What was it with Elvish restaurants anyway? They all had the same misty gray paintings of the West, the same swoopy arches, the same floaty music with girls wailing in maudlin voices. The wait-staff always looked the same too: girls with long blue hair and downcast eyes, bringing pots of tea with quiet whispers. “Excuse me.” “Pardon me.” “Something to drink?”
Bruce Jackman looked up and realized the waiter was standing at his table, a notepad in hand. He was growing a little blue goatee, and his thick hair was gelled up in tousled blue spikes.
“Something to drink, sir?”
“Oh, I’m waiting for someone.”
“Something to drink while you wait?”
“Alright, yes. Meril tea, please. For two.” Bruce pointed to the empty chair across the table.
He watched the waiter trail back to the kitchen. Five foot eight or thereabouts; one hundred and sixty-five pounds. He must’ve worked out a lot with arms like that, but his posture was sloppy, unawares. Walked on his heels and breathed from his shoulders.
The door opened in a jangle of bamboo windchimes. Bruce looked over sharply. Pudgy business men in pleated slacks and rolled-up sleeves. Please seat them somewhere far away. He could already imagine their dismal semblance of a conversation. “You should try this place, on the Silvenwood Reservation—now that’s authentic…” “…She was nagging me to go to his fifth-grade magic fair…” “…How’d you get yourself out of the doghouse after that?”
Bruce checked his watch. Five after. Where was he?
* * *
“You’re going to hate this.”
Quilwen had straightened a sheaf of papers on his desk, not quite meeting Bruce’s eye. He looked different without his royal-advisor robes: smaller, less pale, yet somehow more weary. Quilwen was only a couple of years older than Bruce, so he was what? Sixty-five? Sixty-six?
“You want me to train Tristan,” Bruce said. He took a sip of coffee to show his indifference.
Quilwen watched him carefully. “I was just as surprised myself. I’ve had three more wizards confirm the boy’s claim just in case. Certainly Greenfeast wouldn’t have any reason to lie—not after all the time he’s spent on Tamburlaine. It’s funny, isn’t it? A hundred and fifty years of nothing, and now two potential Chosen Ones born only three years apart.”
“It’s funny? Yeah, I’m falling out of my chair it’s so funny.”
“Well, I don’t think any of us have been exactly pleased with the way Justin’s turned out.”
“No,” Bruce said. It was like Quilwen to fall back on something no one could argue with—even if it was only mildly related.
“Have you met Tristan yet?”
“I’ve read the interviews.” Bruce took another sip of coffee. “He seems like an idiot.”
“He’s—unspoiled. Innocent. Wasn’t that part of what you had against Justin? The filthy rich parents and the interfering tutors?”
“So now I get the country bumpkin?”
Quilwen frowned. “I came to you first because I thought you were the best man for the job. Between you and me, I think we’d have a very different Chosen One today if you’d had charge of Justin’s training. I want to get it right this time, Bruce. There was a one-in-a-million chance that we’d see another Chosen One in our lifetime, and somehow we got it.”
Bruce looked at his old friend. Always wheedling—getting you to feel it was you, really, who wanted what he wanted you to want. He’d known Quilwen for over forty years and worked with him for almost as long. A whole career. Once upon a time Bruce had been a young officer fresh from the military academy; later a decorated war hero; an intelligence agent learning year by year the way his country really worked; a handler for the next generation of covert operatives; a black-ops hitman even, when Quilwen needed it.
“Cindy and I were talking with our financial advisor again.”
Quilwen looked innocent. “How’s it been for her, shifting down to part time?”
“Good. She watches Debbie’s kids a couple days a week now.” Bruce cleared his throat. “You know we’re both still planning to retire in the next few years?”
“Exactly!” Quilwen almost pounced. “I know you, Bruce. I know you’ll go out with a bang. And I think Tristan could be just perfect for you. Just think! A new Chosen One. A new promise to Euthanasia. A few years of training—tactics and politics, a little history—and you can sit back knowing you’ve done your best by your country.”
Bruce shook the dregs in his coffee cup and sighed. “I’ll have to talk to Cindy about it.”
“Thank you, Bruce.”
“If I take on the kid, though, I don’t want any more crap meetings with the PSO nodding off at the head of the table. And no more of this running around at night assassinating rabble-rousers. I’m getting too old for theatrics.”
“Of course, Bruce.” Quilwen smiled. “Of course.”
* * *
The bamboo windchimes jangled again. There he was. About time. Tristan Shandy. He was short for a half-Elf but well proportioned, muscled from outdoor life, his hair a dirty blueberry blond. He took off his aviator sunglasses, revealing the startling blue eyes and eyebrows Bruce remembered from the ET spellshoot. Tristan hooked the sunglasses on the collar of his medieval-style shirt then apparently thought better of it and tried to pull them away, except they got caught on the leather laces at the shirt neck. He pulled more urgently at the glasses and finally untangled them, slipping them into his jerkin pocket and stealing a glance around the restaurant to see if anyone had noticed. An honest-to-goodness leather jerkin. Where had he found that? Old Knavey?
Bruce stood up and waved him over. The kid didn’t see him at first, but then he gave an eager smile and waved back. He walked quickly, a light step.
“Mr. Jackman?” Tristan shook his hand, squeezing it uncomfortably. “Oh my gosh! It’s, like, such an honor to meet you! I’ve heard all the stories—like, your campaigns in the Diphtherian Peninsula! I mean—wow!”
“Call me Bruce.” He sat down. “D’you want tea, kid?”
“Oh, yes please!” Tristan reached across for the teapot, but Bruce was already pouring out. The kid sat up straighter. “Thanks.”
“So. Tell me a bit about yourself.”
“Sure. Whew. Like, where do I even start?”
Bruce had put on a pair of reading glasses, and he looked at Tristan over the frames. He flipped the menu open. “Surprise me.”
“Well, I’m actually quite skilled with bows and knives already. Like, back in Carvadull, I used to hunt deer and rabbits—even boar sometimes. When harvest was bad, or like, for the festivals. We had a sword, too, back from the wars, and I’d like practice with my da—my foster dad.”
Bruce caught the raw note in the kid’s voice, the quick glance down at his hands. “It must be hard for you, losing the people you loved—and now all of this.”
Tristan gave a half smile. “I’m just so glad to be alive. And like, the whole Chosen One thing—it’s so overwhelming.”
Bruce realized they were repeating the same stupid questions and clichés from the interviews. Lucky the waiter interrupted them. He set a basket of lembas bread on the table and pulled the notepad from his apron.
“I’ll have the E12,” Bruce pointed at the menu, “with beef.”
“They have meat dishes?” Tristan asked, shocked, looking at the menu for the first time.
“You can’t believe everything the traveling peddlers tell you, kid.”
“Perhaps you need another minute?”
“He hasn’t eaten here before. What would you recommend?”
The waiter leaned over Tristan. “The aes na cordof is a favorite.”
“Sure. That looks great.”
“And hot salph to start,” Bruce said, “for both of us.”
Bruce unwrapped the mallorn leaf from the lembas and pushed the basket toward the kid. “So, do you like it—that you might be the Chosen One?”
“Like it?” Tristan laughed. “It was, like, every kid’s dream in Carvadull, to be the Chosen One.”
“But what you actually do day to day? Do you enjoy it?”
The kid frowned. “I’ve like, hardly even started. Like, I underwent the wizards’ tests, but so far I’ve mostly just talked to people—like Quilwen, and the palace keeper. The newspapers.”
“Most of life is just talking to people, kid. At least for important people.” Bruce watched Tristan nod attentively. He wondered how much actually sunk in behind those pretty blue eyebrows. “Did you want to stay on the farm? Take over from your dad some day?”
Tristan looked surprised. Guess he didn’t get that question much nowadays. “Not really. I mean, kind of. Like, I always wanted to see the world—like, have an adventure—but I think I always thought I’d end up back in Carvadull.” The kid frowned again. “I’m not, like, sure what this has to do with anything, though.”
“What’s ‘anything’? To do with what?”
The kid flustered. “Like, my training. Being the Chosen One. The prophecy. Saving the world.”
“I’m just curious, kid. You and me are stuck together for a long time now. So. What did you want to do before all this happened?”
Tristan shrugged. “I don’t see how that matters anymore. Like, for me it’s destiny.”
Bruce raised his eyebrows. “Clearly you haven’t met Justin.”
“Justin Tamburlaine?” Tristan leaned forward. “No—I wish. Like, everyone wants to meet the Chosen One.”
“Well, it’s been his destiny since before he could crawl, and it’s done exactly jack-diddly for him.”
The waiter came back with the soup, and for a minute they ate in silence. That is, Bruce ate in silence, and the kid sang the praises of the food. Of course he loved Elvish food. Bruce just watched him.
Well, Quilwen was right: He was nothing like Justin. It was almost unthinkable, but somehow he was even worse. He could’ve been fine if he were one thing or another, but Bruce wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or cry at the way Tristan swung from helpless orphan to savior of the world—from naive backwoodsman to cosmopolitan Chosen One. And he was as impressionable as clay. Really, the way he parroted back all that journalistic crap about destiny and being the Chosen One! For all anyone knew the prophecy wasn’t about either of them. A pretty pair of Chosen Ones. Euthanasia really was going to the dogs. And I’m the lucky guy who gets to try to make something of you, kid. I love you too, Quilwen.
“Well, kid,” Bruce interrupted Tristan’s running food review, “you’re in for that adventure you always wanted, whether you’re ready for it or not. But training as the Chosen One isn’t just ancient prophecies and swordplay. You’re about to become a household name, and that means you attend important parties and eat expensive lunches. It means meeting all the people in high places and thinking about how to save the world, and who’s going to actually help you do that. That’s what I’m asking. What do you want to do for Euthanasia? Back in Carvadull, when all of this was just some pipedream you talked about with your friends, what did you want to do?”
Tristan sat wide-eyed through Bruce’s speech, but now for the first time he looked almost shy. “I hadn’t known before the wizards’ tests, like what tribe my mom was from. I always used to tell Perry and Meregrin—my two best friends growing up—I told them I’d, like, visit one of the Elvish reservations some day. The Greyhaven Reservation is closest to Carvadull, but now I know I’d like to see the Silvenwood someday.”
Bruce decided this wasn’t the time to tell the kid that the only part of the reservation that wasn’t in bad repair was the Silvenwood Casino, and even that might not be exactly what he was expecting. “That’s good. That’s a start. What else?”
“Is there really a Faerie Forest in the Seven Faerie Kingdoms? I’ve never met a fairy before. Can normal people travel to Faerie?”
“Oh,” Bruce hesitated. “They might not be your type of fairies, kid. But I mean, all God’s children.”
Their food finally came, and Bruce tossed his noodles in the sauce. He looked blankly across the restaurant; a pair of Elvish women in their late thirties sat in the corner booth and chatted back and forth in easy Quinwa.
“So what’s this I heard about you climbing the princess’s balcony?”
Tristan set down his fork with a look of rapture. “I’d always heard the princess was beautiful, but like—! She’s even more beautiful than I could’ve imagined. I just couldn’t, like, help myself! She must get that a lot, though; she, like, didn’t even give me a chance.”
Bruce almost smiled. He could just imagine it. Who d’you think you are? Get off my balcony! Does this look like your balcony? Guards! Guards! “Princess Latrina—she’s a pretty serious woman.”
“Is it, like, still true that you have to be nobility to—or, like, as the Chosen One could I—you know, ever date the princess?”
Bruce just looked at Tristan. “You have to be nobility to marry into the royal family, yes. But Euthanasia’s a representational aristocracy, so anyone in office is potentially eligible.”
“So, with the elections coming up, and like, as the Chosen One, I might have the platform I need to become, like, an earl? Like, Lord Tristan Shandy?” He laughed a little self-consciously.
“There’s a lot more to it than that, kid. But, yeah, politics and law will be a big part of your training.”
“Cause if I could ever—” Tristan’s blue eyes looked far away.
“You’ll be seeing a lot more of each other now that you training as the Chosen One, but you should know, kid, the princess has a mind of her own. She’s known Justin Tamburlaine since they were in diapers, and it’s not like they’re best friends now.”
Tristan looked thoughtful at that, and Bruce was finally able to eat in silence for a few minutes. Of course the kid had a couple of other questions about the aristocracy and even the oracle prophecy—it was appalling how little he knew. You’d think the kid would’ve brushed up more on his ancient lore since learning that he might be the Chosen One. Bruce asked for the check as early as possible and got a to-go box—Cindy loved the E12 here.
“Here you are, sir,” the waiter said, coming back with change and a couple of prophecy cookies.
“Thanks a lot.” Bruce tossed one of the cookies across the table to Tristan.
“I haven’t had one of these in ages!” The kid popped open the plastic wrapper. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I got my real prophecy?”
Bruce slipped on his reading glasses and unfolded the scrap of paper inside his cookie. “Oh, I got this one last time. ‘The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches, and he will have power the Dark Lord knows not.’”
“Mine says, ‘The Dragon shall be Reborn, and he shall break the world again.’”
In bed, Bruce added silently. He wondered if the kid knew that game. Probably not. Probably wouldn’t like it, having a laugh at the ancient prophecies. The best had been when Cindy’d gotten that One Ring one: One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them—in bed.
“Okay,” Bruce said, throwing the prophecy on his dirty plate and stuffing the check in his pocket. He was going to make sure this one went on the palace tab. He grunted as he hoisted himself out of his seat—his back was still a little sore from that assassination.
“Come on, kid. Has anyone shown you around the military training grounds yet?”
“Like, the training grounds?” Tristan gasped. “All right! I’ve been waiting for this!”
“Well then, Tristan Shandy,” and Bruce at least tried to make it sound official, “it’s time to start your training as the Chosen One.”
TRISTAN “EXCITED” AND “FEELING BLESSED”: CHOSEN ONE TELLS ALL ABOUT HIS TRAINING!
Tristan Shandy began his training as Chosen One this week with living legend, Bruce Jackman.
“It’s like a dream come true,” the former farmer smiled. “It’s more than I could’ve possibly imagined.”
His rigorous training includes everything from spells to swordplay to sonnets. “Now that I’m in the palace, I’ve got to be like a whole new person.”
“Bruce can be pretty harsh, but he’s also the best,” a former student of Bruce’s commented. “Tristan’s a hard worker, but he’s starting from way behind.”
New or not, he’s capturing the hearts of the kingdom’s youth. A fan club was recently spotted near the royal training grounds with banners reading “Team Tristan” and “Mr. Shandy, Man Candy.”
“Most days he practices shirtless,” a female observer admitted. “They might not say it, but all my friends are out there too.”
So how does he deal with all this pressure?
“Well, the Chosen One is for the people,” he laughs. “But I’ve got to stay focused. Like, this is harder than it looks!”
Team Tamburlaine has declined to comment.