It was sweet how they met, really.
"Five crowns? Look, miss, you don't seem to understand what I'm telling you. The ivory inlay on this hand mirror by itself is worth at least twenty!"
"I can buy the same thing on the other side of the market for two."
Momentarily flustered, he paused – then recovered just as quickly. "But can you buy one there that's magic?"
She rolled her eyes, called him a few unsavory names, and then walked on.
A few minutes later she was back. "You were lying, right?"
"Would a modest peddler like me ever dare lie to a lovely and clearly intelligent young noblewoman like you?"
"Blatant flattery! Think you can manipulate me, do you? Well!" And she marched away again.
An hour later: "Just out of curiosity, you understand – you really meant that, did you? The 'lovely and intelligent' bit?"
It had been a long day, and by this time he was pretty tired. Too tired, in fact, to lie. "Well, you're cute," he said. "And seeing as you didn't buy the mirror for twenty crowns, I would lean toward intelligent, though it's a little early to say. You'll have to prove it to me."
"Can I buy you dinner?"
Problems with the story were already starting to arise from the moment the engagement was announced. Observe:
"He's honest," she said.
"He's a peddler," her father said. "Transient. Throwabout. Ruff-em-up."
"Now you're just making up names for the fun of it."
"I am not! Look, the truth is, it's just, well, see, you've never had to cook for yourself, dear, or fold your own clothes, and I'm not really sure you'd like it."
"Is that all you're worried about?"
"You don't think much of me, do you?"
"Pshaw. Is this the part where you run away from home to marry him? Because honestly, it's not worth the trouble. Look, I'll give him some money, he can set up shop here in town, and then you can hire a maid. Everybody's happy."
She looked flabbergasted. "It's that easy?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"You're not going to try and set me up with some rich idiot instead, like a prince or something? Lock me in a tower? Isn't that how it usually goes?"
Now he looked confused. "Do you want me to?"
Luckily, she was more practical than Romantic. "Hell no! How soon can you make a down payment?"
And when Fen was born, the narrative went straight downhill.
"Gee," the peddler said. "That was something."
"Tell me about it," his wife replied, trying to get a grip on the wet, squawking kid.
"Does lightning usually strike and the river rise and the wind howl like that when you give birth?"
"Not sure," she said. "It's my first time, you see. And, you know, I was kind of distracted at that particular moment."
The door swung open. A wizard stood there. Wind was howling behind him.
The wizard looked at them quizzically. The wife looked annoyed. "Would you mind closing the door, please? It's just, you know, newborn infant over here…"
"Look, don't cross me, buddy. I've just had a hell of a day."
The wizard, now quite annoyed himself, closed the door. "You're the Mother, are you?"
"And who are you, the village idiot?" the Father asked testily.
"Er… this isn't usually how it goes," the wizard said. "You feeling all right over there? Not on the brink of death or anything?" he asked the Mother.
"I'll be quite all right," she said. "But if you'd asked me that same question five minutes ago, hooo-ee…"
"Okay, look, something isn't right here," the wizard said. "I mean, you two are the parents, aren't you?"
"Yes," the Mother said. "Yes," she said a little more firmly when the Father looked confused.
"You know you're supposed to die in childbirth?" the wizard said to the Mother. "And you – you shouldn't even be here! Either you run off because you want to protect them from your sorcerer friends or you die before he's even born!"
"Sorcerer friends? What, you mean Ricky? We're drinking buddies and everything, but…"
"Oh, bother," the wizard said. "Look, I'll be back in a few years. I hope you've cleaned up your act by then."
He promptly left, slamming the door behind him. The parents looked at each other.
"Did that just happen?" the Mother asked.
"I think so," the Father replied, "but let's pretend it didn't."
At age five:
"You're still here?" the wizard barked.
"Alive and kicking," the Mother said.
"Not fond of us, are you?" the Father observed.
"You're not even supposed to have names! You're supposed to be nothing but sad silhouettes etched in his memory!"
"Are we sad silhouettes etched in your memory, darling?" the Mother asked Fen.
"Can I have a cracker?" Fen replied.
"We have names," the Father said. "I'm Grygor, and this is Nan. Now, unless you've got a real prognostication for our death, or you're going to buy something, I will kindly have to ask you to leave my shop."
At age eight:
"Well young Fen, I see you've fallen on hard times. I tried to warn your parents of the fate that would befall them," the wizard said after spotting the boy on the street.
The wizard smacked his forehead. "Don't tell me they're still around."
"I haven't fallen on hard times. I've just been playing."
"Get beat up a lot in the street by other kids, do you?"
"Mmm, no. But this one guy beat me at marbles, once. Man, I was steamed."
"Doesn't anybody beat you?" the wizard asked despairingly.
"My Gramma spanked me once, but Mum and Dad don't approve of corporeal punishment."
"Haven't you had any suffering at all?" the wizard demanded.
"My sister's a pain. She pulled my hair yesterday."
"Your sister? Oh, this is just great. First he's not an orphan, now he's not even an only child…"
"He's eleven! He can't have a sword!" Nan shouted.
"It's his birthright!" the wizard shouted back.
"There you go again," Grygor said. "Now I'm telling you, that sword is not from my side of the family."
"Don't look at me!" Nan said. "My father's a pacifist!"
"He's descended from kings!" the wizard cried in despair, clawing at the air and imploring the ceiling with his eyes.
Grygor and Nan exchanged a confused glance. Grygor said, "Well, my great uncle was chairman of the Peddler's Union for a bit…"
The wizard started to tear his gray hair out.
"Can I keep it, Mum?" Fen asked.
"Absolutely not. You'll poke your eye out."
"Well, this is a fine mess," Grygor said, crouched within the castle ramparts. "Thank goodness we left Cely with the babysitter."
"Why on earth are they called orcs?" Nan asked.
"I blame that wizard. Always trying to stir up trouble," Grygor grumbled.
"Thank goodness we came along, that's all I have to say."
"Can't you guys ever let me do anything on my own for once?" Fen said petulantly.
"We'll let you take the cart to the fair whenever you want, since you're old enough now," Nan said. "But lead an army? Over my dead body! You're much too young to be exposed to that kind of violence."
"It's a war!" Fen argued. "It's got to be violent!"
"Fine then, but you're not doing it alone."
"I wouldn't be alone. I've got friends," Fen tried.
"That shameless young hussy, you mean? I don't think so, Fen. Listen here, I know a gold-digger when I see one," Nan replied.
"She's a princess!" Fen cried. "How can she be a gold-digger? She's got more gold than we'll ever have!"
"Hmmph. Some princess. Can't even keep orcs out of her own country. Don't they make pesticides for this?"
"What about Simmy? He's a good friend. He saved our lives three times already!"
"He's all right. You can have him over for dinner. You can not go off invading countries and searching for magical relics in the uncharted lands together. And I'd like to meet his parents."
"They're dead," Fen said meaningfully. "Properly dead, like they're supposed to be."
"What's that supposed to mean, I'd like to know?" Grygor said. "Don't be sharp with your mother, young man."
"I thought you'd at least get captured by orcs or something," Fen said.
"What would you do then, eh? How many orcs have you killed by yourself?" Grygor asked.
"If you'd just let me try…"
"Much too dangerous," Nan said. "I told you before, you aren't going off on any Quests without parental supervision."
And, at last, his eighteenth birthday:
"You've got a spot on your face," Nan said. She spit on a handkerchief and started to wipe it off.
"Mooooommm! My citizens are watching!" Fen cried, wriggling on his throne.
"Stop squirming! You're father's going to get the camera."
"He is not taking pictures," Fen stated.
"Of course he is! It's not every day your son has his coronation! I can't wait till we send the photos back to Gramma."
Grygor appeared. "Here we are! All right, now, Fen, one with you and your mother, that's right, stand up straight, don't slouch. Nudge over a bit, I want to get the throne in the background. Okay, now I can't get the crown in the frame. Honey, can you see if you can pull it down any lower on his head? Okay. Okay, that's great. Smile, now. I said smile, Fen. There we are, thank you. Where did the wizard go?"
"He gave up five chapters ago. Simmy saw him yesterday getting thrown out of a tavern," Fen said.
"Okay, now one with the citizenry," Grygor said.
"Daaaaaad, you're embarrassing me!" Fen said through gritted teeth.
"Humor him, darling," Nan told the boy.
"All right, all right, we'll get pictures of the citizenry later," Grygor conceded. "Just one of you and the princess and I'll be off."
"Don't forget the corsage!" Nan cried. "Fen, you've got to give her the corsage before the ball tonight. Let's get a picture now before it wilts. Good, here she is. Princess, darling, get in the picture beside Fen here. Let's be snappy now, they'll be serving the food soon. Oh, put your arm around her Fen, you look too stiff."
Fen was now blushing purple.
"That's it, just one more… one or two more… maybe from a different angle…"
"Grygor, really, the young people want to go off to their ball now."
"Oh all right. Well, have a good time, kids… hey, where did they go?"
"She can run in heels. That's impressive," Nan noted, watching the children's backs disappear into the crowd of onlookers.
Grygor threw an arm around Nan's shoulder. "I guess our little boy is all grown up now."
"You're not upset he doesn't want to take over the shop, are you?" Nan asked.
"Nah. He's a good boy and I'm proud of him, but he never really had a mind for business," Grygor said with a sigh.
"I can't believe he's eighteen years old!" Nan said, getting choked up. "I thought he'd always be my baby boy!"
"They do grow up so fast."
"His own little kingdom! Isn't it precious?"