Waiting for Greatness
Emily E. Jones
Haman scratched at his shaggy red beard, wincing as he stretched his legs under the desk. His knees were swollen and warm every morning. It used to only take one shot of rum to start the day. He squinted his eyes as he brought his legs back and resisted the urge to grab his flask. The boy would show up soon.
He was late, but Haman only pretended to mind. As the morning light filtered into the small classroom and the rest of the castle scurried past the door, Haman felt like he could finally breathe. He stayed to himself anyway, but it was nice to have the solid barrier between him and all the rest of them. The court dandies held little interest for him, and good conversation was sparse in the backwater kingdom of Ashana, even at the capital.
Haman had been in Vestina for nearly fifteen years, from back when there was still hope it might be something more. Still, he talked to no one, except the boy of course, but as the boy had yet to say something intelligent, it could hardly count as conversation.
The door cracked open, and the ten-year-old prince squeezed through, face pale and bright. He shut the door and scrambled across the stone floor to slide into his seat across from Haman.
“Good morning, Stephen. I see you slept late today,” Haman said.
Stephen’s eyes widened, and a lock of dark hair fell across his eye. He brushed it away. “Why do you say that?”
Haman picked up the slender leather book on the desk. He tossed it at Stephen. “Your clothes still look freshly pressed and your shoes are clean. We should go before you muck it up.”
Stephen fumbled with the book before setting it on the table. “Go?” he asked. “Go where?”
“I have an important errand to run, and unfortunately for me, I have to bring you along” Haman said. “I expect the book translated by the end of the week, and don’t put it off until the last minute. Tomorrow you will go back to your regular class assignments.”
“I have to read it outside of class?” Stephen asked.
Haman’s chair scraped across the floor as he pushed back from the table and stood up. “Yes, unless you finish today.”
Stephen opened the book and flipped through the pages. “But this is in Grelian. I hate Grelian.” He rolled his eyes and slammed the book on the table.
“I don’t care. The northern islands are important trading partners. Besides, if you don’t learn it, your father will have you whipped. It’s your ass, not mine. Run to your room and grab your translation notes and your coat. We’ll meet at the east entry of the inner courtyard.”
Stephen scowled at the book but grabbed it before following Haman out into the hall. “Yes, sir.”
Haman grunted in acknowledgment and left Stephen to find his way. He ignored nods from servants as he shuffled down the halls. He kept his attention on the task at hand, forcing his stiff legs into submission. The worst part was ahead, the long set of stairs that led to his room, but the reward would be worth it. His flask was running dangerously low.
Haman’s room was a mess of crumpled clothes and papers. A wave of sickness curled through his gut at the sight of the scribbled sheets covering his desk, promises of something better that had failed to deliver. He couldn’t remember the last meaningful thing he had written, but there was still time. A great idea was bobbing just under the surface. Someday, He would seize it and wrestle it into something immortal.
He grabbed the jar of rum from the desk and refilled his flask, taking a few swallows before screwing the cap back on the bottle. He still had many stairways ahead of him. Haman locked the door behind him and settled the key in his pocket next to the flask. It was time to rejoin his reluctant pupil.
He found the child standing on the cobblestone path. The boy was pushing one foot gently into the thawing mud lining the path, creating little impressions of the soles of his shiny black shoe. An unpleasant earthy smell was already starting to fill the air, and raspberry tart was visible on Stephen’s crisp, white sleeve. It was only a matter of time before the boy reverted to his natural, primitive form.
Haman scowled. “Don’t get in the mud.”
Stephen looked around. “Sir, there’s mud everywhere.”
Haman started walking. He had an important letter waiting. “Then be very careful.” He heard Stephen’s feet fall in line behind him. It was a short walk, but they had only made it halfway when he heard the thud of something hitting the ground. He turned to find Stephen frozen with his hands extended in the air, the book Stephen had been tossing in the air now resting on a crest of mud carved up against the stone path.
Stephen retrieved the book and brushed it off. Mud smeared the cover. Haman waited until Stephen was done before slapping him. “Today is important. Try to behave like you have some sense.”
Stephen’s hurt turned to outrage, and he looked around for witnesses.
Haman watched him. “Who would care, prince? Your mother? She’s wise enough to understand the value of a stern hand. Besides, she’s occupied with your sister.”
“What about when I become king?” Stephen asked. “What do you think will happen to you then?”
Haman snorted. “I don’t plan on being here when you become king.”
Stephen’s face brightened. “You’re leaving?”
Haman nodded. “Gods, I hope so.” He unbuttoned his coat. The rum was making him hot.
Stephen rubbed at his cheek, the print still as red as the strawberry filling decorating his sleeve. “What’s so important about today anyway?”
“I get the answer to both our problems.” Haman motioned for Stephen to follow him.
The small garden decorating the yard of the guest quarters was well-tended, a nod to the few competent servants running around. A good gardener was no match for the cracked, dry fountain in the middle of the yard or the flaking pillars of the entryway. One more reason to get out.
Haman knocked and waited. A bald, older man opened the door, one of Lord Vander’s many servants. It was unseemly to bring so many mouths to feed on a diplomatic visit, but Vander was just as vain as the king he represented. King Gregory and the cost of courting him was not Haman’s concern. Neither was his bloated peacock of a vassal. Haman had come to see Vander’s traveling companion, Baron Foucher.
The servant eyed Haman and then the child hanging back behind him. “May I help you, good sir?” the man asked.
Haman nodded. “Tell Baron Foucher that Master Haman is here to see him. He is expecting me.”
The man nodded as if he already knew. His sagging mid-section wobbled around under the scarlet doublet. “Of course, Master Haman. Please come in.”
Haman and Stephen stood in the entryway and waited for the baron. Haman looked around for somewhere to sit, but there were no chairs. Standing was better anyway. He shrugged and took another long drink of rum.
He could hear the rhythmic thumps of Stephen’s shoes against the marble floor. Haman turned his head to see the boy leave mud streaks like brown paint strokes.
“Boy!” Haman hissed. He fantasized about taking another shot of rum and cuffing the child with equal enthusiasm, but he kept himself together. He had been waiting for Baron Foucher to bring news for nearly three months.
The baron appeared at the top of the stairway, making his way down with slow, measured steps. He was bent and frail, his skin marked with age spots. The baron smiled. “Good sir, I am glad to see you. I can’t remember the last time I had the honor of such a towering intellect as my guest.” He fixed his bright green eyes on Stephen. “What’s this? The great prince is with you?” He bowed to Stephen. “If I had known I was going to be receiving such an honor, I would have rushed to greet you.”
“Do you have word for me? Are they going to appoint me?” Haman interrupted.
Baron Foucher’s good humor faded. He briefly met Haman’s eyes before looking down at the floor. He pulled a letter from the inside of his vest. “I am sorry, friend.”
Haman’s vision swirled and panic dried his mouth, but he reached out to take the letter. He opened it and turned away to read it.
The letter was signed by King Gregor’s head steward. He would not be offered the position as head librarian. There would be no stipend, and Boyle’s inner circle of academics had no interest in offering him membership into the Royal Society. He was stuck in a broken-down kingdom with a brat.
He folded the letter and slid it into his inner coat pocket. “Thanks, Foucher. I will stop and pay you a proper visit tonight. We will catch up on all that has happened. For now, I must see to the young prince.”
“Of course, Haman. Stop by at vespers, and we will break bread together.” Baron Foucher said.
Haman could feel the baron watching him for signs of a reaction, but he kept his face neutral as he paid his respects. He motioned for Stephen to go back outside and closed the door behind them.
Stephen walked back towards the castle. “So?” He asked as he waited for Haman to take the lead.
“Shut up, boy. We are going to the docks today.” Haman said, passing Stephen and turning towards the outer courtyard.
“What?” Stephen shouted. “We’re going into the city? We can’t go by ourselves. Mother will be furious.” The child’s eyes were lit with enthusiasm, begging the answer to be yes.
Haman stopped walking and returned to Stephen. He bent down. “Yes, if you will be quiet, we are going to walk out of here like it is not a big deal, and if you keep your head down and stay out of trouble, it will be no big deal. Do you understand?”
Stephen grinned and nodded his head. “Yes, sir” he whispered. “What is at the docks?”
Haman straightened. “The Grelians who work to bring fresh produce to your kingdom, little prince. If we are going to be stuck together, I might as well teach you.”
He led the boy through the narrow streets of Vestina, sewage running down the side of the streets, some passages more flooded than others. The vendors yelled out deals. The stands were lined with food, clothing, pottery, pots and pans, baskets being woven for anyone who cared to watch. He could hear little gasps from the boy behind him every so often on the way to the docks. Haman’s lips twitched at a grin.
Soon, the smell of humanity was fighting with the salty breath of the sea. Haman breathed it in with relief. When he was a boy, his father had worked on the docks, and Haman had always loved the briny, stringent smell of the water. He spotted the Grelian flags ahead, rolled up into a tangle of red and green on the large merchant ship. Men worked furiously along the dock to pass down crates of fruits and vegetables. The little group of islands were not far from Ashana, but they had far better luck growing.
He stopped and pointed out the ship to Stephen. “You see, boy, that is the Grelian merchant, Andor. He is by far the fastest and most reliable. Your father has invited him to dine at the palace before, a rare invitation for someone not born of royal blood.”
Stephen’s eyes raced along the deck of the large ship. “Well, then, I suppose he knows my father better than me.” Stephen looked up at Haman, dark brown eyes somber.
Haman nodded. “I suppose so. Would you like to meet Andor?”
Stephen straightened. “Yes, I guess I should. Someday, Andor will be dealing with me instead of my father.”
Haman patted Stephen on the back. “Perhaps.”
Stephen frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
Haman shrugged. “Life is full of twists and turns. They say you shall be king. Maybe someday you will be. Maybe you’ll even be good at it.”
Stephen grinned. “I am. I’m going to be a great king someday.”
Haman’s face was serious. “First, you must learn how to be a great man.”
Stephen’s lips twisted, and he narrowed his eyes. “Are you a great man?”
Haman grimaced. “I thought I would be once.”
Stephen rolled his head to the side. “How will you teach me to be a great man if you aren’t a great man?” He paused to see if Haman would respond to the bait. Stephen straightened and his smile returned. “Don’t worry, Master Haman, you will be a great man, because you are the teacher of a great king. Let’s go meet this Andor.” Stephen stopped his confident strut. “Wait, will he speak our language?”
Haman grinned. “Only if I say he can, prince. Let’s see how much you know.”
Haman and his young pupil walked down the docks. For the first time, they were united in something, carving a place at the top of the mountain of human civilization, and it would begin on the dock of a small port city.