Cast of Wonders 531: Crown Prince
by Melissa Mead
Behind a gauze screen, Crown Prince Manu slumps in his cushions. He’s grateful for the screen, hiding his lapse from Father’s petitioners. It takes so much energy to maintain his Stupid Body in anything like a posture of alertness. The more effort he puts forth, the more it writhes about. The law says that he, the Only Royal Son, must be present at all official proceedings, but behind the screen no one can see him if he chooses to save his energy for listening. He always listens. And remembers.
A stranger enters the room and bows before his father the Emperor. The prince startles, limbs flailing.
The stranger is a woman. A foreign woman, with her hair hanging loose and a wool vest over her dress. An Ambassador’s Belt, with its three gold discs, hangs loose in a way that suggest she’s never worn one before. A woman of some status, then, if the guards of the Imperial Sanctum have let her into the Imperial Presence. But not a regular diplomat, if the court loaned her this belt to wear.
The woman’s wooden-soled shoes clack against the polished floor. Everyone stares. The few women in the palace wear cloth-soled slippers that whisper over the satiny wood. The Emperor frowns, but doesn’t reprimand the visitor. She must be even more important than Manu had thought.
“Greetings, Emperor of the River Lands,” she says. “I’m Sayan Ara Dava of the Northern Hills, come in response to your request.”
“Sayan Dava, welcome. Is all well in my brother’s court?”
“For now. But I’d like to meet my pupil, if I may.”
His father the Emperor turns toward the screen. “Royal Son, this woman has come to teach you the ways of our neighbor to the North. Will you meet with her?”
Not for the first time, the Crown Prince thanks the gods for giving him a father who asks him what he does or doesn’t wish. And who can understand at least some of what he says. He understands the sound of assent Manu makes, and gestures that today’s General Audience is over. Once they have some privacy, he pulls the curtain aside. The woman looks younger than Manu had thought, now that the gauze isn’t blurring her features.
Sayan Dava looks at him, not off to one side or down at the floor as so many do. “Crown Prince,” she says, with a bow that shows exactly the right level of respect for his station. Is she actually looking past the Stupid Body? His heart speeds up in excitement, and the Stupid Body shames him: limbs flailing, a trickle of drool sliding from his mouth. She doesn’t react.
The Emperor nods. “Sayan Dava, this is Crown Prince Manu, my only son. My brother would claim that he is unfit to rule after my death. My son and I both know better, but have been hard pressed to prove this to our subjects.”
“Your royal brother has made certain that all are aware of the Crown Prince’s…difficulties, Excellency. I’ve brought a gift that may help His Highness demonstrate his worth.”
She holds up a gold circlet with a clear jewel the size of a quail’s egg in the center, and turns to Manu. “If I may, Your Highness?
She understands his assent, and places the circlet on his head. Everything looks brighter. It takes a moment to realize that the light is coming from the gem on his forehead.
“Excellent! Now, if you could narrow your focus, Highness. Perhaps on that chair over there? Near His Excellency’s throne.”
That chair over there. The outsider can’t possibly know that the chair was meant for him, to sit at his father’s side and learn to rule. They tried to sit him in it once, when he was small. He still remembers sliding off the velvet cushion and hitting the floor.
He faces the chair and thinks about it, its shape, those slippery purple velvet cushions, and how very much he wants this to work. He puts all his effort into holding his head still. That makes the Stupid Body even more uncontrollable. He takes a deep breath, tries to relax…
A beam of light shoots from the jewel and touches the back of the chair. The prince startles and topples sideways. His father hurries to help him upright. There’s a new look of wonder on the Emperor’s face. And hope. Even Sayan Dava looks surprised.
“Most people take at least a few tries to learn that. More for those not of the Hills. Your royal brother may think what he likes, Excellency, but he’s clearly mistaken about your son’s mental capacity.”
From that moment, Sayan Dava becomes the prince’s tutor. She designs a printed scroll covered with useful words and images, and helps him master his control over the coronet until he can point his way through a conversation. The scroll of basic nouns and verbs becomes a set, with topics ranging from a choice of breakfast foods to code numbers for the laws most commonly invoked at judgment sessions.
“You’d think the fact that you can read would make it clear to your royal uncle that you’re intelligent.” For once, she’s not looking straight at him. He wonders if she underestimated him too, at first.
He’d like to say “My uncle’s never bothered to notice,” He points to the image of a stubborn-faced donkey instead. She laughs, but there’s tension in her laugh. She’s seemed preoccupied lately. Manu points out a question.
“It’s nothing! Nothing, Your Highness. I think I’m just homesick for the Hills. Perhaps I should go home soon. For a visit.”
Prince Manu doesn’t like to think of returning to the long, dull days before she came, even temporarily. Others of the court will use the basic scroll to ask him questions now, and a few even smile and wish him good morning, but no one but his ever-busy father will discuss the Golden Chronicles with him, or ask what he thinks about a proposal to drain a marsh for more cropland.
If he wants to be seen as a wise ruler, though, he can’t cling to his tutor like a child to its mother. He knows this, even while he wrestles with the urge to beg her not to go.
Before she can, the Hills come to her.
At least, their messengers do. Manu picks them out from the line of petitioners at once. He’s learned to recognize their fleece-lined vests. He expects Sayan Dava will be pleased to see someone from her homeland, especially given the look of disturbingly happy recognition on one young man’s face when he spots her at the back of the audience room. Instead, her face goes pale. She shakes her head NO.
The young man frowns in puzzlement.
Now the young man is scowling. His hand goes to his pocket. A bit of rope peeks from it, and a glint of steel.
No one else sees.
The other Hill messengers slip from the line and circle back to Sayan Dava, unnoticed. One covers her mouth.
The messenger grips the steel. He’s mere feet from the Emperor.
There’s no time to try to make himself understood. Crown Prince Manu simply lets out the loudest wailing, incoherent howl the Stupid Body can produce.
It works. Everyone turns toward him. The nearest attendant rips the curtain aside. And the attacker runs, not toward the Emperor, but toward HIM. Prince Manu shines the coronet’s brightest, most blinding beam into the man’s eyes. He drops the knife.
The Stupid Body flails and moans, but inside Manu exults as guards take the would-be assassin away. Then he sees Sayan Dava running after them, and his heart breaks.
“Please, don’t hurt him! The knife was just to cut the rope, Excellency! I swear! Don’t hurt him!”
Not assassin, Sayan Dava insists later, through tears. The plan was never to kill anyone, merely to kidnap the Crown Prince and hold him for ransom. She’d convinced herself that it would do him no harm, since everyone knew he had no wits to understand what was going on around him anyway.
The look Manu gives her then says more than a thousand scrolls. Now she won’t look at him. She crumples to the floor and sobs.
The young man’s sentenced to death. Manu’s tempted to ask to watch.
Instead, he asks the Emperor his father to grant a pardon. Not for the grateful look that Sayan Dava, awaiting her own traitor’s brand, gives him when it’s granted. For the shocked, then thoughtful, look on the young man’s face. He lives because Manu spoke up. He knows it. Sayan Dava knows it. Soon everyone in the Hill kingdoms, even his uncle, will know. He’s the Crown Prince, with a prince’s authority and the power of mercy in his hand. The act speaks louder than any sound the Stupid Body could produce.
And now all the kingdom will listen. And remember.
In recent decades, our understanding of disability has shifted from a medical model of disability to a social one. Scope, the UK’s disability equality charity, describes the social model of disability as follows: The social model of disability is a way of viewing the world, developed by disabled people. This model says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. Barriers can be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets. Or they can be caused by people’s attitudes to difference, like assuming disabled people can’t do certain things. The social model helps us recognise barriers that make life harder for disabled people. Removing these barriers creates equality and offers disabled people more independence, choice and control. They also point out that Not everyone uses the social model and that’s ok. How anyone chooses to talk about their impairment is up to them.
In this piece, we so much of the author’s passion for breaking those social barriers down. In the character of Manu, she shows us someone who is overlooked and underestimated. An intelligent and kind-hearted young man, frustrated by the circumstances forced on him by society. But, it’s also worth looking deeper. Manu is supported by his father and privileged by his position, far luckier than many others with his impairment would be. We also see how he refers to his body and physical limitations very negatively: the stupid body, that won’t do what he needs, what others can do, that holds him back from being seen for who he is. However, at the end of this story, Manu shows that he does have the agency to act, to steer events in the way he needs, using his physical voice and physical body. The communication tools he’s been using to become recognised by others aren’t the solution to this crisis at all – in the end, it’s just him and his body. And that’s enough. Accessibility isn’t just about giving people access to support tools to engage more fully with society – it’s also about re-shaping society such that all people are included, regardless of their circumstances, with as much or as little extra support as they want or need. Perhaps, as Manu grows into his position and re-shapes his world, his relationship with his physical self might also change as well.
Melissa Mead passed away in February 2022, and sadly never had the opportunity to learn how much the Cast of Wonders team loved this story of hers. We thank her family for allowing us to share it with you.
About the Author
Melissa Mead lived in Upstate NY and had more than 80 publications in magazines and anthologies, plus one novel, Between Worlds (2005). She had cerebral palsy, and was a dedicated advocate for the rights of the disabled. She worked for a time at Clover Patch in New York, a summer camp for individuals with disabilities. She later attended SUNY Albany, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She was a founding member of the Carpe Libris writing group, and a familiar figure at conventions.
About the Narrator
Jordan Kurella is a trans and disabled author who has lived all over the world (including Moscow and Manhattan). In his past lives, he was a photographer, radio DJ, and social worker. His fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award, long listed for the British Science Fantasy Award, and taught at Iowa State University. He is decisive, but couldn’t decide in cat vs dog, so has both.