Once upon a time, there was a grand king who had three sons. The eldest became a glorious soldier, the grandest of knights, a hero beloved of the people. He was destined for the crown, and would someday wear it well.
When the time came for him to wed, he called a challenge of duels—whosoever could best him in three duels of skill and fortitude, would marry the crown prince. And so the challengers came, thousands of people from across the kingdom, eager for the chance to marry the great and glorious crown prince. But one after another, they went again, unable to win the duels.
Until one day a beautiful woman with golden hair and shining golden armor appeared, and challenged him. Try as he might, the crown prince could not defeat her, and too her happily to be his bride.
The King’s second son was born shrewd and sharp, with a silver tongue that could convince a bird to give up flying, a fish to give up swimming. He grew to be a renowned politician, a diplomat of unsurpassed skill, securing boons from around the world for the good of his father’s kingdom. None could deceive, or resist the words he spun with his silver tongue.
When the time came for the prince to marry, he called for a challenge of lies—whosoever could fool him, he would marry. And so the people came by thousands, eager for a chance at the handsome, clever prince. All who challenged him told the prince two truths, and one lie, but every time the prince was able to mark the lie, and so all went away again, defeated.
Until one day a beautiful maiden appeared, pale of hair, dressed in a gown trimmed in silver, and her voice and words were more beautiful still as she spoke. Try as he might, the prince could not pick out the lie amidst her truths. Bested, the prince took her happily to be his bride.
The King’s youngest son was possessed of a brilliant mind, steeped in knowledge—history, government, religion, language, magic, literature, down to even the most arcane lore. Any question, no matter how strange or obscure, the prince could answer. Often his brothers and father turned to him, when they had need of some bit of law or warfare or culture.
When the time came for the prince to wed, he sought someone with whom he could converse—whosoever could answer three questions, he would marry. And so the people came by thousands, eager to wed the brilliant, beautiful youngest prince. Despite their efforts, however, none could answer the prince’s questions.
Gradually, the challengers faded off, and the prince withdrew once more to his books.
Odiore looked up as the door to his private study in the great library opened, annoyed that someone would dare to enter without first knocking.
Sharp word died in his throat, however, as saw who it was, unable to believe what he was seeing. “What are you doing here?” he finally asked, then closed his mouth, refusing to say anything more.
Of all the people in the world, he had never expected Brenim to walk uninvited into his study. The youngest son of the ancient Baron Velasco, he had been friends with Odiore’s eldest brother, Rowell. He was five years older than Odiore, but had always had time to speak with the young, awkward child that Odiore had been (whereas Rowell had just tried to lose him).
Odiore had been crushed when Brenim had left years ago to travel, to seek his own fortune, since being the youngest of several children born to a poor, decrepit baron, he would be given nothing. Only a year or so after he left, stories began to trickle back, of his travels and adventures—dragons slain, enchantments broken, curses lifted, monsters fought. All knew the tales of Brenim the Cursebreaker.
Like the fool he was, Odiore meticulously recorded every tale that reached his ears, each to its own slender volume, bound in coppery-toned brown leather, with annotations for all the variations he heard. He had never thought to see Brenim again, had hoped, foolishly, that his feelings would finally fade. That whoever answered his questions would finally help him forget the man he had loved first.
But he could not say he was as disappointed as he should be, when no one was able to answer his questions and they all finally gave up.
“Is that any way to greet an old friend?” Brenim asked, and the older, deeper version of his charming smile was far more devastating now that Odiore fully understood what it did to him.
“You were Rowell’s friend,” Odiore replied, closing his book and removing his reading spectacles. “His offices are in the armory, in the east wing.”
“I remember where to find the armory,” Brenim said, leaning against the door frame, and folding his arms across his chest, looking amused.
He also looked even more handsome than when he had left, having filled in the gangly body in which he had departed. His hair was still the most beautiful shade of brown, dark and rich, but fading to a lighter, almost coppery tone at the tips. His eyes were that coppery shade, bright and sharp against his unfashionably tanned skin. He had scars now too, on his hands and throat, a small one at the edge of his cheek.
Jerking his gaze away, Odiore stared at his books as Brenim continued speaking.
“I consider you a friend too. You were a sweet kid, and even at ten you were already smarter than at least half the people here. By fifteen, you were smarter than everyone. Stories span the world, telling of the Scholar Prince.”
Odiore scoffed, waving a hand dismissively. “Indeed. That would make for unbearable listening, I should think. Today he read this book.”
Brenim laughed. “The tales I hear are more lively than that. An ambassador who went home in shame, when you knew more of his laws than he, and more of his family history. That a new way of killing dragons was discovered by you. There were tales of poison, and roses—”
“Enough,” Odiore cut in, scowling. “N doubt you have tales of your own, why bother with mine?”
“Did you hear tales of me?” Brenim asked lightly, looking amused.
“I might have caught bits of one or two,” Odiore said stiffly, very carefully not thinking about the fifty or so volumes on a shelf right behind his desk.
Brenim smiled, slow and bright, and if Odiore was given to blushing, he sensed right then he would be bright red.
“It’s dinner time, by the way,” Brenim said abruptly. “I told your father I would come fetch you.”
Scowling again, Odiore pulled his watch from his jacket pocket and saw it was indeed far later than he had realized. “Very well,” he said, and stood up, neatening his clothes and hair, pulling out a special cloth to wipe smudges of ink from his face and hands. “Shall we then?” he asked when he was ready.
Brenim stepped out of the doorway, and dipped into an elegant bow as Odiore reached him. “After you, my prince.”
It was a common enough courtesy phrase—but Odiore once again was left relieved that he was not given to blushing.
The great dining hall was already crowded when they arrived, the royal table crammed with his family and those persons invited to dine with them. The conversation faded off briefly as Odiore and Brenim drew close, and greetings were exchanged.
Odiore was annoyed to realize that Brenim had been seated next to him, but only sipped his wine and fell into the familiar, if boring, rhythms of a court dinner.
Except that those rhythms were interrupted by Brenim, who seemed to charm the entire table with his tales, with stories of the exotic places he had been—and frequently turning to Odiore, and saying something just to him.
Almost like he was flirting, but Odiore could not fathom that it was true, and so for his part responded only politely and briefly.
Just when he thought he could take no more, the dinner began to draw to a close, leaving him free to slip away once the entertainment began. But then the King said, “Now, Master Brenim, I believe you said you desired to call a challenge?”
Odiore froze in the process of lifting his coffee cup, then hastily set it down again. “What?” he asked, looking at Brenim, then his father. “What nonsense is this?”
“I’ve been gone ten years,” Brenim said. “In that time, I’ve expanded my wealth, my skill, and my knowledge. Now I return to face your challenge, Prince Odiore. Ask your questions.”
Odiore’s heart began to thud in his chest, and his tongue seemed stuck in his mouth. Finally, though, he gave a nod, and managed to say, “Very well, Master Brenim.”
The King smiled, and his brothers grinned, and Odiore wanted to smack them all.
Standing, the King called out for silence, then said, “We have a challenger for the hand of my youngest son. Rise, Prince Odiore. Rise, Master Brenim.”
Obediently rising, they moved around the table to stand before it, facing each other, visible to the entire room.
Brenim smiled, meeting his eyes, waiting patiently.
“Your first question is this, Master Brenim. Once upon a time, a woman was chained in a basement by an evil wizard, who every day made her spin straw into gold. Every day she tried to kill him, and every day she failed, for nothing could harm him—not blade or poison or a rock to his head. One day, however, she happened to learn his secret, that it would take but one word to kill him. What was that one word?”
Smile widening, Brenim replied, “His name, for on that wizard had been placed a spell, that he would live forever, so long as he never heard another say his name.”
Odiore drew a sharp, startled breath. “Correct,” he said, and waited for the noise of the crowd to die down before he continued. “Your second question is this, Master Brenim. Once upon a time, a prince was cursed, taken from the woman he loved by his evil stepmother. Determined to rescue her lost love, the woman set out on a quest to find the hidden castle to which he had been taken. No one, however, could tell her where to find the strange castle, for its location was impossible to reach. Finally, though, the woman did learn its location. Where was the castle located?”
“East of the sun, west of the moon,” Brenim replied. “Only the mighty north wind can reach it without need of magic. He carried the woman to the castle, where she was able to free her prince, forced to live as a bear, bound to his troll stepmother until the curse was broken.”
“Correct,” Odiore said softly, barely able to hear himself, so loud seemed the beating of his heart. When the noise around them once more died down, he said, “Your final question is this, Master Brenim. One thousand years ago, a princess and her entire palace were cursed to sleep forever. Five hundred years ago, a noble prince was cursed and turned into a toad. Two hundred years ago, a fair princess was poisoned by a cursed apple. Though most books say these people all died of their curses, they were in fact all saved by the same thing. What saved them?”
Brenim grinned, and stepped forward, grasping Odiore’s shoulders and jerking him close. He bent his head to kiss Odiore hard, deep—possessively.
Odiore knew he should draw back, such behavior was more than a little unseemly—but Brenim was kissing him, and had answered all three questions—
He drew back, scowling. “Strictly speaking, that’s not an answer.”
“A demonstration. The answer is true love’s kiss—to free a sleeping beauty from her slumber, to turn a toad back into a prince, and revive a poisoned princess. All curses, weak or strong, can be broken by true love’s kiss.”
“Correct,” Odiore said, only just remembering to say it loud enough for all to hear. More quietly, he said, “Since when—”
“Since you were old enough for me to see what you would become, and to realize I wanted to be worthy of that man.”
Odiore frowned at him. “You were always worthy.”
Brenim only smiled, and drew him close again. “Shut up, and kiss your betrothed, my prince.”
He started to argue, feeling they were far from finished discussing the matter—then decided it could wait, because Brenim had answered his questions, and so was his forever. Matching Brenim’s smile, he drew him back down for another kiss.