Dad points with his sword he won’t let me touch. “See those rocks in the river, Roy?”
The boulders sit in the middle of the kingdom’s river. “The slimy grime balls.”
Dad peers at my hair that resembles a buffalo’s shaggy coat. “Only one grime ball here.” Then he turns my head back toward the rocks. “Jump on one.”
His tasks are so easy. “I’ll jump on them all.”
I skip toward the nearest slimy boulder and land two-footed, steady as a mountain goat, until the rock shakes. “The rock bobbled!” I call out.
“That’s what they do,” Dad says.
“What, what do?”
The rock spins and tosses me into the freezing stream, my face tingling cold as I stand chest-deep in water to the sound of Dad’s laughter.
“Jitter-feet,” he says.
“I’m not jitter-feet.” I punch the water, splashing my face. “The rock spun on me!”
Dad coughs, gathers his breath. “Hover turtles do that.”
“Hover what?” I say, staring at… turtles?
“Hover turtles.” Dad laughs. “A strong breed that can carry a man. Their big webbed feet let them hover in a current.” Dad sits on the bank, twiddling his sword in a deliberately tantalizing way.
“A future king should have heard of these,” I say.
Dad coughs. “A future king is not shown them until he needs them.”
Those stupid coughs. “Stop coughing, you’re not even sick.”
“But you will be the future king.”
Forget the future. “Why are the turtles hovering?” I hold my hand out, thinking of touching one’s scaly shell.
“They hover until an unsuspecting fish swims by, then they chomp on his head.”
I zip my hand back to my chest. “Are they dangerous?”
Dad shrugs. “Just don’t stick a toe under their gobs or it might go missing.” Dad leans back into the pebbled bank. “Climb on and try again. When he rolls, hop to the next one, then the next and so on. It will teach you balance, poise, alertness, and another important—”
“I don’t want alertness, I want a sword!” I say and punch the water again.
“Annd, they will teach you another important lesson.”
Dad flicks his sword toward them. “Climb one. You’ll see.”
Princes shouldn’t have to see, they should be informed by a warm fire. My hands shake with cold anger as I grab the turtle’s scaly shell. He flings his head out, splashing water and snapping his jaws at me.
I whip my hand back. “You said these things are harmless.”
“They are with a king’s touch,” Dad says sitting cozy on the bank, miles from his chomping jaws.
“I ain’t touching it,” I say stepping out of the river, “I’m treading on it.” And from the bank I step to the turtle’s back again.
He bobbles but before he can roll I skip to the next turtle. “Mastered them!”
He rolls, sending me to the pebbly stream bed. I resurface with my head aching from cold, as Dad’s mocking laughter rolls off my back.
“Damn it!” I punch the water and it explodes on my face.
Dad stares at me like a king facing a village rebellion. “Stop punching the water.”
“I… I didn’t. It was a gust of wind!”
“Just saw you,” Dad says.
“So you see the other lesson the turtles will teach you, Roy?”
“How to swim? I can already do that.”
A stray stick drifts toward me, which I grab and crack it over the turtle’s back.
“Stop whacking turtles,” Dad says.
Need a quick, furtive lie. “Didn’t. A branch fell from a tree.”
Dad sighs, shaking his head. “Just saw you grab the stick and hit it.”
I toss the stick and fold my arms. “So what’s the lesson?”
“Touch the turtle and find out.”
I look at the turtle, he sees my angry expression and repeats one in kind. “He’s as angry as me. He will bite.”
“Like a kingdom’s subjects.” Dad coughs, and a fleck of red appears on his lips. “A kingdom that will soon be yours.”
Truth is, I’d rather Dad’s cough disappear than receive a kingdom. “Show me how to calm a turtle.”
Dad flips his sword around, gazing at it. “Been calming turtles and the kingdom’s subjects all my life, why I never need to use my sword.” Then he faces me with the teaching expression again. “And a king who masters his emotions is stronger than a king who masters his sword.”
I face the angry snapping-mouthed turtle, calm my breathing, relax my hands, and glide my fingers down his slimy, jagged scales. He nudges his head out of the water. Two eyes blink above a tiny horn on his scaly nose and his large square mouth.
I gently rub his leathery wet head, and the turtle begins falling to sleep.
Dad steps onto the turtle’s back and hands me the sword.
Clint Lowe will never be a king of a kingdom, but he has three other stories published in EDF, and a sci-fi short set in the 1940s due out in March with Andromeda Spaceways.