Before I lived in Denver, I lived in a far away kingdom
on the edge of an ancient continent, where magic still happens.
A bunch of friends and I moved there after college, trying to find ourselves; you know how that goes.
Anyway, my best friend in the kingdom was The Average Prince. He was a great guy — never wore his crown when we went out in public. I thought at first it was to throw off the commoners, but he told me didn’t feel like he deserved it. “I’m a prince, sure,” he would say, “but a really, not-so-great one. Just average.”
In a neighboring kingdom, there was a beautiful princess coveted by every man in all the land. Her magnificence was the subject of many an artist’s canvas, her glossy visage hanging in every great hall. And get this — she was single.
Now, The Average Prince had a major crush on this princess; he would stand for hours beneath the castle’s painting of her — a silly, whimsical glint in his eye. He wanted nothing more than to be her suitor, to bring her to our kingdom and show her all of our hangouts and introduce her to our friends. “I bet she’d really like you,” he would say to me. “And then you’d meet someone and we’d all go out together.”
So I say, “Let’s go get her.” “The King is looking to marry her off. You’re a prince.” “An average prince.” he reminded me. “She’s the most beautiful princess in all the land. She’s got every prince in the world going after her. I don’t stand a chance.” “Stop it.” I said. “You’re wonderful. What you need is confidence. I say we go talk to her.” “Impossible!” retorted The Average Prince. “The Princess is guarded by eight, Dark Royal Guardians. They wouldn’t let me anywhere near her.” “Not if we don’t even try,” I told him. “We leave in the morning. We’ll make a weekend out of it.”
The Average Prince was visibly nervous, but excited by the idea. I’m sure he didn’t get a wink of sleep that night, but the next morning he was packed and ready to hit the road.
It was a temperate day in September —
we couldn’t have picked a better time for a road trip.
The whole land was awash with a romantic breeze that blew tidings from the Western lands into the busted driver-side window of my ’92 Corolla, as we rolled slowly through the land outside the walls of the Eastern Kingdom. We’d been on the road maybe an hour, though, when The Average Prince announced that he already had to pee. At this point, we were still deep in the Forest of the Night Dwarves. “This is a bad neighborhood,” I warned him, “even at ten in the morning.” But the prince’s bladder had a different opinion on the matter, so I pulled over at the next 7-11.
The Average Prince was in the bathroom, and I was going to buy some gum, when — out of nowhere — one of the eight Dark Royal Guardians storms into the shop.
“Filthy Night Dwarves!” the Guardian yelled, slamming his fist onto the counter.
“Hey, none of that racist shit!” said the service attendant. “What the hell happened?”
“I just got robbed!” he shouted, his fists smoldering with ancient magic. “They took my horse, my money . . . all I want to do right now is smoke a cigarette, but they took those too!”
Now, I know an opportunity when I see one. The Average Prince is lucky to have me.
“I may be able to help,“ I announced. “But I need information. About The Princess.”
The Dark Royal Guardian stared at me from beneath his cloak, his giant gauntlets rattling nicotine withdrawal into the glass countertop.
“Go on,” he said.
“I need to know where she’s being held, how I can get to her.”
“Fool! To think that you are worthy to court Her Majesty.”
“Not me!” I told him, “My friend, The Average Prince.”
“The Average Prince, you say?”
“You’ve heard of him?”
“Indeed I have. You see, The Average Prince is the ONLY prince who has not tried to get past the Guardians to see The Princess. As such, he’s developed quite a reputation. In fact, The Princess — she never stops talking about him.”
“This is fate!” I implored. “You MUST tell me how we can meet her.”
“Fate is not bound so easily, commoner!” he insisted. “It comes at no small price!”
“A trade then — to bind our fate, to learn of The Princess in the name of true love!”
And so he demanded in his thundering voice, “In exchange for this information, you, peasant of The Eastern Kingdom, shall ensnare me one pack of Parliament Lights!”
And so I replied, in pledged dedication to the prince, “Really, you smoke Parliaments?”
“Yeah, I like the taste, what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, it’s just kind of a girly cigarette, and you’re a Dark Royal Guardian.”
The Dark Royal Guardian disappeared in a cloud of smoke and menthol just as The Average Prince emerged from the bathroom, a bewildered expression on his face. “Why does it smell like burning toothpaste out here?”
“Get in the car,” I commanded. “I know where The Princess is.”
The forest gave way to rolling meadows
as I explained to The Average Prince what had happened.
“That’s phenomenal.” he told me. “So where is she?”
“I can’t tell you just yet.”
Really, I know too many details will freak him out. We were chasing a dream, see, and dreams belong in the hazy realm of half knowledge; otherwise they lose their magic.
“Just wait,” I said, “And trust me.”
We’d gotten about 20 miles when we saw a lone traveler walking along the side of the road. He had a jaunty step, and from his shoulder hung a Chrome Messenger bag with several canvases protruding from it.
“How goes it traveler?” I asked, slowing to his side. “You need a ride?”
The traveler inspected me through his horn-rimed glasses. “Yeah, I guess that would be cool.” he said, shrugging and climbing into the backseat.
“What brings you out this way?” I asked.
“Umm, work, I guess.”
The Average Prince was not as excited about our new passenger as I was, but he needed to lighten up a little. You shouldn’t travel any length of distance without talking to strangers.
“Yeah? What kind of work?”
“I don’t really like to put labels on it,” he said, distractedly jotting something into a Moleskine notebook. “Uh, portraiture, I guess.” He opened his bag and pulled out a small oil painting of none other than The Princess.
“Holy shit!” I said. “You paint the Princess? You’re the Court Painter?!”
Our guest shrugged. “Yeah, well . . . whatever.”
“Please, tell me of The Princess,” The Average Prince pleaded. “Is her hair truly this vibrant shade of golden yellow? Are her eyes as deep as the coral green your brush suggests?”
“Ahh, you know, she’s alright I guess. She sleeps in too late.”
“How the hell would you know?” I asked.
The Court Painter denied us eye contact as he fumbled with a pack of rolling papers and a satchel of loose tobacco. “Me and The Princess are like, what would you call it . . . hanging out.”
“No one’s allowed NEAR The Princess!” The Average Prince retorted.
“Dude, I paint her like, every day. One day she was like, ‘where’s your studio at’, and so I -”
“No, no, no,“ The Average Prince interrupted. “She’d never court a lowly painter!”
The Court Painter just laughed. “You think The Princess wants to court a Prince? That’s what her dad wants. She’s into artists.”
“Fuck YOU she’s into artists! And stop smoking in my car!” I swatted a half-lit rollie from the Court Painter’s lips.
He let out a shrill whimper, attempting to scoop the leaves back up off the floor into his hand. “Not cool man,” he whined. “I bought this tobacco at an independent co-op in Portland that only buys from a small village in Northern China -”
“GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY CAR,” I yelled, and, skidding to a stop, threw The Court Painter’s stupid shoulder bag out of the door and then him after it.
“You turned out to be a real douche, Court Painter!”
I slung the portrait of The Princess out last, breaking the frame against his pretentious temple, and then sped away as he lie dizzy there in the dirt. “Forget that guy,” I said. But The Average Prince grew silent. A question had formed in his head and its only answer lie bleeding a few miles back.
“You think . . . she already courted someone?”
“I don’t know, man. I mean, anyone you’re going to meet — they’re going to have a past.”
And a present, too. I don’t tell The Average Prince that, though; I don’t want him to get discouraged.
He was getting discouraged anyway, though,
so we stopped for a drink.
He was getting discouraged anyway though, so we stopped for a drink. I picked a nice place, but not too nice — the wenches were dressed up and seemed classy. There was a pack of knights in the back doing Jägerbombs but they weren’t bothering anybody. We saddled up to the bar, and I start scoping the place out.
“Let’s get some practice in,” I told The Average Prince. “Any of these girls doing it for ya?” The Average Prince gaped at me in abject disgust. “We’re going to go meet THE Princess!” he said.
I have to say I respect him; he wasn’t about to hit on any of the maidens having a surprisingly early drink in this quaint little village. I love him for it. But I, on the other hand, had no stake in The Princess, so I thought I’d let The Average Prince learn vicariously as I worked a little of my magic on the girls seated at the bar.
To my left, there’s this smoldering hot girl in one of those Cloaks, you know the one where it’s supposed to be covering their shoulders but they’re letting a little show anyway? Classic small town rebel — I love these types. I look over at her and give her this smile, and she smiles back.
“What brings a girl like you to a bar in the middle of the day?”
She rolls her eyes. “Night shift.”
“Oh yeah? Service industry?”
“More or less,” she says smirking.
“More or less! So what’s that mean?” I tried not to raise an eyebrow, but seriously, I’m not into harlots.
“No, not like that. Right now I’m an apprentice potion maker . . .”
“Oh god, are you a witch?” That reaction did not impress her. “I’m sorry. I mean, that’s a really good industry.” Seriously though, I am always meeting witches in bars. Don’t ever date a witch. When it’s good, it’s REAL good, but let’s just say it’s not easy to revert a frog spell.
“I’m a good witch though,” she insisted. “White magic. That’s it. I know what you’re thinking — no, I don’t know any frog spells. I do restoratives, protects, love potions, things like that.”
“Love potions?” The Average Prince looked up from his collection of empty glasses. “Like, ones that make people fall in love with you?”
“No, it’s not that easy.” She took a long sip of some kind of vodka drink through a tiny bar straw. “You don’t just MAKE someone fall in love with you.”
“You know, I’m really glad to hear you say that.” I told her. “My friend here, he’s really sweatin’ this girl. I wouldn’t put it past him to try something like that.”
“Oh yeah?” she asked. “Tell me about this GIRL! What’s she’s like?”
“I don’t know.” The Average Prince conceded. “We’re on our way to go meet her. But, I don’t think she’ll even like me.”
“Really?” the witch said, digging through her purse. She pulled a small vial from its depths, filled with a liquid glowing so pure white that it lit up the whole bar. “So — this is a new one. Just made it a few hours ago.”
“What’s it do?” The Average Prince asked, seemingly already sold on its ethereal glow.
“Well, it’s not a love potion, per se — but it helps. You just drink it and think about the person you love. And if you can imagine them clearly enough, it will fill in the cracks between what you are, and what the person wants.”
“It would make me perfect for her.” The Average Prince murmured, reaching out his hand to touch the vial.
“No, no, no, no, no,” I said. “That’s cheating.”
“How?” he asked angrily. “I would BE what she WANTED if I knew what that was.”
“Wrong again,” I told him. “Either you’re exactly what The Princess wants, or you don’t want The Princess.”
“That’s cute,” said the witch. “You think there’s a girl out there that wouldn’t change her boyfriend just a little bit, if she could? Think there’s a GUY like that, for that matter? That’s what happens in relationships. You act all badass and independent, but in three months you’ll be trying on collared shirts in a Nordstrom’s dressing room just like EVERYONE else. This is just skipping the process, avoiding the conflicts.”
See, this is why I hate witches. She jangled the potion towards The Average Prince.
“This is the ONLY one I have,” she told him. “You won’t find another like it. This is fate. Whataya say, one more drink?”
“He doesn’t need a potion making decisions for him.” I said.
“Says the man who’s had three drinks before noon.”
“How so?” She turned to The Average Prince. “You’re going to go meet her right? That’s why you’re drinking. So you can FEEL like you’re amazing, and strong, and confident. Why not drink THIS instead, and actually become that person?”
The Average Prince looked into the bright liquid, to the witch, back at me. I know what it’s like, I really do. There have been times, I’m not sure I could have resisted a similar offer. I didn’t have anyone there to tell me I was fucking awesome just the way I was. Luckily for The Average Prince, he had me.
“That’s the only one, right?” I asked.
In one deft motion I snatched the vial from her hand, and downed it in one shot. The knights in the back cheered and beat the table with their gauntlets as I wiped my lips against my sleeve.
“Oh god!” The Average Prince shouted — “You didn’t — who did you think about?”
“No one.” I replied, taking a sip of beer to chase.
“Great,” fumed the witch. “Now you’re perfect for NO ONE.”
I shrugged, tossed a few silver pieces onto the counter, and stood.
“I was just trying to help,” she said. “I want your friend to fall in love.”
“Me too.” I replied. “And he will. On his own.”
“Come on,” I called to The Average Prince. “We have a real fate to encounter.”
“I have to sober up a bit.”
The Average Prince leaned out the window, letting the cool autumn air push bullets of sweat off of his face.
“You’re not drunk, you’re just nervous.”
Truth be told, I was probably a little worse off than he was. I don’t know what was in that potion, but it wasn’t virgin. I felt all warm and gooey inside.
“The witch wasn’t that bad,” I conceded. “Just a little misdirected. Those young romantic types, they always think they’re doing a good thing.”
“You like witches all of a sudden?” The Average Prince asked.
“No!” I replied. “Fuck witches. But no. I’m just saying, I want you to fall in love, too. But you can’t do it that way. You can’t force it.”
It was at this moment The Average Prince saw, at last, our final destination. What looked like it could be a mountain in the distance became clear, revealing stonework walls and a rounded, dome-shaped tower; and at the top, a single window. The scene below was far less majestic: a single bridge connected the tower to the road, lined with seven of the eight Dark Royal Guardians.
In the grass before the castle camped at least two dozen princes, each sporting armor and a shield with their kingdom’s crest, and their weapon of choice. I put the car in park a few yards away as we watched a comely prince rush the bridge with a glistening sword that was almost as long as he was tall. He dashed towards the first Guardian, but while still ten feet away, the Guardian held out his hand and emitted a sharp blast of fire that lifted the prince into the air and propelled him, scorched and rolling, down the incline of the bridge.
The Average Prince sat, mouth agape, crossing his arms over his sweater and jeans. “I can’t — there’s no possible way. I don’t even have a sword, I . . .”
There was this sullen hopelessness in his eyes — I’d seen it before. Once when we were kids, we took The King’s horse out for a secret ride, and he fell off; he wasn’t hurt but the horse kept running. It was a damn good horse — an EXPENSIVE horse — and we were never to touch it. Yet there it went, off into some foreign meadow on the edge of the kingdom. The Average Prince must have chased after it for half a mile, trying with every ounce of strength just to keep it from disappearing into the horizon line, but he couldn’t — and when he turned and looked at me, that look of desperation . . .
I mean, a lot of life is like watching a horse run away, you know? It’s a girl, or a job you really wanted, or maybe just that one bit of happiness that bucks you off and keeps moving without you. You can chase forever, but that doesn’t bring it back does it? It doesn’t bring you any closer.
It’s only recently that I’ve realized the things you really want in life, the things you need — they don’t run away from you. They’re rarely hidden behind castle doors, guarded by moats and dark forces. That’s why I put the car in gear and drove him right past that burning castle, into a meadow that lay behind it. Golden waves of wheat swung dazedly for miles across the untouched plain, but just barely visible in the distance was the subtle stroke of a girl, facing away from us, seated upon a mossy log.
“Go on buddy.” I pushed The Average Prince out of my car. “Don’t worry, just be yourself.”
“But I’m just average,” he insisted again, a refrain I was becoming a little sick of.
“If I hear you say that ONE more FUCKING time, I swear to god . . .”
I opened the glove compartment and tossed his crown to him. The Average Prince nodded, straightening it on his head. He turned and walked slowly into the field, disappearing into the grain, as I put my feet up on the dash and waited.
Nothing on the radio felt right as I nervously twitched in my seat. I sat for about an hour watching the sun crest the tree line, until the whole field shown bright gold; that’s when the glistening top of The Average Prince’s crown became clear again as I saw him walking back towards me. Alone. Just him. I stuck my head out the window and called to him, “HEY! How’d it go?”
The Prince paced slowly to the side of the car, returning a long glance into the field. He shrugged.
“Honestly,” he said,
“as princesses go,
she was pretty average.”
The Prince opened the passenger door and plopped himself down in the seat, looking reminiscently off into the meadow, where the princess sat motionless there, still, just waiting.
“Alright then,” I said. “Where now?”
“Let’s go back home,” he said. “To The Tavern. We always meet people there.”
I nodded. “You know,” I told him, “I mean, I just want you to know, you’re awesome. Don’t forget that.”
The Prince fiddled with his crown a bit, then shut the empty glove compartment, giving it a definitive nod. “Yeah,” he said, “I know.”