When dawn came, the Knight Detective had no choice but to admit defeat. Theodore was happy to bring the knights back to the city gates without misdirection.
“I will assemble a relief party to continue the search,” Conrad said. “I am sorry to have wasted your time, Deputy. Go and get what rest you can.”
Theodore hauled himself home, feeling bleary and empty. He fumbled with his keys to open his front door and stepped into a haze of smoke.
“What?” He said. Something was burning. He followed the choking smell to find the kitchen in disarray.
“Theo!” Oboe said, her hair crusted with batter. “I’m making pancakes!!”
She emptied a mixing bowl onto the table, and pounded a stiff lump of dough with a carpentry hammer. “…How do you make pancakes?”
Theodore sighed. “Where’s the prince?”
She led him upstairs. His Majesty was sprawled out across the bed, snoring. Theodore knelt down to nudge him. He woke with a gasp, flailing his arms and tumbling onto the floor.
“Where am I?!” He said, struggling to his feet.
“The Ranger Deputy office,” Theodore said. “It’s safe. Nobody knows you’re here, but I think you owe me a full explanation.” He tried to rub the fatigue from his eyes. “Come downstairs for breakfast. There is a lot we need to discuss.”
It was not long before the prince joined them downstairs.
“Eggs?” Oboe was mystified watching him cook. “But they’re not supposed to taste like birds!”
Theodore ignored her. It was difficult to salvage the mess she created, but he made do. He transformed flour, egg, milk and sugar into a garnished plate of pancakes that he placed in front of their guest. Theodore dumped himself into the chair across from the prince and downed a scalding mouthful of black coffee. He needed to power through the day.
“You owe me an explanation” Theodore said. “Start from the beginning.”
The prince frowned into his breakfast, curly bangs drooping over his eyes. He took a deep breath and nodded.
“…Ever since I turned thirteen, I’ve been miserable,” Perceval said. “I’m firstborn, and worse, an only child. Father wants to be sure I’m ready to be king. He has every moment of every day scheduled for me. One tutor after another: Diplomacy, strategy, decorum, accounting, espionage, equestrianism, martial arts, ballroom dancing, foreign policy, history, engineering, metallurgy, art, magic theory, alchemy, and on and on from sun rise to sun set all day and every day.
Theodore watched the prince and listened. Oboe stuffed her face between them.
“It got worse when father’s health started to turn.” Perceval prodded at his dish. “I’m expected to take the throne at a moment’s notice. Command the largest nation on the continent. You can’t imagine the pressure I’m under.”
Couldn’t he? Theodore remembered how hard his own father pushed him. Lance tried everything to mold him into the perfect knight. The anger and frustration Theodore felt was still there. It hung in his heart, sharp and heavy and hardened by time.
He tried to think of something to say, something to talk sense into the prince and set him straight. He found himself mouthing the words others had said to him: “Many would give everything to be in your place. You should be grateful.”
The young man pounded a fist into the table. “I never asked to be born a prince! I don’t want the whole world to be my problem! Mother’s mercy. It isn’t fair! That’s why I ran. I can’t take it anymore!”
Theodore felt at odds with himself. “This affects a lot of people other than you. You can’t just leave!”
“That’s not fair!” Oboe said. “If he doesn’t want to be king we shouldn’t make him! He wants to be free and he should be. That’s why I want to help him.”
Theodore felt himself soften. What Oboe said was simple, maybe too simple, but it felt right. How many times had he tried to run from home and never gotten anywhere? How much farther would he have gotten if someone had helped him? If someone understood what he was going through?
This was ludicrous. This was not the same. Was he seriously considering helping the royal heir run away from home? He was loyal to the crown. His duty was to turn the boy in.
“Theo,” Oboe said. “Percy is drowning in Fates. You can’t see it, but it’s like he has to carry a big stone and can’t put it down. Humans get like this when life pulls them in different directions. It’s the job of good fairies to take away that heaviness and put them on the right path. I think this is the right path for Percy.”
Prince Perceval toyed with his uneaten meal, eyes down. “I know I’m causing trouble, but I’m serious about this. I don’t want to go back.” He looked up. “I want to choose my own life.”
Theodore covered his mouth. It was his own wish spoken back to him. Doubt was slipping away, but he clung to it. He needed to stay rational.
“Do you even have a long-term plan?” He stood, leaning over Perceval. “You won’t be able to stay in this kingdom. You could be recognized by anyone. You stand to give up all luxury. You will start over with nothing.”
The prince looked him dead in the eye. “If that’s what it takes. I’ll escape to Feymire, or the Deepside Strait. I’d rather live free in squalor than go back. I would rather die.”
Theodore paused to weigh the prince’s face. It was certain and resolute despite the cost.
“I will help you.”