So here, finally, is a real excerpt from Steel for the Prince: The High King’s Will. It’s set in Rothganar over 600 years before the fall of magic. I’ve written you a fantasy romance with an evil High King, magic and monsters, buckets of blood, heaps of fairy creatures, a wild adventure, and some seriously bad candy. Take a look, if that sounds good to you (I hope it does!).
Eagle Eye lay broken and reeling on the floor of the cavern. The dark hulk of the great red Worm loomed over him, tail backlit by the gold that shimmered in heaps on the floor. Huge wings hung limp, casting strange shadows. The last dead twitches passed through Eleazar.
Eagle’s head ached. His vision swam, and distantly he heard the Crown Prince call out, “Hey-la-hey!” Brother Fox struggled over the thick tail with a blob of golden mage-light hovering just above his head. He called out again: “Eagle, brave Eagle, you’ve done it!”
He didn’t feel brave. He hurt so badly. The cruel black horns on Eleazar’s head, the knife teeth, and the massive eye, which had only a few minutes ago fallen upon him with hungry menace, sent a trembling to his soul.
Brother Fox blocked his view, partially, and he was glad of that. Light wreathed the Prince, making a glowing spirit of a flesh-and-blood youth, and Eagle understood why his stomach clenched when Brother Fox smiled. Gold threads gleamed in his dark hair, and his face sent Eagle’s heart staggering. Impossibly beautiful.
The perfect mouth moved, but Eagle couldn’t hear. Blackness teased at the edges of his awareness. When the Prince bent over him, shadows swallowed amber eyes, like the bruises that so often marred the face. Eagle had preserved Brother Fox’s life, but he wondered if he had done the Prince a service.
Eagle had done for the Worm with a single, lucky arrow, but the Worm had nearly done for Eagle, too. More properly, Eagle had nearly done for Eagle. He’d dashed himself to pieces on the rocks. Broken bones, cracked skull. Two days he’d been deeply unconscious, in the care of the healers, but this morning, when he woke, the High King had tacked Vistridir onto his name. Wormsbane. Father had hustled him home straightaway, after Brother Fox had given him a scale from the Worm’s own hide. “You ought to have it,” the Prince had said. “You earned it. And after all, I did promise you one.”
He’d felt Rothganar’s biggest fraud when the High King called him Wormsbane. All his dreams of great deeds had fallen to ashes before the terror he’d felt in the Worm’s cave, and a numbness had come over his heart since, which he distantly feared would never go away. Even all the loveliness of the flowers and the sweet songs of the frogs had lost their power to move Voalt Vistridir. Nothing seemed quite real after Eleazar, and Eagle himself the least real of all.
The royal gardens showed spectacular on a summer’s night, especially a night like this, scented and breezy and clear. All the mage-lanterns shone in the cottage behind Eagle, who sat on a stool just outside the front door, gazing into his own shadow. In his hands he held the Worm’s ruby scale, the size of his palm. He rubbed at it unconsciously with a small, callused thumb, over and over.
He was alone. Father had gone on a hunt that afternoon, to stock the High King’s larder. He always took Eagle along, and today was no exception, but Eagle had asked to turn back. His leg, the site of the worst break, pained him. Normally there would have been no excuses accepted, but Father allowed it today, on the condition that he stayed inside.
He’d meant to obey, but the cottage stifled. Here he sat, with the achy leg stretched out in front of him, turning the scale over and over. Remembering, though he would sooner not: images cloaked in darkness, lit by flashes of red mage-light and gold, by a blast of flame bright as day. His memory tainted the sweet-smelling night with Worm stench. The world was half unremarkable dream, half nightmare, and Eagle wandered in it, lost, feeling only enough to realize, from a distance, that he hurt. So lost that when a figure stumbled around the yellow rose hedge, it surprised him. Ordinarily he would have heard someone coming, particularly someone so very drunk.
Brother Fox. The Crown Prince’s bruised face dripped tears and blood, and he shuffled toward the cottage, cradling a swollen arm that surely must be broken. Not drunk. Beaten. Father would have sent Eagle away to do some chore right off, but he stared, rooted to the spot, so much that the Prince nearly tripped over him. He popped up, overturning the stool, and remembered to bow. “Your Highness,” he rushed out, slipping the scale into his pocket.
“Please don’t,” Brother Fox rasped. He swayed on his feet. “Is your father here?”
“No, Your Highness.” Eagle bit his lip. Father would have sent him away, but Father wasn’t here, and one of Brother Fox’s eyes was so badly swollen he couldn’t open it, though tears still leaked from between the lids, a slow trickle. He couldn’t think how the Prince had managed to get through the gardens to the cottage. Had he used the tunnel? In any case, sending him back up to the Palace would be a cruelty not even Eagle’s numb heart could stand. “Come in.”
The door slammed behind Brother Fox. Eagle knelt by Father’s trunk, which he shouldn’t have gone into, but he felt this warranted the intrusion. His fingers brushed one of the shiny wood boxes Father brought down sometimes after he’d answered a summons, but he didn’t feel the least temptation to open it—not now, anyway. He found the little glass jar of all-heal.
“Where’s Falcon Eye?” Brother Fox pleaded.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness. He went out this afternoon. Hunting. He hasn’t come home yet.” Probably wouldn’t until late tomorrow morning.
“I thought he always took you with him.”
Eagle said simply, “Not today.” The agony in the Prince’s voice made him rush. He went into the washroom and fetched a bowl of hot water, and a pile of clean rags. Brother Fox stood in the spot he’d occupied when Eagle left him, rocking slightly and staring into the distance, hunched with pain and—if Eagle read him right—shame. “Your Highness?”
“I can help you, if you want. My father taught me. But it’d probably be better if you sat down.”
The Prince nodded vaguely.
Eagle arranged the supplies on the window seat. “Your Highness. Please—”
Eagle shook his head and carefully guided the Prince a few steps, to the window seat. Brother Fox didn’t sit, and he was the taller by more than a head. Eagle couldn’t work on this mess reaching up. He screwed up his courage, laid his hands on the royal shoulders, and pushed. “Sit down, Your Highness,” he said.
“Call me Fox.” The Prince sat down hard. He probably jarred every injury at once. A pained little sound pressed between his teeth.
For a moment Eagle clenched his hands, angry. So he could feel, after all; not entirely numb.
“If you’re—if you’re familiar enough to help me after—this—you’re familiar enough to call me Fox.”
“All right. Fox.” He pushed the long glory of hair behind Brother Fox’s shoulders. It whispered over the backs of his fingers. “Father calls me Eagle,” he offered. The most serious injury, the arm, he’d treat first, no matter how badly he wanted to fix the Prince’s face. He remembered it swimming over him in the cave, all the lovelier against his horror.
“How old are you, Eagle?”
“Fourscore years and two. Hold still now.” Carefully, he examined Fox’s arm.
“This is broken.” He could feel it just there.
“I know,” Fox wrenched, sweat standing out on his forehead.
“Wait here.” Eagle went and fetched the leather strap from Father’s chest. “To bite on,” he said, giving it over.
“I know. Talk to me,” the Prince said suddenly. “What’s it like being Wormsbane?” And he put the strap in his mouth.
“Oh, well…” Eagle didn’t know how to answer that for himself, let alone Fox. He rubbed the nape of his neck. “I’m not really sure yet,” he decided. “It’s only today, you know? I was talking to Vercingetorix, and he said—”
“Vercingetorix?” Fox interrupted. He had the strap in his hand now. “The unicorn?”
“Bite down.” That was none of anyone’s business, though why anyone should be surprised Eagle didn’t know. He wasn’t anything special. The Prince obeyed, and he snapped the bone into place before he could lose his nerve. Fox’s scream through the strap rattled his eardrums. He reached for the jar of all-heal. When he opened it, the scent drifted up to prickle green, herbal magic into his nose.
“You—can still talk—to Vercingetorix?” Fox panted.
Eagle’s face heated. What a thing to ask about, while he stroked all-heal over the living silk of the Prince’s skin.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed over.”
“Well, it’s just…” He wet a cloth in warm water and began to clean blood from the Prince’s face. He’d always been apart, and when the others around his age had started stealing kisses and touching each other, he’d been outside of that, too. He’d been outside of everything for so long, kids younger than he was were starting it. “Nobody notices me,” he blurted. And if they did, it was only to call him odd or stuck-up, or witch-boy because he talked to fairy creatures. “Only Father.”
Under the cloth, Fox’s split mouth curved into a smile Eagle could feel. “You’re sort of small.”
That was true. He was small and slight, even for his age. “And quiet,” he admitted.
“I see you,” Fox said, with a husky note in his voice and a gleam in his amber eye. The open one.
Eagle’s stomach jumped. “Mm-hmm.” It was all he trusted himself to say.
“I do. I see you around, working with Falcon Eye.” Fox dragged in a breath and added, “He loves you.”
“He does.” If there was anything real left in Eagle’s world, it was Father.
“Why are you so serious? I never see you smile. But your father loves you and teaches you. You get to talk to unicorns. If anybody has a reason to smile, you do.”
Eagle raised Fox’s chin to clean his neck. It felt intimate, trading secrets. If he leaned in six inches, he could steal a kiss, and what would happen then? He longed to find out, but—no. He contented himself with sponging blood from golden skin, leaving it damp and gleaming. “Guess I just don’t need to. Why do you smile all the time, when your father does this to you?”
Fox’s larynx bobbed under the cloth. “I’ve never thought about it.”
Not for one moment did Eagle believe that. He paused in his cleaning and looked Fox in the eye.
“I suppose… I need to, because if I don’t, I’ll cry.”
He nodded slowly. He wanted to throttle the High King, even knowing he’d die for it. “It’s wrong, you know. What he does to you.”
“If I were a better—”
“Shut up.” Oh God. He’d just told the Crown Prince to shut up. “It’s not about you. He’d do it if you were perfect, because it’s all and only about him. You think I never make my father angry?” He was always making Father angry and having things taken away from him, or being given extra chores. But this. This was fists and no holding back. “Difference is, I don’t look like this after he punishes me.”
Fox didn’t answer. He looked ready to cry again.
“Why don’t you just leave?”
“Where would I go?” Fox said, so small and sad that Eagle wanted to take him away this very minute, into the wood and the wild, and keep him safe.
“Where wouldn’t you go?” Eagle stepped back, holding the cloth, reaching for words. Where wouldn’t he go? “Anywhere,” he said. “Everywhere!” He threw his arms wide, and his face broke into a smile for the first time in days. “You could have adventures, all kinds. See the world! Save beautiful princesses, and find buried treasure, and slay dragons and—and—”
Oh, the look on Fox’s bruised face. That gleam in his eye, hotter now, hot as the lava sprites when they got too close. You are something extraordinary, the look said, and he couldn’t understand it.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked.
“Because,” Fox said, “I just figured out why you don’t smile. You don’t want to be here any more than I do.”
The Prince really did see him. He had let someone see him—the insane, secret part of him that wanted to run and never look back. “I want to see where the round-eared sailors come from,” he said, feeling stupid, and went quickly back to patching up Fox.
He had his fingers under Fox’s eye when the Prince asked, “Which ones?”
“All of them.”
“What if I went?” Fox’s voice: hushed now, murmuring. “If I went away and had adventures, would you come with me?”
In a heartbeat. “Sure I would.” No doubt Fox would forget by morning, but Eagle would never forget. He wished it could be a true thing.
He pulled up the Prince’s stained shirt to spread all-heal on his ribs. The bruises there took longer to fade than they should have. “You should go,” he said quietly. “Before he kills you.” He glanced up from where he knelt and found Fox’s eyes on him, both of them now, those hot amber eyes. He couldn’t look away if he tried.
“You’re probably right,” Fox said. His look held Eagle’s for a long moment, unreadable.
Eagle slid his hands out of Fox’s shirt.
The Prince leaned forward, near and nearer, until Eagle could feel air stir against his mouth. Fox lifted his chin with soft fingertips, whispering, “Eagle… I want to—thank you.” The moment shattered. Fox withdrew his hand and rose. “Good-bye,” he said at the door, and whipped out in a flurry of hair, leaving Eagle sitting on his heels with forgotten manners and fierce longing.
“I would’ve let you,” he said, to the empty space the Prince had left behind. He would’ve let Fox do a lot of things, if Fox had wanted to bother. Sometimes the haylofts in Shirith overflowed with naked flesh, and Eagle was never in any of them. It was a lonely feeling, he thought, to have nobody want you. It would have been nice to know what it felt like when somebody did.
With a sigh, he stood and went about cleaning. He stuffed the rags into the incinerator, rinsed the bowl, and scrubbed blood from the carpet where Fox had stood. He tried to turn his mind away from what had just happened, but in the cedar-paneled shower, surrounded by steam and scent, he propped his forearm on the wall and stroked his prick with a soapy fist. Whether it had meant what he thought it did or something else entirely, the memory of Fox’s fiery gaze brought a moan out of him. Fingers of hot water coursed down his back. He came on his hand with a ragged little sound like a sob, and afterward leaned there trembling in the billows of hot vapor.
It felt like disrespect. Fox had spoken to him. Listened to him. Seen right into him. Whatever was there, the Prince had found it pleasing. And he was so used to the eyes skidding right over him, the mouths that called him spooky and strange where they thought he couldn’t hear. He’d welcomed their thinking he was odd, and hardened his heart. Or thought he had. One look from Fox had been enough to crack him open to the soft meat inside. He was as weak and stupid as the rest of them.
He shut off the water and dried himself with a towel so old it was ivory rather than white. What he wanted, he realized, was for somebody to want to touch him, and most of all, Crown Prince Bearach of Shirith, who had seen Eagle’s real, wild self, and liked it.
Eagle put on his nightshirt. He climbed into the sleeping cupboard and slept hard on top of the blankets with all the lights blazing and the windows and bed-door open.
When he woke, there was an emerald fairy perched on his nose. It took forever to get the glitter off.
By the time Eagle had washed most of the sparkles from his face, Father still hadn’t returned. He ate a cold breakfast off a napkin: some hard-cooked eggs left over from last night, with brown bread. Instead of making tea, he sneaked a fizzy out of the cold-box. He wasn’t allowed to drink them at breakfast, technically, but who’d know? It saved him the washing-up, since he could throw the napkin in the hamper and stick the fizzy bottle into the trash outside on his way to start chores.
The hounds needed tending first. Early-morning dark covered the gardens; the night flowers were closing, and the daytime flowers hadn’t opened for the sun. The Palace loomed high in front of him, and Fimberevell, the great fire mountain, even higher to his left. The ashy ring around its basin came visible by the time he reached his destination.
Ivy draped the east wall of the Palace top to bottom, except for a few windows, and at the center, where white marble steps led to arched double doors. Those doors weren’t for the likes of Eagle, Movanar that he was. Servants used the tunnel. There was a sunken staircase at the back corner of the Palace, up against the mountain’s root, which led to another set of double doors. These were of ordinary size, though highly decorated, like everything else associated with the High Ones.
He bounded down the steps, cracked open one of the doors, and slipped onto the landing just inside. More stairs drove deep into the earth, three flights together. Down here, mage-lanterns blazed around the clock, bathing the tunnel in white radiance. He didn’t bother with the railing carved into the stone, instead sauntering down with his hands in his pockets.
Nobody passed him on the stairs, but once he walked under the arch that led to the tunnel itself, there was plenty of bustle. The ceiling here made him feel even smaller than usual. It rose nearly back to ground level, to accommodate ways into the rest of the Palace, plus servants’ quarters all up and down the south wall, wherever there might be space. He and Father were the only ones who lived aboveground. Eagle felt lucky for it. He couldn’t imagine being stuck under here.
He kept to the north wall as he passed laundresses and seamstresses and cooks, chambermaids and grooms and stable boys. Most didn’t notice Eagle, which was fine by him. Savory Thyme, the head chef, ruffled his hair as she went by on her way to the kitchens. Father visited her sometimes, and she thought it made her familiar with Eagle, too. She always spoke to him as if he were a little bitty boy, if she spoke to him at all. He disliked her on principle.
About halfway down he met with Otter and Bat, on their way to work in the gardens. They disliked him on principle, principle being he was smaller than they, and they thought he was weird. “Hey, Wormsbane,” said Bat, thrusting out a palm to stiff-arm Eagle into the wall. Eagle saw it coming and checked himself, just enough that Bat didn’t strike him.
He caught Bat’s arm instead, pulling along with the other boy’s momentum to send him face-first into the wall. Hadn’t they figured out yet not to mess with him? Bat bounced right into a kidney punch, howled, and slid down the wall to the floor. When Otter came to avenge his idiot friend, Eagle tripped him, sent him flying, and walked on with his hands back in his pockets.
“Fighting again, Eagle Eye?” said Feathery Fern, coming down one of the staircases with a basket of dirty silks. She scowled at him, showing the lines in her face. “Stop right there.”
He obeyed, suppressing a sigh. “They started it.”
“We’ll see what your father has to say. You can’t go thrashing everyone because you’re Wormsbane now.”
“I thrashed them before,” he said, and then winced. The wrong thing, judging from her face. Quick, before she could shout, he asked, “How do you know about the Worm?”
“You’re all the High Ones can talk about. ‘Who’s Eagle Eye?’ they’re all asking each other.” She shook her head. “The Worm of Shirith. Did you really, Eagle?”
“We ought to tell them,” Bat said savagely from a little down the way, picking himself up. “Then maybe he’d get what’s coming to him.”
“Seen but not heard, Hunting Bat!” Fern snapped.
“They’d thank us, wouldn’t they? They’d be happy we gave them someone new to play with!” Bat had, all of a sudden, a mad light on his dark-olive face. Otter tried to interrupt him, but he wrenched free and blasted on. “He’d probably like it anyway, damn spooky witch-boy! Keep them busy, that’s what he’d do!” His voice echoed off the walls, clear up to the ceiling, and people turned their heads to stare.
“Bat—” Otter began again, but Bat was too far gone.
“Special, aren’t you? So special! Pretty little witch-boy, all the fucking fairies love him, he’s got glitter on him now, look at his face!”
Eagle shoved his hands deeper and walked away.
“I’m going to tell them!” Bat screamed at his back. “I’ll tell them all right where to find you, Eagle Eye! See how you like it!”
There was a lot more, but he put on a little speed, enough to carry him out of clear earshot, until all he heard was Bat’s voice and not the sense of it. He took his left hand out of his pocket and stroked fingertips along the wall as he walked. Ancient sigils were carved clear to the ceiling to aid the High King in the exercise of the Fimbetamur and to keep the mountain in check while he slept. The Movanar—the Little Ones—were meant to be grateful to the High King for controlling Fimberevell, and Eagle supposed he was, come to that, but he did wonder why they all had to live in the shadow of a massive, angry volcano. It seemed to him, well, a bit suicidal.
Nobody questioned it. That bothered him most of all. Didn’t anybody wonder the why of things? Didn’t anybody ask what for? He had so many questions, and Father wouldn’t answer a one of them. “That’s the way it is, Eagle.” “Don’t draw attention, Eagle.” “Keep your mouth shut, Eagle.” Eventually he’d stopped asking, but sometimes he felt like he’d explode, holding all his questions in. Why was he thinking this way? Fox, so broken. Bat, so angry.
He sidestepped Hedgehog coming the other way. “All right?” popped out of his mouth before he could stop it; Hedgehog looked awful, all sweaty and bruised, and he clung to the wall for support. He was only half dressed, and the sight of his body would’ve been pleasant if he hadn’t been hurt.
“The hell do you care, witch-boy?” Hedgehog snapped.
“Well—” Eagle shook his head. Hedgehog was the worst of them. He was a little older, and he’d always been nice to Eagle in a distant sort of way, until he’d seen Eagle talking to the mermaids down at the coast. “Never mind.”
“You wouldn’t know anything about it, the way Falcon Eye hides you.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t. But are you all right?”
Hedgehog rubbed his shoulder, covering a mark Eagle was sure came from teeth. “Just—watch yourself. His Majesty’s got guests.”
“What do you mean?” Eagle asked, but Hedgehog pushed past and hobbled away, legs wide, as if he’d gotten a kick to the stones. It disturbed Eagle in a way he didn’t quite grasp, and he thought about it until he climbed the steps at the other end of the tunnel and came out into dawn.
He crossed behind the stables, hugging the mountain’s root, until he reached the kennels. The dog run sat right along the great bulk of Fimberevell. Eagle crossed the invisible barrier around the run—keyed to let anything but the hounds pass freely—and went to the plain stone wall at the back to slide up the panel that would let the dogs out into fresh air. They surged past him, rubbing sleek black bodies against his legs and snuffling sharp muzzles at his hands, looking for scratches behind their pointed ears. He gave them a few, then let himself in through the door.
After he’d swept and mopped the kennel, he cleaned the water trough and filled it again from the tap. The last chore here was to feed the hounds, and he walked over to the big cold-box set into the back wall, rolling up his sleeves for the messy job. He was to use the carcass hung in front; an old horse today, it looked like, already dressed. He took the apron from the peg, stepped into the cold-box, and took the biggest of the knives from the strip on the wall to break down the horse. He cut it into pieces he could manage and took it to the prep table.
While he trimmed the meat for the dogs, he pushed aside scraps for the butcher fairies, with their hair that ran fine carnage runnels over skin the color of bone. They fell on the pile with ragged wings gleefully opening and shutting, and licked blood off his fingers with their raspy little tongues. He sang quietly to them, a death song, a killing song, like the eagle would sing to the rabbit or the wolf to the deer. It was their favorite, and they sang along with animal screams.
He washed up after, humming the same song, and went out past the stables again, but around the front. He didn’t really feel like going through the tunnel again; Hedgehog still hovered at the edges of his mind.
Osprey pushed a barrow of muck to the midden. “Going to play with your fairies, witch-boy?” he shot at Eagle, nasty, sniggering.
Eagle made a rude gesture and ducked the foul-smelling clump Osprey flung at his head. Of all of them, Osprey was the stupidest. If Eagle’d been the one throwing, he wouldn’t have missed. Even now he was tempted to go back and impart a lesson. He was smaller, but he’d been in trouble plenty of times for blacking Osprey’s eyes, and he’d rather not deal with it today. He’d get in trouble for walking along the front, too, if anyone saw him, but he couldn’t bring himself to care about that as much.
Ivy grew on the walls here, as on the east side, covering the more utilitarian portions of the Palace with curtains of green. Toward its spectacular heart, where the royal family lived, the walls were clean of foliage and lichens, a marvel of living wood and white stone inlaid with gleaming obsidian and many colors of granite. There was a pattern to the inlay, Eagle had been taught at lessons, which reinforced the Fimbetamur in the same way as the sigils in the tunnel.
At his left were the outer walls, hidden behind a bank of ancient oaks. He’d been back there plenty of times to lay his hand on the mossy stones. The walls didn’t really keep them in—not Eagle and Father, at any rate—but there were some who’d never been beyond, even in centuries of life. Some of the High Ones had only been as far as Father took them on hunts.
Eagle was tied to this place. Not as much as Bearach, who’d inherit the Fimbetamur if the High King died, but bound to it all the same, by his father and his father’s father and the God knew how many fathers before that, back into forever ago. If he had children—what a laugh that was!—they’d be just as bound, on and on into always, and Eagle would disappear among their ranks and be forgotten. Swallowed by the Palace walls, and if he should bleed on the stones of the courtyard, who’d mark it?
He passed the main gate, seven oaks trained together across a wide lane. They would uproot themselves and swing aside to allow access. The grand front entrance to the Palace wasn’t for the likes of Eagle either, and he’d never been through there, but he crossed the silvery granite path that led up to the tall, peaked doors, shielded by lines of oaks slanting away on either side. The stones lay in an elaborate design, and to his bare soles they felt smooth, satiny with ages gone by. To either side of the drive, plush grass bent under his feet.
When he passed between the oaks and the corner of the Palace, it was almost as if he’d stepped into another world. The gardens rolled out along the mountainside, an organized riot of flowerbeds and blooming trees, hedgerows and roses as far as the eye could see.
The gardeners had all gone, probably to some other part of the complex, but the bees were at work in the bright morning. Fairies buzzed and glittered among the flowers, greeting Eagle as he walked by. He didn’t rush. A few more chores waited for him at home, but what a day! A breeze ambled by, so heavy with rose scent it made his head spin, and when he tilted his face up the light spilled over it, down his throat and chest, warming him until he thought his skin must be glowing gold. He could taste the roses. A fairy settled on his face and ran tiny hands over his parted lips. He smiled, letting out a slow sigh.
“Eagle Eye,” the fairy sang, and wings brushed his cheeks as it fluttered away. He licked the fairy dust from his mouth: lightly sweet and perfumed. A rose fairy, it must have been, though he hadn’t opened his eyes to see it. He stood there for a long time, flower-drugged and sun-dazed, with his toes in emerald grass and his head in the clouds.
At last he pulled himself free of the reverie, blinking, to see Fleet Stag making his way along a path. Alone. Eagle went to intercept, trying to appear unhurried. Maybe it was none of his business, but what if Ceridwen should fall again? And the fits the younger prince suffered—who was meant to be with him? Anger punched through his mood.
He and Stag were of a height, or nearly so, but Stag was much younger, maybe twoscore and ten. Still a little boy, really. And the taller he grew, the more apparent it became that something was very wrong in Stag’s head, so he was even littler a boy on the inside than he appeared. The taller he grew, the more strongly his unsteady, baby walk contrasted with the Revanar beauty blooming in his limbs.
Already Stag could stop a heart cold. Huge eyes like clear amber stones gleamed out of a fair face, and his hair waved like wheat to his shoulders. But his hands shook much of the time, and he would get a look of confusion on his lovely features, painful as broken glass to the chest. Now, though, he smiled broadly when he saw Eagle. Why didn’t anybody get him a cane at least?
“Good morning,” he said, with great care. He always spoke a little too slowly.
“Good morning, Your Highness,” Eagle said, bowing from the waist. “Are you all by yourself?”
“Mm-hmm. I’m allowed now. Do you want to walk with me?”
“I’d like it if you did,” Fleet Stag said, gazing at the path in front of him and setting his feet so, so carefully. “I’m sort of scared.”
Eagle stepped onto the path. “Do you want me to take you home?”
“Do you have to? I really want to walk.”
“No. I don’t have to.” He extended his arm for Stag to take.
The young prince beamed like a miniature sun. He linked his arm, trembling under the drape of fine fawn velvet, through Eagle’s. “I feel better now.” They walked down the path at a snail’s pace. Eagle didn’t mind it; this day was made for meandering. But he remembered playing games with Stag, a long time ago. The prince had lived up to his name then.
After a while, Stag said, “Eagle? What did you do?”
“What do you mean, Your Highness?”
“Mm. Well…” He frowned. A little furrow appeared between blond brows. “Last night, Daddy, he was yelling at Fox again, and Fox yelled at him back. For a little bit.” He bit his lip. “They yelled about you.”
Eagle felt chilled in spite of the sunshine. “Did they?”
“Yes… and Daddy said why didn’t Fox just leave you and say he’d killed the, um, Worm. Did you really kill it?”
“Lucky shot,” he said wryly. “But I guess so. Yes.”
“Fox told me all about it. But he makes up stories sometimes. I can’t always tell if he’s being serious.”
His chest went tight at the mention of Fox. He wanted to ask what the Crown Prince had said about him, but it wasn’t as if it mattered. Eagle would lay money Father would keep sending him away whenever Fox came to the cottage. Nothing would come of it, and he wished he’d kissed Fox last night when he had the chance. It was a might-have-been now, dreadful and delicious at once.
“But I think he did mean it,” Stag was saying. “You looked terrible when he brought you back. He was very upset. Didn’t you know?” he added, when Eagle shot him a curious look.
“He brought me himself?”
“Oh,” Eagle said, suppressing a ridiculous grin, or most of it. He hoped.
“It made Daddy mad. He said Fox was soft, and shamed him, and Fox got so angry. He said you saved him and it wasn’t right to kill you for it. And then…”
“What?” It came out hardly louder than breath.
“Fox fell down.”
What could he say to that? He had nothing. Fox “fell down” a damned lot.
“I’m not stupid,” Stag whispered, bowing his head as if under a millstone’s weight. “Fox doesn’t really fall down. I know that. But it’s easier to say.”
Eagle rested his hand on Stag’s forearm. He wanted to change the subject, but didn’t know how. They walked silent among tall rosebushes with deep leaves shining, bending under the weight of big white blooms. When they passed a cleverly worked stone bench, Stag said, “I think I want to sit.”
“All right.” Eagle helped the young prince onto the bench, where he leaned against the backrest, looking lost.
“He ignores me mostly. But not Fox.”
“No,” Eagle said. “Not Fox.” He looked at the roses. Clean and white, but voluptuously curled and curved and scented; he put out his hand and caressed the petals of one, softer than any velvet could hope to be. And he thought again of the Crown Prince.
“I asked him if he wanted to come,” Stag went on, startling Eagle badly enough that he cut his finger on a thorn, “but he said he had to do something.”
“Mm,” he mumbled, sucking at the wound, which bled persistently. He would not ask what Fox was doing.
“Mother wouldn’t, either. She threw a pillow at me. It’s too early, I suppose, but I like the morning, and this one is so nice. I had to come out.”
“You weren’t really meant to on your own, were you?”
Stag gave a telling grimace. “They would have let me before. They used to let me. Nobody thinks I remember, but I do. I get so confused—but not about that. I remember everything.” The prince banged on his knee with a clumsy fist, rocking back and forth.
“Calm down,” Eagle said, alarmed. He didn’t want Stag to have a fit, not here, not now. “It’s all right, Your Highness. You—”
“It’s not all right. Nothing’s ever all right.”
If things ought to be all right for anyone in the world, oughtn’t they to be for a harmless, damaged little prince? Again, he said nothing. If he spoke, it would be treason. The God, this place. Of all the places to be bound to. They didn’t speak for so long that when he looked at Stag he thought the prince had fallen asleep, with his closed eyes and peaceful expression.
Eagle’s thoughts tumbled over themselves, pebbles caught up in a wave. If Stag remembered right—
He hoped it hadn’t really happened that way. Maybe Stag had misheard, or his brain had made something up—anything else, please—because if Stag was right, Fox had taken a brutal thrashing from his own father on Eagle’s account. Maybe the High King had had some other reason, but what reason was there for what he’d done to Fox last night?
Eagle didn’t want to be Beagar’s excuse. His heart hurt so much then that he wondered how he could ever have imagined he was numb. What must Fox have been thinking last night, while Eagle gave what little help there was to give? The cause and the cure at once, and what had he been thinking of? How Fox had made him feel, stupid things, little-boy hungers for acceptance and adventure, kissing Fox’s perfect mouth.Bitter guilt coated his tongue when he remembered touching himself afterward, some part of him wishing to feel Fox’s hand there instead of his own, when he remembered coming so hard his toes had grasped the tile beneath his feet.
Sun and shade played across the grass. He had hurt Prince Bearach, who saw the inside of him, and the cold sick slime in his vitals felt like less than his due. He had judged Fox silly and arrogant, going down into the earth to find the Worm, but if Father had treated him the way the High King treated Fox, he might have taken death over more of it.
The shadows under the trees seemed blacker now. He wished like mad Fox would leave this place. He wished he could go along.
Maybe he could make it happen. He was positive he could get a message to Fox. Hadn’t Father always said he was too clever by half? He could do it, and there was no shortage of places to meet secretly, whether in the gardens or outside the Palace. They hardly knew each other, but he thought he could convince Fox—
He jumped and turned to face Stag, sitting there on the bench. “Yes, Your Highness?”
“Can we go back now? My head hurts.”
“Of course, Your Highness.” Eagle went to help Stag, easing the little prince to his feet. They left the white roses behind.
That’s it for now. Look out for The High King’s Will, which you can preorder at the link, on November 19, 2015.
If you don’t want to wait to read more about Eagle and Fox, click the cover for the prequel shorts.