Haddock, just under nineteen years old, sulks alone at a table in a Wilder North common room. The innkeeper's eldest daughter pries for information from him and finds out far more than Haddock ever intended to tell.
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Gareth Ragnar Haddock the Second: He hated how the serving girl was staring at him. For she was. Completely staring. Ever since he opened his mouth to request a drink, she had been eyeing him up and down with those overcalculating hazel green eyes, glancing sideways at him from across the other side of the room when she thought he was not looking.
News flash, you prying peasant, I can tell that you’re staring at me.
With an angered twist of his jaw, he turned his attention back to his drink and guzzled down a rather large gulp. It stung the back of his throat as he swallowed. Even after he set the drink down, he continued to study the mug’s contents religiously. It was better to stare into the drink, after all, than to scan the meager inn’s equally meager common room. Haddock supposed it was a tidy place, and nicely kept for what it was worth, yet that still did not dissipate the important fact that this inn existed in the middle of nowhere. Probably half the village’s residents were gathered in this tiny place, laughing merrily – yet even then, the place was hardly crowded. The innkeeper’s two eldest daughters periodically circulated the room to attend to customers, but both of them spent much time laughing gaily with the others, not at all rushed to serve the people of this nameless town.
Well, maybe it was not nameless. Gareth had not asked. Yet it was small enough a place it might as well have been nameless.
Get used to it, Haddock, he told himself, intentionally referring to himself by his last name. It gave him some stubborn comfort to call himself by his father’s name – even if his titles had been taken from him, and he exiled out of the entire Wilderwest kingdom. Get used to it all, he told himself again. A nameless village is the sort of place you’ll be living in your entire life. That’s the only way your political enemies won’t track down and kill you.
He could have thrown his mug across the table, just thinking on it.
“Drink doesn’t taste that bad, does it?” an adolescent voice asked.
The serving girl had brashly stepped right up to his table while he had been distracted with his thoughts. Haddock tried not to bite her head off as the girl spoke, standing there daintily, hands clasped behind her back and rounded, freckled face smiling behind a set of tight auburn curls.
She might have looked and acted innocent, but he knew she had only pranced down to ask after his drink as a weak excuse to chatter.
Haddock tried to wave her off with his fist. “None of your business,” he spat.
“Actually, I think it is,” she primly answered him. She cocked her head to one side as she lectured him in a know-it-all teenaged voice, “As the innkeeper’s daughter who’s giving you your drinks, it’s sort of the point of a maid to make sure you’re satisfied.”
“I can’t be satisfied with you hovering over me, good gods.”
Completely ignoring his rude remark, she continued, “And Pa wants to make extra, extra sure you’re happy.” She leaned in, and spoke with a very eager voice. “It’s not every day we have visitors come from out of town, much less out of the country.”
“What? How did you –”
“Your voice, idiot. You’ve got a weird accent, like you’re from the West or something.”
“Quit prying into my life.” Haddock intentionally raised his drink for a very long draught, hoping that would make it clear she ought to leave. However, when he surfaced from the mug, he saw that obnoxious girl still standing right there at the edge of his table, watching him without blinking. “I said quit prying. Get out of here.”
“Fine then. Goodness gracious, you’re like royalty bossing me around.”
Haddock tried not to react when she said the word “royalty.” Balking, he muttered, “No, I just want some peace and quiet.”
“So you can sit there being all angry and moody by yourself, huh?”
“I’m not… angry and moody,” he protested, sounding rather angry and moody indeed.
She gave a low curtsy that was also incredibly mocking. “Whatever you wish, Sire Resting Bitch Face.”
“You dare taunt me!”
“You really are like a bratty prince.”
Then she paused, narrowing her eyes, as though Haddock had displayed some physical reaction she did not expect. Haddock buried himself in his mug to hide his eyes, but then began to choke loudly upon hearing her following words.
“…you actually are a prince, aren’t you?”
“Absurd,” he croaked out, voice strained from the drink he had swallowed down the wrong pipe. He hacked for a few minutes. That stupid girl waited for him to quit coughing with this smug all-knowing grin on her face.
At this moment she slid into the chair opposite of him, throwing both of her elbows on the table and leaning forward. “That’d explain everything, wouldn’t it?” she said, speaking to him in an excited low voice. It was like she was confiding secrets to him… except that these actual secrets she told were ones about him. “I heard from a traveling merchant who came by here a month ago that the Wilderwest king kicked out his only son. You’re him, aren’t you?”
HOW IN THE BLOODY NINE WORLDS CAN THIS STUPID TEEN STRANGER GIRL FIGURE OUT EVERYTHING ABOUT ME IN THE COURSE OF THREE MINUTES?
Apparently, Haddock’s stormy, tight-lipped face seemed to answer her question. Her eyes widened in malicious delight and her lips curled into a feisty grin, consuming in this juicy secret with an uncanny amount of eagerness.
“Oh – my – deeeities,” she said exuberantly as the truth hit her in full. That horrible grin broadened. “And you came here.”
“Look, girl, I – I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Haddock stood up, knocking his chair over in the process, and began to stomp toward the tavern’s front door. She did not even move, but just sat there smirking. She was waiting for something to dawn upon Haddock, and eventually – regretfully – it did.
Night had fallen. This was the only inn in the village. This was likely the only village around for leagues. Haddock had no choice but to stay in the common room… with her.
Face heated, he returned to his chair and near-finished drink. He ground his teeth together and made sure she heard it. This stupid girl was absolutely insufferable.
Back stiff, elbows locked, he leaned over to her and hissed threateningly, “Not a word to people about ANY of this.”
The girl crossed her arms over her chest. “You can’t make me,” she bragged.
Haddock briefly considered taking the nearest wooden chair and slamming it into her skull. Some stupid little girl who… who couldn’t be more than fourteen… at the most… should not have been able to manipulate him like that. At ALL.
“How about we make a deal?” he growled through his teeth menacingly. His words alone were a sharp enough weapon to kill.
Gods, if only he could kill her.
Somehow she was completely unphased and even cocked a sassy eyebrow at him. “Ohhhh?” she inquired lightly.
“What would it take to keep your mouth shut?”
“You and me get to talk. You tell me all about the royal life.”
“Not so loud!” he shouted… loudly enough to make everyone within that half of the room turn briefly toward him. Shaking in anger but curbing his voice, Haddock continued, “You’re blackmailing me with information you know about me by asking for more information from me? What stupid perverted vicious circle is that?”
“We don’t have a deal?” She proceeded to raise her voice, shouting even louder than him. “HEY PA! THERE’S SOMETHING I NEED TO TELL YOU ABOUT THIS CUSTOMER! HE –”
Haddock threw himself toward her, yelping, “Fine fine fine oh my Freya!”
Triumph glowed through her hazel green eyes. As her father glanced over at the table, she finished her shout, “He wants a second pint!”
Haddock nearly collapsed onto the floor in relief. As it was, he certainly staggered backward, nearly crashing into the young girl’s chair.
“You,” he groaned, glaring at her with a murderous stare, shaking at her half from anger and half from the fear of nearly being discovered, “are nothing less than demonically despicable.”
She brushed her skirts down flat as she stood up. “Oh, I’m no demon. I’m an angel.”
“By the Allfather’s precious eyepatch…”
“Actually, my name’s Mera,” she said. The young ex-prince sat there blinking for a while as she gave her introduction. “Mera Violet.”
“Nice to… um… meet you.” A total lie.
To say the least, when that girl’s father came by with a second drink for Haddock, he took no time in gulping it down.