by Chloe Garner
The lights were… clever. She stopped at the entrance to the garden, watching the way the lights shifted, creating motion and shadow everywhere around her, things rattling bushes, dashing through gaps. It was all fake, but she couldn’t take all of it in and be sure none of it was real.
He’d come this way.
She was more certain than ever that he’d come this way.
The young prince, the one they all talked about, his odd habits. They said he had a horse-hair brush he used on the backs of his arms when he thought no one was watching, and a cup in his desk with ‘venom’ written on the bottom.
The ladies at court tittered about how he drank the stuff to better face his enemies on the battlefield, but Joy thought it was something else.
What, she had no idea, but he wasn’t like the fool men who dripped sheep’s blood into their ears to make themselves stronger, nor the ones who paraded on the practice grounds with their fanciful sword forms. Ell was quieter, an observant young man, youngest of four sons, fair skinned like his mother rather than dark like his father and his brothers.
And there was an oddness to how his hands moved.
How his eyes took things in.
Fragile, maybe. But clever.
Like the lighting in the garden.
There shouldn’t have been anything more than torches at the corners, but things flickered and burned everywhere, myriad colors, popping and sputtering and making Joy jump as she walked through the gap in the hedge.
“Ell?” she called.
“Leave me,” he answered from somewhere ahead of her.
She swallowed, taking another step. Something lit off next to her, nearly singeing her skirts as she jolted sideways, a flame the color of copper in the sun racing away through white stones.
Or maybe flames.
She couldn’t be sure.
She’d seen it, though.
She’d seen it for sure.
“Prince Ell,” she called. “What is this?”
A bush began to burn to her left, blue flame licking up from inside of it and burning the leaves black. She swallowed hard.
She should have turned back.
She was afraid, and she wasn’t entirely sure what drove her, but that she’d seen it, and she wanted to tell him she’d seen it, and that…
That she liked him.
That she wanted him to be the future king, even with three brothers ahead of him.
That she would keep his secret.
She wanted him to trust her.
So she chased him.
Yes. This made sense.
“Prince Ell,” she called. “I just want to talk.”
“Don’t follow,” he said. He had a quiet voice, but it was firm. It didn’t allow dissent or question. His men all loved him. Not all men loved him, but his men did. They didn’t need to be toasted or roasted to be loyal. He chose them well.
He was nearby, perhaps behind the blue flame, and she turned, a green flame shooting up through grass to over her head with a loud whistle. The bushes behind her moved, and a tree shuddered like someone had run into it, and all around her, she saw things moving.
The smoke was getting thicker.
“I saw you,” she called, desperate, lost. She didn’t know which way was out, even if she had been willing to flee, now. “I saw your eyes.”
“You didn’t,” he said. “You shouldn’t say so.”
She stumbled, her feet leaving the stone path for soft grass, and then she couldn’t find the path again. She stopped against a bush, looking around wildly through white smoke and bright flashing lights.
“Prince Ell,” she called. “I won’t tell. I just wanted to tell you… I won’t tell.”
“You pursue him to curry favor with threats,” a voice whispered. It was close, just behind her ear, and it sent shivers down her back.
“Everyone talks,” she answered, trembling. “I just… I thought he might want a friend he could trust.”
“A friend he could tell,” the voice answered. She couldn’t tell if it was a man’s or a woman’s. She could feel breath on her neck, and she swallowed, not turning. “You would coax his secrets from him for the power they hold.”
She shook her head.
Prince Ell appeared through the smoke, pale-skinned in white-and-gold livery.
“I told you not to follow,” he said as long white arms appeared from out of the shrubbery behind her and closed around Joy.