IT WAS blue-gray and made of wool. It clung tightly to the back of the man’s neck and extended austerely down his shoulders, giving way at the last moment to his sleeves. The jacket ended below the man’s waist and was slit at the sides for ease of movement, revealing slacks made of the same material in a darker hue. Although he could not now see it, Albert knew from experience that the front of the man’s uniform boasted three red stripes across the right breast and, on the left, the omnipresent, potent swirls of his father’s crest.
Albert watched the rough cloth slide back and forth across the man’s formidable frame as he walked, pulling at the place where it was trapped under the strap of his bag. He stepped easily over rocks and fallen branches that Albert had to navigate after him in an ungainly, scrambling improvisation.
Why couldn’t I have gone with Godfried? thought Albert bitterly. It was hard to imagine any situation in which he would have preferred the company of his proud and over-accomplished cousin, but a hunting trip—a competition, Albert reminded himself, a trial, a duty, a test of filial worth and regal virility—was one of them. Godfried would have laughed at his inability to string his own bow, absolutely thrilled at Albert’s piss-poor marksmanship, but he would have shot something big enough to allow them to go home. Instead he was alone in the woods with this man for God knew how long, expected to shoot his own stag.
In the castle Albert found the constant presence of that uniform oppressive. At every corner there were at least two of them, encasing somber-faced men with eyes and hearts and arms that were extensions of the king’s: anonymous agents of his father’s will. But in the forest this uniform, taken singly, wrapped around the powerful figure ahead of him, scared Albert. It occurred to him that he wouldn’t be able to find his way back on his own.
Albert had fallen behind, and now the man was facing him, watching as he fumbled around trying to haul himself over a large fallen trunk. The man approached him, and Albert’s frustration mounted. The top of the trunk was even with his chest. His foot was caught in a branch he had hoped to use to push himself over, but now, his foot too high to be of use, he’d lost all leverage. He was stuck with his leg in a ridiculous position. The uniformed man held out his hand, but Albert ignored it.
When he was young Albert had discovered that being the prince had at least one benefit. He could decide, at least in small matters, what was true and what wasn’t. As a little boy, when he was feeling peevish, he used to insist he was hot in the middle of winter. He would have the fires doused and the windows opened. When ice began to form in his washbasin he would declare it a pleasant, comfortable temperature, and no one could contradict him. His servants would shiver, but none would admit to being cold. Albert, of course, suffered too for this game, but that was perhaps part of the satisfaction he gained from it: his painful fingers, stiff from cold, were proof of some power in himself that did not come from his title.
And now, continuing to ignore the hand reaching out to him, he was playing the game again. If Albert pretended his guard were not offering help, the latter was in no position to insist. Nor could he withdraw his hand without being inexcusably rude. It gave Albert some satisfaction to see this man stuck, his arm extended uselessly over the trunk of the tree, just as Albert was stuck, his leg pointlessly raised.
They stood together in this queer configuration in the darkening woods. Albert made another attempt to pull his weight up to the top of the log, but his arms wouldn’t lift him. He tugged at his foot, but his energy was spent. Albert closed his eyes and wished himself anywhere in the world but where he was.
Suddenly, he felt a pair of hands take hold of his trapped foot. Startled, Albert jumped back and lost his balance, his arms flailing. He hadn’t heard the man come back to his side of the tree, his stealth frightening and unnatural-seeming. Albert’s reeling arm hit the man in the chest only halfway by accident, but the recipient of the blow didn’t seem to feel it. Albert fought to keep some princely dignity as he toppled back into his father’s servant, no longer able to stand.
Off balance, helpless, and suddenly tired, Albert gave in to his condition, his back against the man’s broad chest, letting him work to free his boot. He could hear the man’s steady breath near his ear and feel the shifting muscles of the man’s arm against his shoulder. It was strangely calming and made Albert want to sleep. He smelled the man’s smell: sweat, straw, leather, wool. That would be the uniform, thought Albert. He rode up and down on the gentle swell of the man’s breath. It was almost a pity when his foot was freed and he was required to stand on his own.
“What was your name again?” Albert asked when they were both safely over the tree trunk. The man had told him before, but Albert hadn’t paid attention.
“John Manning,” said the man. His wide face was calm, strong, and somber. I have yet to see one of my father’s guard smile, thought Albert.
“Do you make a habit of sneaking up on royalty?” Albert asked him.
“I am sorry, Your Highness, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It is customary to ask permission before approaching me,” said Albert in the most imperious voice he could muster. He watched the muscles in Manning’s jaw tighten. Was it contrition? Embarrassment? Fear? Anger? The man had experience being scolded by royalty: he stood quietly, eyes downcast, waiting for instruction or punishment. Albert suddenly felt a little silly.
“But we thank you for freeing our person,” he continued. God, the royal we. He only used that when he was feeling particularly insecure. To break the strange tension, Albert set off through the woods, with little idea of where he was going, letting the man follow him for a change.