Theo dropped the sweet potato into Oboe’s hands. It was wrapped in old newspaper and still so hot she had to bounce it palm to palm. The street vendor snuffed the flame of his grill and closed up shop. The day was fading and they were the last of the customers. Off the bridge and in the distance, workers in the shipyard hurried to tie up sails and unload cargo before the sun set.
“Thank you!” Oboe said. Excited, she unwrapped her sweet potato and took a big bite. She burnt her tongue and had to puff with the morsel in her mouth before she could swallow. After going so long without a meal, it tasted amazing.
“I’m sorry you had to pay for me,” she said. “I’ve caused so much trouble today.”
Theo sat down next to her on the bench. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, waiting for his food to cool. Oboe wondered whether it really was okay. He’d been quiet ever since he woke up from the fairy dream. Something was bothering him, but it didn’t seem like he wanted to talk about it. He was like a bottle you couldn’t see through. She finished her own potato, while he stared off watching the sailors work.
“Hey,” she said. “What’s wrong? Aren’t you hungry?”
Theo stared at his wrapped food. “…Yeah,” he said. “Starving, actually.”
“It’s gonna get cold if you don’t eat it.” She gave him a gentle poke. “You’re supposed to eat it while it’s hot. That’s the rules.”
Mustering up the effort, he managed to unwrap the sweet potato. Something still wasn’t right. He was hesitating. Oboe knew she would only make things worse by talking, but she was worried. She wanted to help.
“Are you okay?” She said.
“Not really,” he said.
It was more than she expected. He always said things were fine, that she shouldn’t worry. She scooted closer.
“Because of the dream?” She said.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s part of it.”
“Do you wanna talk about it?”
He looked at her.
“You don’t have to!” Oboe said, wondering how many mistakes she was making. “But… maybe talking about it would make you feel better.”
He opened his mouth. “I was…” He stopped, and took a big breath like he was about to do something scary. “I was dreaming about my father.”
Oboe tried not think about how long it had been since she’d seen her dad. “That sounds like a good dream.”
“It wasn’t,” he said. “He and I never got along.”
“I don’t know.” Theo leaned forward, his face tense. “We argued all the time. Always about the same thing, all the way up to the day he died. He was always trying to make me into a knight.”
Oboe blinked. “But you are a knight.” Then, she thought about it. “Oh. You told me you wanted to work at the university. He didn’t want you to do that?”
Theo chuckled. “The only thing he cared about was making me fit the family legacy. Every day he forced me to train, to fight, to learn how to kill. I hated it.”
“Did you tell him that?” She said.
“I tried,” Theo said. “He never listened. All that mattered was that I become a knight like him.”
It was hard for Oboe to relate. She would’ve liked to have a purpose given to her like that, but it sounded like Theo had found one already. “It’s not what you wanted.”
“Not at all,” he said. To her surprise, an actual smile crossed his lips. “He threw the biggest fit when I told him I planned to attend the University. Do you know he withheld my inheritance to change my mind? One of his better tricks. Not that it worked. I was done letting him pressure me.”
“Why didn’t you want to be a knight?” Oboe said.
“They’re awful,” Theo said. “Muscle-headed brutes paid to kill and maim. Nothing more.”
Oboe squeezed her empty money pouch, feeling the toy soldier inside. That’s why he didn’t like her gift. “That’s not true. My tutors taught me about the treaties when I was little. The Knights of Laien are sworn to come help us if things get bad. That’s why we’re friends with the humans.”
Theo tightened his lips. “You make them sound like heroes. I don’t think real knights are like that.”
“I think you are,” Oboe said. “You didn’t want to stay in the Whirlwood, but we needed you so you did anyway. You came to the rescue just like knights are supposed to.” She clutched her pouch tighter. “Maybe some knights are bad. Like how some creatures are wicked. But that means the ones like you are wonderful.”
He looked stunned. “That’s… kind of you.” He didn’t know what else to say, so he looked down at his sweet potato instead. “Thank you. For that, and for listening. I never talked about this with anyone before. It feels nice.”
Oboe felt warm inside, happy that she’d helped.
Theo ate his cold potato. He seemed to enjoy it anyway. “We’d better get going. If we’re going to save the day, we’d better talk to Stillwell before it gets dark.”
She smiled, and they crossed the bridge together.