His Royal Highness

I’ve been hopeful about Ryan, though. A simple creature, he would be good for me. He could introduce me to the world of honky-tonk. We could watch Armageddon and I could cry on his shoulder when Bruce Willis sacrifices himself. Well, I could have…before he saw my saggy eggplant underwear.

I’m still despairing over the morning’s turn of events when I join Cal for an early dinner. We have a standing date every Wednesday. Like clockwork, I wrap up my shift, replace my gown with street clothes, and head back toward his penthouse, which overlooks the theme park. Yes, he lives inside Elena’s Castle. Lucky jerk.

In short, Charles Knightley, AKA “Cal”, is the intrepid brain behind the Knightley Company. He is to Fairytale Kingdom as Elon Musk is to Tesla. Without him, none of us would be here.

He’s a legend around these parts, and not many people have much interaction with him, especially if not on an executive team. But, for the last eight years, Cal has been my mentor, and more than that, a friend. It might seem like an odd pairing considering he’s nearly 60 years my senior, but it works.

I take the spiral staircase past the second-floor restaurant until I reach the third-floor elevator. I scan my employee ID and step inside. The doors sweep closed behind me and up I go.

Cal’s penthouse is concocted from pure fantasy. Ornate, opulent, over the top, and filled with everything the king of the Knightley Company needs to run his kingdom, it’s never quiet. Even now, when I step off the elevator into his foyer, I hear voices filtering down from the living room. He uses the main part of the penthouse to run day-to-day operations. There are always executives and managers running in and out.

The walls of the long, wide foyer are covered in renderings and early architectural blueprints of the park. There are framed chicken-scratch notes of would-be roller coasters and hastily drawn character concepts that all eventually came to life in one way or another. These little pieces of Fairytale Kingdom’s past would sell at auction for millions of dollars, and yet, here they hang, right at my fingertips.

Cal’s booming voice carries to where I stand and I smile and move along, finally spotting him at the large bank of windows that face directly down Castle Drive—his usual spot. It’s a view few in the world have been lucky enough to see.

I nod to the other people in the room—all of whom I know by face, if not by name—and walk over to Cal. He tips his head in greeting and continues his discussion with the Head of Food and Beverage. I know better than to interrupt while he’s putting out a fire. Instead, I glance out the window and take in the park. In the area around Elena’s Castle, everything is designed to look like a medieval French village transformed in colorful pastel hues. Red cobblestone paths lead past small cottages housing gift shops. A smithery churns out toy swords. An apothecary shop sells fruit juice disguised as various tinctures and potions. Restaurants fill to capacity while barmaids and singers spill out onto the street. The manicured lawns are green and dotted with topiaries carefully carved into lifelike knights and their steeds. The street itself is lined with black lanterns and hanging planters. Vendors sell hot dogs and balloons and ice cream and handheld bubble machines. Though the sounds don’t carry, I can imagine the hum of the park. Even this late in the evening, Fairytale Kingdom is alive, and every square inch seems to be filled by guests. From where I stand, they look like ants.

Cal’s hand hits my shoulder and I glance back.

His loose white shirt is rolled neatly to his elbows underneath a purple cotton vest. His green army pants should clash with the thin French scarf tied around his neck, but they don’t. That’s just Cal. I’ve never once seen him shy away from color or pattern or texture. His clothing is as outlandish and eccentric as he is.

“I heard about the incident today,” he says, removing his glasses and letting them dangle on their blue lanyard.

I blush, though I shouldn’t be surprised he found out about the little boy. If anything out of the ordinary happens in his park, he knows about it.

“It wasn’t a big deal. Ryan sorted it out eventually.”

He narrows his eyes, not pleased with that answer. Cal doesn’t think much of Ryan. He’s late for his shifts every now and then. He doesn’t go the extra mile for guests the way some of us do.

“I think we’ll have to change things up a bit with personnel.”

My eyes widen. “You won’t fire Ryan, will you?”

He strokes his neat white beard for a moment as he thinks. “No, not yet. I’ll keep him posted there for now, but I’d like an auxiliary employee stationed with you as well, someone In Character.”

In Character is how we refer to employees who are in costume and an active part of the Fairytale Kingdom world. Guests are meant to interact with them. By comparison, a Non-Character—such as a maintenance person—though dressed in a themed uniform, isn’t in costume and is therefore meant to blend into the surroundings so as to not detract from the overall experience for guests. Cal believes in full immersion and we’re all meant to take that task to heart.

“What do you mean? Last I checked there’s only Princess Elena and His Royal Highness posted inside Elena’s Castle.”

That’s how the story goes, at least. Cal should know. He created it.

He nods, no doubt already working through a solution in his mind. Then he checks his watch before glancing back at the foyer. He’s more distracted than usual this evening.

The executives have filtered out. It’s just us now.

He catches me watching him and smiles. “Come. Let’s go eat. I asked Ava to make your favorite meal tonight.”

Yeast rolls, fried chicken, buttered green beans, and homestyle mashed potatoes fill my plate as I update Cal about my life. He asks me if I’ve heard from my parents and I promise him I’ll call them sometime this week.

“I know they miss you.”

I swallow past a lump in my throat and reach for my water.

Across from me, a crisp navy charger, dinner plate, crystal glass, and folded linen napkin sit untouched, all meant for a guest who never showed up.

“Were you expecting someone else to join us?”

Cal checks his watch again. “Yes. Apparently, he’s been delayed.”

He sounds down about that fact, but he doesn’t care to elaborate so I don’t force it. It’s not unusual to have other people join us for our Wednesday night dinners. Cal is an important man. We occasionally share the meal with other staff from the park, traveling board members, or investors, but even then, Cal always keeps my place at the table right beside him and somehow, we carve out time to talk. Even during livelier gatherings, when the guest list grows out of hand and I seem to be the odd one out in a room full of creative geniuses, I’m still happy to be there sitting by Cal, taking it all in. He’s been a mentor to me for so long, at some point he turned into family.

I know he feels the same.

“There’s going to be a lot of change in the company over the next few months,” he tells me now, his voice sounding grave.

My gaze immediately locks onto his chest as if I’ll be able to see his heart beating through his clothes. It’s a knee-jerk reaction.

He chuckles. “It’s not because of my ticker.”

Cal’s recent stint in the hospital for a heart attack has been at the forefront of my mind recently. We’d all be rudderless without him.

“That being said, it is time I start preparing for a retirement that is hopefully still many years down the line. I’ll be shifting people around, delegating more.” When he catches my not-so-subtle smirk, he amends his statement. “Trying to delegate. My doctors insist on it. Any hopes I can talk you into accepting a position with me?”

I narrow my eyes and shake my head. “Really? Using your health to get your way? I’d expect better from you.”

He laughs good-naturedly and tears a bite off his roll. His dinner doesn’t quite stack up against mine. His chicken is un-fried, his beans are un-buttered, and his potatoes have been swapped for quinoa, but he yanked a roll out of the basket in the center of the table when we first sat down. A man has to live, he said, and I didn’t argue.

“That’s not what I’m doing.” He tips his head, an amused smile peeking through his beard. “Not unless you think it would work.” I roll my eyes and he chuckles. “I just think your talent is wasted down there In Character. I should have insisted on promoting you years ago.”

This is an old shtick. Cal likes to think I have loads of business savvy buried deep down inside me just burning to be set free, but I’m happy right where I am. “You know I like my job. Shift around all the personnel you want, but leave me be.”

And that’s that. No more business talk.

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