The Ghost Prince
by Amaal Fawzi (Lebanon)
Audio: "The Ghost Prince," read by Amaal Fawzi
The streets of Bardhyl were safest early on a Dharday morning.
Air seemed to crawl past, sluggish with the snores of hungover soldiers and working women stirring in their mead pots. There were no gangs or thieves or bandits when they lay fast asleep in hay bales or cheap inn rooms. In the morning after end-of-week Fajday celebrations, a man's safety was ensured by a light foot on the flagstones jewelled with sweat from brawls the night before. They sparkled in the purple dawn, and it was then that the men emerged with their washing baskets.
They gathered in silence at the city fountains before the women rose. Shuttered doors clicked, glass charms dripping from gables chimed over the pumping of well water, and it reeked—horse dung, damp wood, and the leftovers of yesterday’s Fajday madness.
On the leftmost side of Castle Street's fountain, a boy with a felt cap pulled low over his eyes stood with his breeches in one hand and a laundry stick in the other. As unassumingly as possible, he listened in on the washerman chatter floating over the roofs of Castle Street and settling amongst the wrinkles of their furs as they scrubbed, rinsed, beat, and wrung. Naked laundry lines shivered impatiently in the breeze when the weather refused to thaw. Though spring was seeping into Ulfa, the chill of winter kept its claws tight on their lands.
A man with a swivel eye, Harald, had ignited the gossip a minute earlier. Fortunately, the boy hadn't been pulled in yet. They didn’t recognise him. He was sixteen, shy and awkward, still a little uncomfortable in his own skin.
“Did’ja hear?" Swivel-Eye had grinned. "The Empress is with child!”
“Shut up, Harald. You’re all talk," came the chubby one standing next to the boy, Leif.
“It’s more likely she’s put on a few. The best of us do.”
“No. Just you, pig.” That was Nikolaj, fiery and cruel and wearing a navy hood.
“They’re saying it’s illegitimate.” The boy didn't recognise this voice.
Another unfamiliar one replied, “Never. Have yeh seen how obsessed she is with that young husband of hers?”
“I’ve seen how obsessed she is with that little nephew of hers.”
“Nikolaj!” Leif gasped.
“It’s the truth!”
“How can you say that? She raised the poor thing like he was her own. Celestes know she’s doin’ the right thing after the tragedy.”
Nikolaj harrumphed. "It may’ve been a tragedy, but I still don’t see how a boy could ever remedy the loss of the heir to the throne. It’s been fishy from the start.”
Harald piped up, “You’re just grumpy because your wife finished the mead before you could get to it last night.”
“Damn right I am. I hate Fajday and I hate Dharday and I wish this week would end so my stinking wife can go back to her hole in the settlements.”
The boy let out a thunderous sneeze before he was able to stifle it. As if in slow motion, every eye turned to him—a stranger loitering at their fountain. His mouth went dry. Dread hardened the lining of his stomach.
He had come here to wash his breeches and eavesdrop, not to talk.
“What do you say, boy?” Harald asked. He peered down his nose grotesquely. “Is the Empress as they say she is?”
The boy gulped. “May the Celestes bless her with the fruit of an heir.” It seemed to be the right answer because Harald snorted and went back to his washing.
“What’s your name?” Leif inquired with interest. “Never seen you at this fountain before.”
Yes you have, the boy wanted to say. I've just been too quiet for you to notice me. I come here every four moons and listen to you complain about children and sore feet and spinning wheels and peace.
Instead, he said, “My name is Weylyn. I’m travelling to Ceolsige from Nordhyl.” Two round, dark brown eyes studied the fountain that gleamed like a golden wreath. The lies fell off his tongue like a second language. “I leave the city tomorrow.”
“You hear that, lads?” Swivel-Eye boomed, addressing the rest of the men. “We’ve got a Norder among us!”
“Will you shut your mouth, Harald?”
“I ain’t ever trusted a Norder. Especially not the travelling type.”
“He’s only a child.”
“Oh yeah? And what exactly is a boy child doing travelling from the northern city?”
“There are Norders everywhere in Bardhyl, just as there are Barders everywhere in Nordhyl,” Leif snapped, slapping his fist on the surface of the water. “We are all one Ulfa, you brutes.”
“As much as we hate to talk politics on a Dharday morning,” said Leif, eyeing the company pointedly, “I too can’t help but wonder what business a young boy like you has in Ceolsige.”
“He’s going to Ceolsige?” Nikolaj yelled, and was routinely shushed at by the others.
“We have had peace with the Farren for nearly fifty years now, in case you’d forgotten, Nik!”
“Peace with serpents ain’t peace and you know it.”
“Stop," said an older man called Yona who hadn't spoken yet. "You’re not makin’ the poor boy feel any better.”
“How better can anyone make him feel?" Harald had swollen up like an angry bird. "He’s going to Farren lands!”
Yona reprimanded, “I think you should be used to it by now. After fifty years, marriages between Ulfans and Farreners have become a regular occurrence. It strengthens the peace. Which is precarious at best.”
Harald snorted again and pounded his stick against a jacket of sheep hide. “Right, Yona. And I’m betrothed to a Sylvaine.”
The boy’s lips trembled and his throat squeaked when he opened his mouth. “I am visiting my mother in Ceolsige, not getting married.” He prayed to the Celestes that the lie would satisfy them.
Every single man at the fountain craned his neck to ogle in disbelief. The boy's skin flushed from dark olive to maroon.
“Are you sure it’s safe for a young boy to be travelling such a great distance alone?” Leif questioned. He sounded placid but his hands curled around his linens in an iron vice. "You do know it's six days on foot from Bardhyl to Ceolsige."
“Of course it isn’t safe!” Harald spluttered. “Quit shushing me! This boy is looking to get himself killed. Or worse!”
“They say Isolde bandits hide on the road to Farren and snatch up unsuspecting boys,” Nikolaj said. Foggy silence settled instantaneously at the mention of the word Isolde. Nikolaj’s eyes glimmered in a way that made the boy’s chest twist. “Isolders are nothing like Ulfans. Even Farreners—Celestes curse them—are more civilised. Isolders keep their men in chains and auction them off like slaves. They trade little ones for a bag of tobacco and oranges, and that’s if they're feeling generous.” He stuck his face closer to the boy’s, grinning. “If they speak, the women cut out their tongues.”
"Enough with your washerman tales!” But Leif’s tone was dubious. “Son—what did you say your name was?”
“Weylyn.” The boy’s voice scraped like sandpaper.
“Nice name. The Empress’s nephew is called Weylyn." Leif scratched his beard. "Anyway, my friends and I are just trying to say that you should let your mother know that she should come to you, in Ulfa lands, not the other way round. Alright, my boy?”
Weylyn nodded, meek and embarrassed.
He knew it would be many moons before he returned to this washing fountain.
Amaal Fawzi, 17, likes to think of herself as a citizen of the world: she was born in Egypt, raised in Lebanon, and is Iraqi-British. Her favorite things to do are writing, creating, and exploring the real world—or even better, a world of her own making. “The Ghost Prince’” is one of these escapes, and she loves becoming a part of her characters’ lives.
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2/3/23, 12:21 AM
Reading this story was realistic and relatble
2/2/23, 11:27 AM
"I collected little glimpses of the north to hoard away for the future, like treasure" is such a beautiful line!
2/2/23, 11:23 AM
What a fascinating piece!
2/2/23, 5:21 AM
One of my favorite pieces ever published on Write the World!
2/2/23, 4:41 AM
Well done Everett on this powerful piece. I hope you continue to write!
2/2/23, 4:40 AM
Well done Genevieve - what a beautiful and evocative piece of writing!
1/17/23, 2:15 AM
This is so beautiful
1/16/23, 3:52 PM
I love all of it. It’s so real and so many feelings are there.
1/5/23, 6:02 PM
This is amazing. Do not ever stop. That is really inspirational, the whole writing piece made me want to help.
1/3/23, 7:19 PM
This article was absolutely amazing! I am so thankful to live in a country where periods and sex are fairly normalized, but I will never forget to educate myself about the lack of education others have. It pains me to know that in countries like India, girls are still put down about what they where and how they act. It was very brave of you to share your voice, and I commend you endlessly for that.
12/8/22, 7:25 PM
I really love this! I, myself, am not black, but I know of a lot of good black people. Sadly, I will admit, at one time, I used to think of a black community filled with gangs and poverty. But I know now how perfectly capable it is to live together if only we got rid of the stereotype that is so, so wrong. I do hope you accomplish this. This will great for our country.
Sorry but can't share the name
12/7/22, 10:40 AM
Basically I don't know how to react.
All the conservatives should be reading this.........