Laden with bottles of wine, empty cups, and snacks, the rough wooden tray thumped down heavily on the tavern table. One of the cups bounced, balanced precariously on its edge a second, then toppled.
Prince M'hul cast a reproachful look at the harried Innkeeper, but the busy man was off waiting on another table.
"The quality of the service personnel in the Kingdom leaves a lot to be desired!" the Prince boomed, loudly enough to be heard several tables away.
The second man at the table carefully righted the cup, filled it for the Prince, then filled his own wine cup, using the overly careful manner of someone trying not to show how much he'd had to drink.
"It is the afternoon rush, Your Majesty," he explained. "We have been here since before noon. He probably wants this table."
The Prince brushed imaginary dust off his sea green armor, then picked up his cup.
"He is welcome to it!" Draining the cup, he slammed it back against the table top, where it spun and fell over again. "Honestly, Gareth, I don't know why you always choose this tavern when we are in Kugnae. We would be much more comfortable, and better served, at the Palace. Even that awful tavern that smells like rat droppings you frequent in Buya would be preferable, at least the snacks are better!"
The second man, Gareth, carefully picked up the Prince's cup, turned it over, and examined it with blurred vision.
"It's bent..." he proclaimed, setting it back on the table.
"So are you, old friend!" the Prince laughed.
"Excuse me, sir." A young man in a spring green robe stood next to the table. "Can you help me? I'm new here in the kingdom."
The Prince glanced at the young man, noted his peasant robes and his slight stature, "Do I look like a welcoming committee?" he snarled. "This is another thing we wouldn't have to deal with in the Palace, Gareth, peasants looking for a handout!"
"Sir! I just wanted directions and maybe a little advice, but if you are busy, I will ask elsewhere." The young man turned and walked quickly towards the door.
"Wait, please," Gareth climbed unsteadily to his feet, adjusted his bright red armor, and bowed slightly. "I am not too busy. How can I help you?"
The peasant seemed doubtful, but must have needed help pretty badly, as he waited for the huge warrior to amble over.
"I was told to take my acorns to the butcher," the peasant explained, "but I haven't had any luck so far in finding her."
"Easy enough; Suni's hut is just outside." Gareth returned to the table and placed a few coins on it. "Let me show you."
Gareth turned to the still fuming Prince, "Your Majesty, I shall return directly."
M'hul grunted a response and poured another cup for himself.
As the pair left the Tavern, the young man turned to the old warrior and asked, "That was the Prince?"
"Yes, and not at his best," Gareth explained, pushing open the tavern door, "A long morning of negotiations with the local clans."
"Clans are trouble?" the Peasant asked, interested.
"M'hul sometimes treats the Clans as if they are willful children. Some of us take that attitude as insulting."
"You are in a Clan?" the peasant followed the warrior around a decorative wall, and through a wrought iron gate, hung with iron sculpted carcasses of beasts and fowl. "A lot of work went into this!"
Gareth glanced at the iron work and smiled. "Yes, the Smith is a bit sweet on the Butcher."
As they approached her door, sounds of shouting came to them from within.
"What do you suppose is going on?" Gareth pulled open the door and stepped inside.
Prince M'hul watched raptly as one slow drop formed on the mouth of the upturned bottle, then fell into his empty cup. None of the other bottles on the table seemed to have any contents left either.
"Where is that Gareth!?" he grumbled and considered ordering another bottle. "He knows I hate to drink alone."
The Prince levered himself to his feet and rolled toward the door. One of the tallest men in the kingdom, he had to duck to go through the doorway. M'hul glanced about the courtyard but saw no sign of Gareth's Phoenix red armor.
"I bet he is showing that peasant how to kill squirrels!" M'hul guffawed, amused at his own jest.
From the courtyard of the Taverns, he could see a field of squirrels hopping around unmolested.
"Okay, M'hul, think like a peasant," The Prince sat on a bench and pondered.
Just then a group of boys dashed past.
"Look at all those squirrels!" a boy exclaimed. "I bet we can get enough acorns from that one group to pay for my helm!"
"Yeah, but you heard the Constable," another boy replied, as they ran across the bridge toward the field of squirrels. "We will have to lug bags full of acorns to Buya or the Sohni camp. The Butcher shop is closed here."
"The Butcher!" M'hul snapped his fingers. "Of course, all Peasants end up there eventually. What did he mean they are closed? She never closes!"
As M'hul neared the Butcher Shop, he ran into a large crowd of people. Many held bags of acorns; some had strings of fox furs; one spiky-haired youth was showing off his collection of rat corpses.
"Make way for The Prince!" M'hul shouted, as no one seemed to recognize him.
The spiky-haired youth, who M'hul thought looked familiar somehow, said, "Shop's closed, Your Majesty."
"Closed? Impossible!" The Prince waded through the crowd to the closed wrought iron gate. "Hello, inside! Open up for The Prince!"
The shop door opened and out stepped Gareth, looking remarkably sober.
"There you are, Gareth! If we hurry, we can still make 'Happy Hour'."
"I am sorry, Your Highness," Gareth explained, leading the Prince inside. "I will have to cancel."
Prince M'hul stared at the little shop in horror. Everything was a mess: bins overturned, displays knocked over.
"What happened here?" M'hul asked Gareth, as the warrior joined the young peasant from the tavern in scooping up acorns and putting them in a barrel.
"The butcher had an unhappy customer," Gareth explained, rolling out another barrel and filling it with meat scraps. "She is filing a report with the Constable."
A door slammed in the back of the shop, and the Butcher stomped in.
"That PIG is getting a trial!" The Butcher grabbed the broom from the peasant and began furiously sweeping some large brown nuts into a pile. "Chestnuts? Where did THESE come from!? I don't BUY chestnuts!"
"Calm down, Dear," Gareth soothed the rattled meat vendor, " I would be happy to appear as a witness on your behalf."
"Me, too!" the Peasant piped in; he had found a burlap bag and began to stash away the offending chestnuts.
"Thank you for that, Gareth," Suni said, "but the trial is set for now. I have to rush right over there!"
Gareth squatted next to a full barrel of fish, wrapped his arms around it, and heaved it into the air. It landed neatly atop another barrel.
"We are nearly finished cleaning," Gareth took the offending bag of chestnuts from the young man and squirreled it away behind the counter. "We can go now. What's the problem?"
"My shop! I can't stay closed; I'm losing too much money!" Suni waved her arms, then walked to the window and peeked out. "Look at all those people being turned away!"
"You should be open," M'hul said, casually breaking a nut he found near the counter on which he was leaning. "The kingdom gives you a tax break for being open all the time."
"Well, then... that's settled!" Suni crossed her arms; years of cutting meat had made her a powerful lass. She stared right at the Prince. "If I have to go to court, and Gareth has to go with me, that only leaves one person to run my shop."
M'hul glanced up from the crumbled chestnut in his hands.
"Uh, the peasant boy?" he asked blankly. "Who would do business in a shop run by a peasant?"
"Actually, I was going with Gareth..." the peasant mentioned.
"Then who..." M'hul noticed his friend in the red armor was smiling at him. "Oh, no! I can't do it. I'm THE PRINCE!"
"Who else?" Suni dug out an apron and handed it to M'hul. "And no banishments! From now on, you are just the Butcher."
"The Butcher formerly known as Prince," Gareth chuckled.
"Let's go, Gareth," the Butcher grabbed the warrior by the arm and led him out of the shop.
"Wait!" M'hul yelled, still clutching his apron in his hands. "What am I supposed to do?"
The butcher paused on the threshold. "There is a price list behind the counter. Every price that I pay buying and selling. Just make change."
The door closed, leaving the muddled royal alone.
"Make change," he muttered, examining his apron. "I can do that. My tutors used to give me high marks in arithmetic. Of course, they gave me high marks in everything. If they failed me, their heads would line the Palace gate."
M'hul chuckled. Then unstrapped his heavy armor. There was no way the apron would fit over it. "There! Now I look the part. Of course, I am still a Prince on the inside. That should be obvious to anyone!"
M'hul stepped over to the door of the shop.
"Probably they all went home, anyway. I'll stand here like a fool until Suni gets back."
The Prince pulled open the door and flipped the shop's sign from "closed" to "open". He turned back to the counter.
The door slammed behind him.
Suddenly the shop was full of noisy people, all clutching bags full of items to sell.
"Or maybe not..."
The bailiff came out of the courtroom and announced the docket. Gareth and Suni would have to wait a little longer, there were two other cases ahead of them. They settled down on the benches lining the entrance.
"Did I do the right thing?" Suni asked. "My shop is everything to me, and I left it in M'hul's hands. How do I know he won't just leave?"
"M'hul has honor. Not much sense, sometimes, but he will stay." Gareth patted Suni's knife-scarred hand.
"48... 49... 50!" M'hul neatly stacked the last acorn on the pile, "At five coins each, I owe you two hundred and fifty coins."
"I want to sell you fifty more acorns, please." The youngster produced another satchel.
"Fifty more? Why didn't you..." M'hul scratched his head; then began counting again. "One... two... three..."
Gareth and Suni were led inside the courtroom, where they were directed to sit across from the defendant. He did not look at all like the angry wild man that tore through her shop, Suni thought. He looked terrified, sitting between two enormous Constables.
"Look at that kid," Suni whispered. "You would think he was waiting to be executed."
"He is a mystery," Gareth replied, shaking his head. "I had a chance to peek at his record, what little there was of it. Never been in trouble before."
The Judge opened the case scroll and read the statements, then looked at the young man who was visibly sweating in the defendant box.
"You've had a busy morning," he said, simply.
"Yes, your honor," the kid replied.
"You requested a jury trial. Why is that?" the Judge asked.