Prince Kongpob was waiting as usual. This time, he was waxing the bow string, and Arthit watched him carefully for a moment before the prince noticed him.

“Master Huntsman,” Prince Kongpob said, a now familiar cheerful grin on his face. 

“Your Highness.” Arthit bowed and moved to stand beside the prince. He watched in silence as Prince Kongpob finished waxing the bow string. The wind was cool against his face, and Arthit wondered what he was supposed to say three days from now. It was silent save for the sounds of the wind as Prince Kongpob put the wax away and grabbed the quiver of arrows. Arthit watched him shoot three arrows, each missing or glancing off the target. 

Then, right as Prince Kongpob was reaching for the fourth, before he could stop himself he blurted out, “The king has asked me to let him know about your progress.”

Prince Kongpob paused briefly, turning to look at him. There was an unreadable expression on his face. 

“Oh?” he said after a moment, voice even and unconcerned. The lack of concern irritated Arthit, though he wasn’t sure why he had expected anything else. What would a prince know or care about the importance of this for Arthit?

Prince Kongpob finished nocking the fourth arrow, drawing his arm back before letting go. This time, the arrow glanced off the edge of the target. 

“How long are you going to keep missing the target?” Arthit snapped, momentarily forgetting who he was speaking to. Luckily, Prince Kongpob didn’t seem to notice. 

“Until I learn,” Prince Kongpob said calmly. 

“Do you want your father to think your lessons are useless?”

“Archery is a skill that takes time to perfect. I’m sure he’ll understand.” Prince Kongpob was irritatingly calm as he spoke and Arthit’s hands twitched from where they were pressed against his legs. 

“And you’re going to risk my reputation on that assumption?” he demanded. 

Prince Kongpob paused as he took out another arrow. Arthit had tried not to let any of his worry slip out, but he didn’t seem to have succeeded based on the prince’s expression. A frown slipped over his normally cheerful face, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he drew his arm back and let the arrow loose. Arthit watched it fly straight ahead, landing with a solid thunk on the outermost ring of the target. The next three arrows followed suit, each barely hitting the target. 

“My father wouldn’t punish you for my failings. And besides, I would never risk harm coming to you,” Prince Kongpob said firmly, and there was so much certainty in his voice that it made Arthit’ cheeks warm. He had no response, but Prince Kongpob didn’t seem to need one. Arthit watched as the prince nocked the next arrow. He drew his arm back, fingers grazing his jaw before letting the arrow go. The prince continued until there were no more arrows left, and Arthit glanced at the target. Unlike their previous lessons it wasn’t empty, but rather holding a perfect semi-circle of arrows on the edge of the target. 

For a moment, silence fell between them as they looked at the target. Then Prince Kongpob collected the arrows before he turned to look at him, eyes soft and serious. “When you meet my father,” he said, “tell him the truth.” 

“And that would be?”

“I have skill, but not consistently.” 

Arthit frowned. 

“Yes, Your Highness,” he said at last. 

A frown flashed across Prince Kongpob’s face but it was gone just as quickly as it had appeared. 

“I look forward to our next lesson,” Prince Kongpob said, slinging his quiver over his shoulder. Arthit bowed automatically as the prince left, leaving Arthit staring after him.

Three days later, he repeated the prince’s words in the report he gave to the king. All the while, the memory of Prince Kongpob’s dark brown eyes staring into his stuck in his head.

~

Arthit didn’t go to the castle often. 

He preferred the quiet of his home, where he only dealt with the occasional barking from Bonus. Everything was familiar and he didn’t have to worry about speaking out of turn. Today though, he found himself wandering the castle grounds. He’d gone to visit the castle’s master archer to ensure he was prepared for Prince Kongpob’s next lesson. But now he was lost in the castle’s hallways, a wrong turn having led him to a part of the castle he was unfamiliar with. Occasionally he passed a maid or other servant, but Arthit shied away from asking for their help. There was no point in bothering them about something he could figure out alone. 

Eventually he opened a door and his eyes widened when he realized he’d stumbled across the castle’s large dining hall. The smell of minced pork filled the air and he could see someone already inside the room, their back to Arthit. Just as he muttered an apology, the person turned and Arthit stared at him in surprise.

“Master Huntsman.” Prince Kongpob smiled at him, turning fully so that he was now facing Arthit. “What a surprise.”

“Your Highness,” Arthit said, bowing belatedly. The prince smiled and Arthit gave another quick apology as he said, “Excuse me.” He’d barely taken a few steps back when the prince spoke. 

“Wait.”

“Yes, your Highness?” Arthit stopped on his way out of the room, lingering by the doorway uncertainly. 

“Sit with me,” Prince Kongpob said, gesturing to the seat across from him.

Arthit blanched at the words, and the casual tone they were said in. “ What ?”

“Sit with me,” Prince Kongpob repeated, again gesturing to the second seat. Arthit stared at him with wide eyes. Surely the prince was joking. No prince, even a third born prince, would be so friendly to a mere huntsman, much less offer to him a seat at the table as though they were equals. As though they were friends. When he continued to stand in his place, shifting uncertainly, the prince sighed.

“Please?” he asked, and were he anyone else, Arthit would call his expression pleading. 

“Ah, of course your Highness.” Arthit swallowed and then took a few tentative steps forward, half expecting Prince Kongpob to say he was joking, however out of character that would have been. He didn’t, and after a few moments Arthit found himself seated at the same table as the prince, though he’d moved the chair down to the end of the table. He would not presume to be so bold as to sit across from the prince. From here, he could see the prince’s food and became abruptly aware of how long it had been since he’d eaten. In the back of his mind, Arthit wondered why the prince was eating alone, and at such an early time rather than a few hours later with his family. 

“Did you want to discuss something with me?” he asked hesitantly. “About your lessons maybe?”

Amusement flickered across the prince’s face as he shook his head. 

“Then,” Arthit paused, unsure of his next words. He bit his lip and then continued, “please forgive my bluntness your Highness, but why am I here?”

At those words, Prince Kongpob almost looked flustered. Then he seemed to compose himself. 

“Do you not want to be here?” He sounded sincere, and Arthit found himself at a loss for words. How strange, to be asked what he wanted.

“If you want me to be here, I will be here,” he said at last. 

To his surprise, Prince Kongpob didn’t seem pleased with the answer. “I’m asking what you want,” he said. Arthit stared at him. “If you wish to leave, I will not stop you.”

“I-” Arthit stopped, unsure of what to say. He was not known for his eloquence or way with words, and the confusion tinted surprise was not a help. “Why would you want to speak with me?”

Prince Kongpob gave him a soft smile. “I wanted your company outside of our lessons.”

Again, Arthit found himself at a loss for words at the unexpected declaration. He couldn’t understand why the prince would want his company. Huntsmen like him were not meant to know princes, even third princes. Arthit could feel Prince Kongpob’s gaze on him and he looked down at the table, unable to meet the other man’s eyes.

His eyes wandered to the food in front of Prince Kongpob, a plate of pad krapow that Arthit could only imagine being able to eat. He lingered on the pile of chilies carefully picked and placed on the side of the plate. 

“Are you hungry?” Prince Kongpob’s words startled him and Arthit’ head snapped up to look at him before he quickly lowered his gaze. 

“Uh, no,” he lied, and placed a hand on his stomach in an attempt to stop any sounds it might make. 

“Are you sure?”

He nodded, but the prince looked unconvinced. Prince Kongpob’s eyes darted from Arthit to his food before a now familiar smug smile crossed his face. Arthit watched him push food onto his spoon before lifting it and moving his hand toward Arthit. 

“Here.” Prince Kongpob moved the spoon closer to Arthit and Arthit instantly leaned back, staring at him with a slack jaw. 

“Your Highness,” he said weakly, shaking his head. “That’s not, I don’t,” he stuttered and Prince Kongpob smiled charmingly. 

“Eat,” he said coaxingly. 

Arthit shook his head. “That food is meant for you, not- not me.” Not someone like Arthit, so low-born he was barely above commoners in rank. 

“Sire, I couldn’t take food that was prepared for you,” he tried again. Simply sitting at the same table as the prince was already too much.

“It’s too spicy for me, I probably wouldn’t finish it anyway,” Prince Kongpob tried again, and Arthit frowned at him. His eyes flicked to the small pile of chilis set aside that he’d noticed earlier.

“Is that why you’re not eating those?” he asked carefully. 

Prince Kongpob nodded, unconcerned if a little confused. He was still holding the spoon and Arthit frowned. 

“If you don’t like spicy food then why would you get it?” he demanded. 

Prince Kongpob shrugged, an easy movement that Arthit briefly followed before scowling when he registered the words. It infuriated him how casual Prince Kongpob was at not eating something just because he didn’t like it. 

“You’re just wasting food and your cook’s time. If you get them, eat them,” he snapped. 

Prince Kongpob blinked, finally setting the spoon down. Arthit swallowed. Beneath the table, he fiddled nervously with the hem of his shirt. He couldn’t believe he’d scolded the prince as though he was a child, or as though Arthit had any right to. Yet Prince Kongpob’s easy going and often childish demeanour had the unfortunate side effect of making Arthit forget that he was speaking to royalty. Stiffly, he waited for the inevitable punishment, but inexplicably the prince just nodded. 

“You’re very thoughtful,” Prince Kongpob said quietly.

What ?” 

Arthit stared at him with wide eyes. Surely that couldn’t be the only thing Prince Kongpob had to say to him. But it seemed to be, the prince merely picking his spoon back up for another bite, this time with the chilis. Then the rest of the words truly sank in and Arthit stared at him. No one had ever referred to him as thoughtful before, and it was a baffling reaction to being scolded. 

He struggled with a proper response, but nothing seemed right. Just when he thought that he had finally come up with an appropriate reply, Prince Kongpob threw him for another loop. 

“Thank you.” 

“For what?” Arthit asked, that off-kilter feeling he so often had around the prince intensifying.

Prince Kongpob smiled at him. “For reminding me to do better,” he said, and Arthit felt his cheeks grow warm at the words.

“All I said was not to waste people’s efforts. That’s not something you need to thank me for,” he said roughly.

“But you made such an effort to remind me,” Prince Kongpob said, and his tone was both teasing and genuine. “Thank you. I’m glad I have you,” Prince Kongpob said, and his smile made something in Arthit’s stomach go warm.