I was forced to turn myself into a falcon in order to catch up with the prince. When I finally found him, he was standing in the middle of a field. Bellowing in rage.
“Of course he is,” I said, circling high overhead. Because why wouldn’t he be standing in the middle of a field screaming like a madman? He was my assignment, after all, and with my history, I should have expected that everything that could possibly go wrong would instead go so wrong that I needed a new word for the resulting chaos.
His horse was standing a few paces away from him, its reins dragging on the ground as it happily chomped away at the lush grass beneath its hooves. The fact that the prince was screaming bloody murder was cause for concern, but the fact that his horse had absolutely no reaction to his master’s screaming made me think that either the horse was deaf, or this was a regular occurrence.
I let out a sharp, piercing cry of my own, and the horse’s ears twitched before it raised its head to look at me. Definitely not deaf. Which meant that the prince was not only a complete arsehole, but also a complete lunatic.
Wonderful. Just bloody fantastic.
Below me, the prince’s screams fell away. I turned into the wind and angled my wings up just enough that I was able to hover in place as I watched him, awaiting whatever madness was to come next.
He whipped his shirt off and flung it to the ground.
I stared at him, mouth agape, and nearly fell out of the sky because the sight of him shirtless was enough to make me forget that I had to flap my wings if I wanted to stay airborne. I might have hated the little arsewipe, but I wasn’t blind. Someone so awful had no right to look like…that.
He was carved granite wrapped in flawless golden skin. His upper body was heavy with muscle, his wide shoulders tapering down to a waist I could have washed my laundry on. The smattering of hair across his chest was a shade darker than the close-cropped blonde that covered his head, and it shimmered like spun gold in the sunlight. His leather trousers hung low on his hips, revealing a V of muscles that drew the eye downward.
Here! Look here, ladies!
I’ll be damned if I didn’t follow it down. And who could blame me? The man was absolutely stunning. You would think that he never lacked for female companionship, but the women of Tralken proved to be smarter than their baser desires. Most saw what I did; that his outward beauty hid a depraved soul completely lacking in humanity. Those who made the mistake of falling for his pretty face quickly learned the error of their ways. In the end, the prince preferred whores for a reason. Because only an obscene amount of money could ever convince a woman to share his bed, and even then, only the bravest of Tralken’s prostitutes took the bait.
It was depressing that I considered his one redeeming quality to be that he didn’t abuse them. Not hitting women should not be a redeeming quality in a person. Basic human decency should be expected, not applauded. But this was the prince we were talking about, and what counted as basic human decency for everyone else was a show of uncommon kindness from him. Which spoke volumes about the type of creature he was.
I circled lower as he pulled his sword from its scabbard and held it out in front of him for a brief moment before twirling it in his hands. What followed was a display of some of the finest swordsmanship I had ever seen. He flowed from one stance into the next like a river stream pouring over a waterfall. Smooth, controlled motions followed by staggering speed and crashing violence. His lunges were powerful thrusts that caused the muscles of his shoulders bunch and flex. He swung and parried with feline grace. When he took up a defensive stance, he looked unbreakable.
He practiced for so long that my wings grew tired. I angled around so that his back was to me and then dove toward the ground. After watching him a few more moments to ensure he hadn’t seen me, I transformed myself into a hare. My eyesight wasn’t as keen in this form, so I hopped forward until he came into focus and then sat back on my haunches and settled in to watch, contemplating my options.
My mother and I had spent the days leading up to my departure locked in the study of our small house. We’d come up with not one plan, but five, all of which were now useless. With so many unknowns, we had thought it might come to this, so we had resorted to a pair of bespelled mirrors so that we might speak to each other through them as events unfolded and come up with a plan that might actually work.
The mirror I had carried south with me was tucked away in the rafters of the prince’s bedroom, where I had deposited the rest of my meager belongings. I hadn’t brought myself to use it yet. My mother, bless her, would try to find some positive way of looking at this. She would try to point to the fact that James didn’t hit women, and say that there was good in him somewhere, hidden deep away, and that I must try to find a way to bring it to the surface. And then, of course, I would argue that it would probably be better for everyone if he met with a swift and violent end. And then, of course, she would lecture me for an hour or two on how murder was a Very Bad Thing.
If I were being entirely honest, I agreed with her. As much fun as I had contemplating all the horrible ways I might snuff out the prince’s life, I had never actually killed a human, and I doubted I could kill even this one, no matter what terrible things he did to those around him.
Which meant that the moment I picked up my mirror to speak to my mother, I would be securing my future misery. Because eventually, she would wear me down, as she always did, and I would be badgered into bringing out the prince’s “goodness”. At least my assignment didn’t have a time limit, which was a boon since it would probably take me, oh, around about a century or two to complete it if forced to try to turn the prince into a worthwhile human being.
With one last bellow, the prince twirled his sword in his hands, swung it horizontally in a blow that would likely cleave a man in half, took two steps, and then launched himself into a forward flip, spinning so high that I had no doubt the move he executed when he reached the apex of his arc would have beheaded the invisible opponent he leapt over.
He landed on his feet, facing me, not two yards away. Sweat glistened as it clung to his large frame and sparkled as it ran in rivulets down his heaving chest.
I must have made some subtle movement, for as his head came up, his gaze immediately locked onto mine. I froze in response. I would love to say that I did so to mimic how a real hare might react, but the simple truth was that I had been caught off guard. That’ll teach me to let my mind wander.
The prince sketched me a bow. “Well, then, noble hare, how did I do?”
Um…what? I stared back at him with my mouth hanging open.
He flashed me a smile so filled with joy and humor that I nearly keeled over in shock. It was the first time I had ever seen him smile, and it transformed his beauty from something untouchable into something far too human. I was suddenly very, very thankful that he did nothing to hide his nature from those around him. That amount of evil hidden behind a smile this stunning could bring the world to its knees.
“He looks quite impressed, doesn’t he, Bounder?” he said to his horse.
The horse, hearing its name, ambled over to the prince to butt his nose into his shoulder. The prince let out a low chuckle and reached up to scratch the horse between the ears. I nearly smiled in response, so infectious was his laughter. Once I realized what I had almost done, I locked my jaw and stared my hatred at the prince.
Dung-faced horse’s arse.
“Let’s see,” the prince said, oblivious to my mental abuse as he rummaged in his saddle bags. He pulled out an apple, which he fed to the horse, and a carrot, which he broke into little bits and scattered between us, as if tempting me to come closer.
I glared at the pieces of vegetable like the death trap they were. No doubt he meant to lure me in only to snatch me up and snap my neck. I prepared several nasty spells to lob at him if he decided to lunge at me.
“Ah, an untrusting hare,” he said to his horse. “We must not have met him before, Bounder. Let us give him space to eat in peace.”
I’m not a boy, you rotting piece of offal.
He tugged the horse’s reins and drew him away, feeding him another apple to distract him away from the carrot. As the horse munched away on his prize, the prince uncapped a canteen and poured the water it held into his open mouth, his neck muscles working as he swallowed.
I prayed that he might choke to death on it and spare me the trouble, but, alas, ‘twas not to be. When he had drunk his fill, he recapped the canteen and began to work his long limbs through a series of stretches. The sweat that had slicked over his torso began to dry in the sunlight, and when the last drops disappeared from his golden skin, he pulled his shirt back on, strapped his sword to his hip, and mounted his horse.
“Fare thee, well, noble hare. May we meet again,” he told me before galloping away.
What. The. Shite.
He hadn’t tried to kill me. Hadn’t so much as glanced in my direction after leading the horse away, as if he really meant to give me space to eat in peace. I knew, because I’d been watching him like a hawk – er, hare – in case he tried to make a move for me. He hadn’t.
Once he had disappeared from sight, I dropped my glamour and buzzed over toward the carrot. I sniffed it. It didn’t smell poisoned, but it must have been. There had to be some catch.
I flung one detection spell after another at the orange tuber, but all of them came back negative. The carrot wasn’t poisoned. Prince James had actually fed a field hare for the simple reason that he wanted to. With no ulterior motive. What’s worse, he had spoken to it with more kindness than I had ever seen him show a human.
He was kind to animals. He had an actual redeeming quality after all. Oh, my mother would be all over this, and knowing what I did, I couldn’t argue against her. Which meant I was doomed.
I couldn’t have just gotten a difficult assignment. I couldn’t have gotten a nearly impossible assignment. No, I had to be given the worst assignment in the entire history of the FGA. Damn Morghanna. Damn the FGA. Damn the prince. Damn his stupid father for spoiling him rotten. Damn everything!
I was so mad that the grass I hovered above started to wilt and then smolder. There was only one thing left for me to do. I threw back my head and screamed.
I screamed until my lungs burned. I screamed until my voice gave out. If anyone was around to witness my tantrum, they would have thought me as mad as I had the prince. For the first time since I had first clapped eyes on him, I thought I understood him just a little. At least, I understood his rage.
When I was spent, I flicked my wand and summoned my belongings. The pack that held them appeared out of the thin air right in front of me, and I slipped my arms through its straps and then transformed myself back into a falcon as I winged my way northwest and toward Mareille.
I had seen all that I needed of the prince. Time to go find me a princess and find out just how miserable my life was about to become.