I was forced to turn myself into a falcon to catch up with the prince. When I finally found him, he stood 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 stood 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 it meant that either the horse was deaf, or this was a regular occurrence.
I let out a sharp, piercing cry of my own. The horse’s ears twitched, and it raised its head to look at me. Not deaf then. The screaming must have been a common occurrence, which meant that the prince was both an asshole and a lunatic.
Wonderful. Just bloody fantastic.
Below me, the prince’s screams fell away. I turned into the wind and angled my wings up 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.
Reader, I’m not proud to admit this, but I nearly fell out of the sky. 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 bastard, 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, 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! they seemed to shout.
I’ll be damned if I didn’t look. 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 appearance 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 sex workers 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 took the bait.
It was depressing that I considered it a redeeming quality 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. His arm was arrow straight, his form unflinching, as if he could have stayed like that for days. With a flick of his wrist, he spun the weapon, forward, backward, overhead. It whirred so fast it blurred. Then he was moving, flowing from one stance into the next like a river pouring over a waterfall: smooth, controlled motions followed by staggering speed and crashing violence. This was the finest display of swordsmanship I had ever seen. His lunges were powerful thrusts. He swung and parried with feline grace. When he took up a defensive stance, he looked unbreakable. In my mind, the bucolic setting fell away, and I saw him laying waste to an enemy army, an ever-growing circle of corpses piling up around him.
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, and 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 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, Mom thought it might come to this, which was why we’d bespelled a pair of mirrors so that we might speak to each other through them if my utter lack of luck held out and I found myself in just such a situation as this.
The mirror I carried south with me was tucked away in the rafters of the prince’s bedroom, where I’d 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 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 I would argue that it would probably be better for everyone if he met with a swift and violent end. And then she would lecture me on how murder was a Very Bad Thing.
If I were being entirely honest, I agreed with her. Sure, it was fun coming up with all the horrible ways I might snuff out the prince’s life, but I’d never actually killed a human, let alone harmed one, and I doubted I could kill the prince, no matter what terrible things he did to those around him. The moment I picked up my mirror to speak to my mother, I’d be securing my future misery. Eventually she would wear me down, as she always did, and I’d be badgered into bringing out the prince’s “goodness”.
At least my assignment didn’t have a time limit. I considered that a boon since it would probably take me, oh, around about a century or two to complete it if forced to turn the prince into a worthwhile human being.
With one last bellow, the prince spun his sword, swung it horizontally in a blow that would have cleaved 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. His face was set with grim determination. Sweat glistened over his skin, rivulets running down his heaving chest.
I must have made some subtle movement because his head came up, and his gaze locked onto mine. I froze. I would love to say that it was a calculated response, meant to mimic how a real rabbit might react, but the simple truth was I’d been caught off guard. That would teach me to let my mind wander.
The prince snapped to attention and sketched me a bow, like a soldier reporting to his general. His expression was solemn, his movements overly formal. “Well, then, noble hare, how did I do?”
I stared back at him with my mouth hanging open in a very un-rabbitlike expression.
He flashed me a wide, devastating grin. I nearly keeled over in shock. It was the first time I’d seen him smile, and it transformed his beauty from something untouchable into something damn-near divine. 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 and butted 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 almost did, I locked my jaw and stared hellfire at the prince.
Dung-faced pig rutter.
“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 wring 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’s 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 from the carrot. As the horse munched on his treat, 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 drank his fill, he recapped the canteen and began to work his long limbs through a series of stretches. The sweat that 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. Shit.
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.
I waited until he disappeared over the crest of the hill before dropping my glamour, wings buzzing as I flew toward the carrot. I sniffed the nearest piece. 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 fed a field hare for the simple reason that he wanted to. With no obvious ulterior motive. What’s worse, he spoke 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. Doomed!
I couldn’t have 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.
I was so mad that the grass beneath me started to smolder. There was only one thing left 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 the prince. For the first time since clapping eyes on him, I thought I understood him just a little. Screaming like this was somehow deeply cathartic.
When I was spent, I flicked my wand and summoned my belongings. My little pack 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 toward Mareille.
I’d seen all that I needed of the prince. Time to meet his intended princess and find out just how miserable my life was about to become.
Copyright © 2021 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.