Office work was calming, especially after such chaos. The windows of Braxton’s office were shuttered behind him, letting in just the right amount of light to clear away shadows.
Sighing, he picked up a new stack of papers to file them. There was a receipt for an overdue portrait of his mother and father, as well as one for his mother’s new wardrobe. He flipped through them, taking note of keywords until he reached a slip that read ‘Wizard Threnton, paid in full for the fertilizer to turn apples golden.’
Using a finger to hold its place, Braxton pulled the receipt out. He had scanned it halfway before breathing sharply.
“We paid in just a goose, a horse, and some… wood?” Braxton muttered. He blinked and reread the paper. There it was, marked as paid about a week prior. “What in the world?” Braxton said, “And who knew we used fertilizer to make the apples do that?” Shrugging, he replaced the bill and filed the receipts away in an open binder. Then he pushed himself from his chair and slid the binder onto one of his many shelves.
He had begun fingering the bindings of other books and whatnot when his double doors creaked open.
“Ah, you’re in here,” said Gordon softly. His huge frame looked strangely small in the light from the hallway. Maybe the doors were too tall. “Father is looking for us.”
Braxton drew away from the shelves reluctantly, his fingers lingering on the books’ spines. Following his older brother, a giant of a man with the same black hair and lightly tanned skin as the rest of the family, he soon arrived in the parlor.
His father cleared his throat before glancing at the queen, who sat demurely at a cherry wood piano. “Sons, I must make an announcement.” He rocked on his heels and glanced about at the red velvet furniture. “Since all of you failed to catch the golden bird, I am sending you out to find it once again. Gordon will leave first thing tomorrow.”
Twitching his eyebrows, Braxton watched his older brother. “Father, if I may.” He waited for a nod of approval before continuing. “Why send Gordon? Doesn’t he have a fiance to attend to? As both he and I are preoccupied with more important matters, why not just send Ferrell?”
The queen turned stiffly to her husband, not a hint of emotion in her eyes.
“No,” the king said, “Gordon will leave first, and if he comes home empty-handed, he will not inherit the throne. Our conference is finished, go back to your earlier activities.” He shoved the three brothers aside before accidentally stubbing his toe on a couch and limping out of the room.
“That’s rather unusual,” Ferrell said, staring blankly at the door.
Gordon nodded, a grimace on his face. “I don’t want to go,” he blurted, “I want to stay here, or go to Avondale to see Theresa.”
“Really?” Ferrell said, his voice suddenly cheeky, “you mean you don’t want to bring Lady Avondale a golden bird as a present? I think she’d love it, you know.”
“Ferrell!” Braxton castigated, “don’t go there!”
The red and black theme of the parlor darkened. Velvet turned to miniscule spines poking out from furniture. The piano’s lid slammed shut as the queen closed the lid, sending an ominous echo through the room.
“And think of all the stories you could tell her!” Ferrell continued. His brown eyes gleamed dangerously. “Imagine sitting with her before your wedding, describing a swordfight between you and an evil count who had captured the bird before you reclaimed it! She’ll be thrilled!”
“Stop it, Ferrell!” Braxton said sharply, watching his mother leave the room with his peripheral vision, “don’t go encouraging this!”
“Oh please, Braxton,” Ferrell said, “don’t tell me you wouldn’t want to go on an adventure. And what if that fox that you claim is the lost heir of Trador is connected to it all? Maybe you could actually achieve something!”
“I can solve that without risking my life or title on a bird,” Braxton seethed.
Braxton and Ferrell shut up, gawking at their eldest brother.
“I-I’ll try to catch the golden bird.” Gordon’s broad shoulders slumped, making his suit look depressing and tight.
“You don’t have to go,” Braxton said, stepping towards his older brother, “we can overrule our father’s order. Be happy with Lady Avondale.”
“It’s alright,” Gordon said. He looked up to grin at his younger brothers before quietly walking out of the parlor as well.
Ferrell followed suit, beaming victoriously. After a minute of frantic contemplation, Braxton left as well, heading towards the stables.
He rode bareback that day, feeling the rocking of his mare’s shoulders as she galloped along a forest trail.
“Fox! Randall? Fox!” Braxton yelled, desperately wishing the fox would show up already. He nudged his horse’s sides, slowing her down a touch before calling again. “Randall!”
“You called?” said a scratchy voice. The fox slinked extravagantly onto the riding trail, grinning like a madman.
“I did,” Braxton said, leaning forward and patting his horse’s neck. She stopped moving and snorted. “I need your help, Randall–that is your name, right?–because my older brother has agreed to go on a quest to recapture the golden bird, and he’s going to lose his inheritance if he fails!”
The fox settled onto its haunches and cocked its head. “Um, the answer to your question is that I don’t know if my name is Randall. The name is familiar and,” the fox trailed off and lifted one leg to duck his head and get a better look at himself, “I appear to be male. But I can’t say for sure. I might be Randall. Who knows? And second thing, sure. I’ll help your brother.”
“Oh thank you,” Braxton breathed, nearly falling off his horse. Maybe a saddle would have been a good idea.
“But I have to wonder,” the fox said, “why are you asking me to help him? Wouldn’t his failure place you in line for the throne?”
Nodding, Braxton explained that he didn’t want to end up going on the adventure should his brother fail.
“Oh. I understand. Say! Would you like to spy while your brother does this quest thingy?”
“No thank you,” Braxton said, frowning disapprovingly.
“Your loss.” The fox shrugged and jumped to his feet. “Oh, and you can call me Randall if you want. I kind of want to have a real name, even if it might be someone else’s.” He swished his white-tipped tail and dived back into the flora. “If you need me again, just call,” said the fox’s voice, “I’ll probably hear you. Or smell your distress, either way works.” He popped his head out from a fern further into the forest. “Bye, Prince!”
His worries mostly displaced, Braxton turned his horse around and spurred her to gallop back to the stables.
At home, the tension had only grown stronger. Everyone had something on their minds, and Braxton had no doubt what each of his family members was thinking.
Dinner was devoid of any sound except the clinking of tableware. The queen looked almost depressed, probably for the first time in her life, and the king radiated an air of anger. Neither of Braxton’s brothers attempted to make conversation, and for once, the awkwardness of the dining room decorating matched the feeling of the room.
“Father,” Braxton started, “why is catching the golden bird so important to you?”
The man dropped his silverware, sending a metallic clatter through the room. “You do not need to know,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Alright,” Braxton said, gently setting down his fork, “but at least explain why we pay such strange things for the fertilizer to make our apples golden.”
Nothing moved in the dining room. Even the servants had frozen.
“Who knows,” Braxton’s father said, “the wizards ask for odd things, and we often provide them. Now shut up or I’ll send you first.”
Taking a deep breath, Braxton picked up his fork again and pushed roast duck around his plate until his mother excused him.