Shift 17: Prince of the City

I’m not too old for make-believe. Fifteen is still a kid in some cultures.

The Prince of the City sat at his royal executive desk, writing a missive of some great import.

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For a letter of this significance, the Prince thought he had better deliver it himself. And furthermore, this would offer him a chance to survey the kingdom.

Sometimes, on weekend evenings, after I’ve caught up with homework, I’ll run around the park. It really does feel like my kingdom sometimes.

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It’s surprisingly empty, most nights. Maybe I’ll see a customer or two at the food stalls, but I’m alone as I run along the paths and through the gardens. I feared that living in the city, I wouldn’t get enough solitude. But that hasn’t been the case at all!

Poverty combined with rumors of pestilence and brigands kept the villagers indoors. But for the young prince, fear was a luxury he could not afford. He rode his silver pony, Armistead, at a canter along the country lanes.

When the trade routes opened, prosperity would fill the land and riches would quiet the murmurs of discontent.

I like the solitary paths. In the distance, the muffled sounds of the city drone: sirens, cars, stereos, shouts now and then. But under all of that is silence. And that’s what lets my mind wander.

He was the Prince of the City, and this was his land, held captive by poverty and fear, to be freed by the message he held in his hand.

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 With this order, the trade routes would open, merchants would receive goods to sell, villagers would flock into the public squares, and the kingdom would prosper again!

On the weekends, the whole city is mine. The food vendors all know me by name now, and they save their best treats for me.

I don’t always eat at the food stalls. I like to cook in the fancy kitchen in the mansion. I’ve discovered that I love to cook. When I want to sample something new, I go to the food stalls. Last Saturday, Oscar saved a chili-peach empanada for me. The spicy and sweet flavors were surprising!

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After the trade routes opened, the Prince decided he wanted to travel the kingdom, so he could witness for himself the changes that had come. Yet he knew that if he went in his royal attire, merchants, soldiers, gendarmes, hunters, farmers, blacksmiths, foresters, weavers, and peasants would all recognize him. And then he wouldn’t get an accurate view of life in the kingdom. No, for that, he would need a good disguise! He would need to become a pauper!

On the weekends, the whole city is mine. Every weekend has a festival! I went to the Spice Festival last weekend, and there were tables and tables set up with food, free for the tasting!

Of course I remembered when Deon had showed me how to get free tapas. Back then, I’d felt ashamed, like a beggar. Back then, I preferred to go hungry, rather than eat the free food at the bar, though I ate it any way.

But now, in my city, it feels different. The food is there for us! It’s a celebration, and everybody eats for free, not just the poor kids without money to pay.

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In his plain clothes, the Prince, unrecognized, wandered from village to village. He found plenty everywhere! Generous peasants set out harvest feasts to share the bounty.

I sampled every dish. I could tell what spices were in most of them. I got ideas for new dishes to make, next time the kitchen was free.

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The Prince entered contests to test his speed, his bravery, his artistry, and his ingenuity. Of course, the Prince always won. Yet the villagers, not recognizing him in his costume as a commoner, began to whisper about the youth that was winning all the events.

“This can’t be good!” they whispered, amongst themselves. “This doesn’t bode well! What if the Royal Family should hear of this young boy! So brazen! So cocky! So sure of himself!”

I even entered the curry-eating contest. And I won! Nobody could take it hotter than I could. I got a snazzy t-shirt for it. I wear it with pride. It doesn’t just say, “I eat the hottest curry.” To me it says, “This is my city.”

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After one contest a soldier approached the Prince. “Watch out,” he whispered.

“What is wrong?” replied the Prince.

“People are taking notice. No one, except the Prince, can always win.”

The Prince was about to say, “But I am the Prince,” when the soldier put a finger to his lips.

“Do not speak a word. Your true identity will not be revealed. Simply take heed.”

The best part of the city is that nobody questions me. I fit right in. There are all sorts of people here: transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and cis.

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And all of us fit, in all our colorful expressions. No questions asked.

The Prince nodded towards the soldier. “Your kindness is noted,” he said.

“If you ever need anyone to come to your aid, at any time, I am there,” replied the soldier.

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I went to a Geek Festival, too. I’ve only ever played games on my tablet, so I’m not very good. But I had so much fun!

One day, the Prince-in-disguise found himself deep within the forest. He wasn’t lost. He couldn’t be. This was his kingdom, after all. He simply didn’t know where, exactly, he was, or which path, precisely, led the way out.

He wandered all day and into the night. In the darkest moment after midnight, he heard the wings of an owl swoop near, followed by the crack of a twig. Then he heard voices. Brigands!

He thought that peace reigned the land.

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The Prince reached for his sword just as the brigands came upon him. At first, he was able to keep them at bay, but soon, they had him surrounded. He raised his blade to protect his face. He heard a yell, and down from a low tree branch dropped the soldier.

“Quick! On your right!” the soldier yelled. They fought, the two of them, until the brigands lay in pieces all around the clearing and the ground was soaked in blood.

Something interesting is always happening. Every weekend feels like an adventure.

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After the battle, the Prince realized that it was time to return to the Palace.

He turned to the soldier. “I must go,” he said.

“My liege,” said the soldier, kneeling. “Let me come with you.”

“No,” replied the Prince. “I need you to stay here. Gather your men. Form an army. You will be the captain, and you and your band will protect our kingdom so that it will thrive forever.”

I guess I feel like I’m discovering new things about me here. Not all my energy is going towards survival, so I get to let my mind wander and play.

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Through the years, as peace ruled the land, the troubadours sang the legend of the days when the Prince wandered through the kingdom, dressed as a pauper.

They sang of the faithful soldier, who recognized his noble birth, and who pledged his life to protect him and his kingdom.

As the kingdom prospered, the people, every fall, held celebrations throughout the land to commemorate the opening of the trade routes, brought about by the brave Prince.

I’m still kind of rusty with my make-believe. I had to put all my childish ways on hold for over a year, after all.

But in the city, with festivals and colors all around, it’s coming back to me. I’m remembering that double life I always liked to live, half-way in a story I’m inventing and halfway in the real world.

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My Gran always told me I was a dreamer. I just had to put my dreams aside for a year. Now they’re coming back to me.

When he was an old man, the King, once the Prince who delivered the letter and donned the disguise, called to him the soldier, now a very old man in his own right.

“We could tell tales,” said the King.

“We could,” replied the soldier. “But we won’t.”

“Oh, no. Of course not,” agreed the King. “For who would believe that a Prince dressed as a commoner walked the land? Who would believe that a soldier recognized him, despite his seeming poverty? And who would believe that the two of them defeated a band of brigands and maintained peace in all the land?”

The two old friends smiled. Sometimes, truth is more fantastical than the greatest fairy tale.

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Before I sleep, I like to recall the stories I’ve invented. I tell them to myself, like bed-time stories.

There’s just one thing I wonder as I drift off: Am I the Prince? Or am I the pauper?

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