Prince Sorey’s thirteenth birthday was approaching, and he knew that it was going to be the best one ever.
“How do you figure that?” asked Mikleo, who was already thirteen, and considered himself much wiser than Sorey for it.
“You know why!” Sorey said. He very nearly vibrated with excitement. “You’ve heard our families talking. They’re going to formally announce our betrothal!”
Sorey and Mikleo often eavesdropped on their families’ discussions during their play dates. Most of the discussions were on topics uninteresting to a pair of young ears – though they doubted they were truly interesting to adult ears either. But amongst the talk of trade agreements and crop yields, Sorey and Mikleo sometimes overheard bits of juicy gossip. Such as talk of their own upcoming engagement.
It would be a truly beneficial arrangement for all involved. Mikleo was a prince of his own kingdom, and had been playmates with Sorey since the cradle. They shared everything during their long summers together, and were devoted pen pals. A political alliance would surely usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.
To Sorey, the idea of getting to marry Mikleo – for real, not pretend, and in front of everyone – the idea of getting to spend their whole lives together…well, that sounded just wonderful all around.
Mikleo was blushing, and Sorey couldn’t help but throw himself at him to kiss those red cheeks, even as Mikleo squawked at him angrily. Yes, this would be the most wonderful birthday present Sorey could ever ask for.
As the sun rose upon the thirteenth anniversary of Prince Sorey’s birth, the castle found itself in a terrible panic. The prince was gone.
His room, the library, the kitchens, the garden gazebo – in all his favorite spots, he was nowhere to be found. Nurses and housekeepers and guards and cooks and courtiers upended every room in the palace in their frenzied search. The queen was beside herself – all the precautions she had ordered to keep her son safe on his birthday were for naught. The guards posted swore they saw no one enter or leave; neither the prince nor his kidnappers. But alas, the kingdom’s mages gravely informed the queen that their protection upon the room had been disrupted. The wards of iron shavings and salt were disturbed.
Mikleo heard all of this from their normal eavesdropping spot. It was so lonely there, now.
The royal families ordered a search for the kidnapped prince that spanned both kingdoms. Alas, instead of being brought together by the announcement of a happy engagement, the two kingdoms became rent by suspicion – the kidnappers were treasonous nobles who were against the kingdoms’ alliance; the kidnappers were revolutionaries from this kingdom or that, out to topple stability and order. Surely the prince was dead by now. It was a waste of money to continue this fruitless search.
The search continued for a year, and then two. And then more. Mikleo stopped being able to count the march of days. They all seemed very much the same now, without Sorey. Somewhere along the way, Mikleo took to isolation. He rarely left his tower room, with its single window that looked out onto the sprawling forests that he and Sorey had once explored and read and picnicked in. Sometimes it was unbearable for him to look at it; at other times, he seemed to stare out into it for days, lost in the wooded depths of his own memory.
Five years came and went.
Mikleo’s mother begged him to leave his room. Sorey’s queen mother was a picture of royal dignity, she said – ruling her kingdom even though her heart was surely filled with the same keen despair that ate at Mikleo’s own. Surely Mikleo could emulate such an example. He would be eighteen, soon, and the crown would be placed upon his brow, and the kingdom on his shoulders. Mikleo could not help but laugh at the very idea of it. A kingdom, wide and vast, ruled by someone who could not leave his room without being struck with nostalgic vertigo so keen it made him ill. He would decline the crown just as his uncle had, and he too would live out his years as a scholarly hermit.
One day, just a scant few weeks before his birthday, Mikleo’s hermitage was interrupted by a visitor on his windowsill: a songbird with splendidly blue feathers.
At first, Mikleo paid it no mind. Birds came and went from his windowsill often – it was rather expected when one lived in a tower. This little creature, though, was an insistent guest. It pecked at the glass – tap-tap, tap, tap-tap-tap – until Mikleo could no longer ignore its presence. It hopped from foot to foot and sang its heart out when Mikleo approached to look at it. Hesitantly, but driven by the insatiable curiosity that defined him in his happier days, Mikleo opened the window and was greeted by a flurry of wings and birdsong. His guest only settled down when Mikleo offered his crooked finger as a perch. Satisfied, the bird fluffed out its chest, and began to sing for him once more.
The bird returned the next morning, greeting him with eager chatter as the sun first glittered through the glass, and stayed with him all day; leaving only when night fell.
“I haven’t had guests in a while,” Mikleo admitted to the creature. “You’ll have to excuse the state of the place.”
The bird simply chirped and picked up an edge of the page Mikleo was reading in his book, then determinedly and laboriously sidestepped with the page held in its beak until it was properly turned. Mikleo smiled – this, too, had not occurred in some time – and stroked the messy little fluff of feathers atop the bird’s head.
On the third day, his guest began to come bearing gifts. They were simple little trinkets: small and lovely stones, polished to perfect shining smoothness by the nearby river (Mikleo remembered the days spent with Sorey wading in its depths, trying to challenge each other to find the most unique and excellent specimens). Herbs from the forest with delicate little blossoms (Mikleo remembered reading to Sorey from his encyclopedia of herbal medicine, trying to find the right plants to soothe the stomachaches they’d gotten by eating the wrong plants). And, as always, the gift of a beautiful song to while away the lonely hours (Mikleo remembered their duets – Sorey on violin, himself on flute, and their music tutor desperately trying to keep them focused).
After a week of gifts and companionship and song, Mikleo opened the window to greet his blue bird – only to freeze at the sight of the gift in its beak. The bird fluttered in, perched on Mikleo’s finger, and dropped the gift determinedly in Mikleo’s lap.
It was an earring. A feathered earring. Just like the ones he used to wear, just like – Mikleo took the earring between two trembling fingers, and examined it closer. No, no. It wasn’t just “just like” them. It was one of Sorey’s earrings. Mikleo felt tears sting his eyes.
“Little blue bird,” Mikleo whispered. “Where on earth did you find this?”
The bird remained uncharacteristically silent, and stared into Mikleo’s eyes – as if it wanted to speak to Mikleo just as badly as Mikleo wanted to hear its tale. Mikleo took a deep breath, and composed himself.
“Thank you,” he finally said. “I finally have something to remember him by. You have my eternal gratitude, my sweet little friend.”
Mikleo had nothing to give the bird in return, save for cool water and leftovers from his lunch. He supposed a kiss would have to do, for now. Mikleo bent down, and pressed his lips to the little fluff of feathers atop the blue bird’s head.
Mikleo jumped out of his skin, and toppled backward in his chair; sending the bird fluttering wildly through the room, calling out Mikleo’s name over and over. Mikleo would have chalked that last bit up to hitting his head on the stone floor, if he was in a better state of mind. As it was, with Sorey’s earring in his hand and Sorey’s voice coming from a bird , Mikleo considered his state of mind rather questionable.
The bird finally settled down, and landed on Mikleo’s body. It took a few moments to catch its breath, and then hopped up to better look Mikleo in the eye.
“Mikleo,” the bird said again, for the dozenth time – though with no less love and jubilation as the first. “It’s me. I’m back.”
It was unmistakably Sorey’s voice. Surely Mikleo had finally lost his mind. But the gifts of the stones, and the herbs, and the song, and the earrings…Mikleo bade the bird to explain himself.
“What,” Mikleo said.
– Though it was not in such eloquent terms. The bird tittered a sweet little laugh; a laugh that Mikleo thought he would never be able to hear again.
“Sorry. I’ve been gone for years, haven’t I...? But you look even prettier than I left you.”
Sorey waited for Mikleo to pick himself off the floor and sit back in his chair before he fluttered to Mikleo’s desk to begin his tale.
“My mom was always…hesitant when I asked her about my father. Said she’d tell me when the time was right. When my thirteenth birthday approached, she was in and out of meetings constantly with the royal guard, with the royal magicians. On the night of my birthday, she locked me in my room and told me to not open the doors or windows for anyone, no matter who they said they were, until morning.
“That night…I heard so many people calling to me. My mother, my grandfather, and you too, Mikleo. I came so close to opening the door, but I remembered what my mother said, and just clutched my pillow over my head and prayed for dawn to come.
“But then, an hour before dawn, a little black cat tumbled down my chimney. She landed in the salt and iron shavings that the mages had piled there in the fireplace. She looked like she was in so much pain, like they were embers burning her alive. I couldn’t help but pick her up, dust it all off of her, and then…”
Sorey paused in his story, and then gave Mikleo a sheepish look.
“Well, as you can probably guess, it was a trap,” Sorey said. “She was a fairy, and she spirited me away then and there to the fairy realm.”
They preyed on Sorey’s kind heart. Mikleo silently fumed, but stroked at his little fluffy breast with a single finger, bidding him to continue.
“It was there I finally met my father. He’s the fairy king, and he said that – he said that, with my thirteenth birthday at hand, they could take me back. Said that the fairy palace was my new home, and its residents my subjects. Said that I would never be allowed to see the human realm again. I begged and pleaded to be taken back to my real home, to my mom and to you, but they wouldn’t hear a single word of it.
“They tried to entice me into staying for days, with exotic food and books, but I didn’t touch any of it. Finally, the fairy king said that I be made to ‘think things over from a new angle’. And then, that fairy magician I saved from the fireplace cursed me into this form. They said they’d only lift the curse when I agree to become the crown prince, and so…”
Sorey extended his wings as demonstration.
“…you can see how well that worked out for them, and me,” Sorey said ruefully. “I couldn’t speak, and they locked me into a golden birdcage in this strange room – I think it shares ventilation with the surrounding rooms, I could hear everything from them echoing in. I heard the king speaking – he’s afraid of an alliance between our kingdoms, Mikleo. He’s afraid of our engagement.
“I stayed in that birdcage for years, Mikleo, singing day and night about how much I missed you. I got my chance for escape one day, when the attendants left a window open before they went to open my cage. I flew out and away, and managed to find my way here…back to you.”
Mikleo extended a crooked finger for him, and Sorey hopped up onto it. Mikleo brought him in to nestle against his neck; Sorey’s silky feathers tickling his skin. Sorey had been through so much. Kidnapped, locked away…and then there was the matter of this curse.
“Your curse,” Mikleo said. “How do we break it?”
Sorey made a thoughtful noise.
“I couldn’t speak before you kissed me,” he said. “Maybe…another one will break it completely?”
Mikleo felt his cheeks burn, but obliged. Sorey’s feathered breast puffed out, and he shivered in glee. He remained, however, a little blue bird.
“Almost broken. I can feel it,” Sorey declared. “Maybe another?”
Mikleo pouted at him, and Sorey tittered that wonderful laugh once more.
“Sorry, sorry. I really don’t know how to break the spell, so it was worth a try. I can at least talk to you properly now.”
Sorey looked around the room; at the piles of books and papers, at the door with dust on its handle. He beaked at Mikleo’s ear lightly.
“You were always the one teasing me for never cleaning my room,” Sorey said. “What’s changed?”
Everything and nothing at all , Mikleo wanted to say. He settled on kissing the fluff atop Sorey’s head again, making Sorey fluff up and titter once more at the attention.
“I missed you, Sorey,” Mikleo murmured. “So much.”
Sorey nuzzled at Mikleo’s finger as it came up to pet him.
“Me too,” Sorey sighed. “I…I came here first. I know I should’ve gone to my mother, and the court mages, but would they have really recognized me? I thought I might be able to convince you first. And I needed to see you again so badly. I sang for you all those years. You’ve gotten so beautiful, Mikleo.”
“And you’ve gotten a little bit easier to handle, for now,” Mikleo replied, trying to will away the redness in his cheeks. “I’ll speak to our court mages and my uncle about the curse. Surely there’s something we can try. For now, I’ll call for an attendant to set something up for you in my room – not a cage, but a perch with--”
“I can’t stay here,” Sorey said mournfully. “I know that the fairy court is trying to hunt me down. If I stay with you tonight, they’re sure to find us both. I’ve been staying in the woods – the woodland spirits bear resentment against the high court, and have been sheltering me…something about the wrong color goose feathers in a pillow, a thousand years ago and some change. They hold grudges over the strangest things, Mikleo.”
“No stranger than human grudges, I’m sure,” Mikleo said. “But please. Stay safe tonight.”
Sorey accepted another kiss atop his head, and gave one to Mikleo’s nose with his beak. Mikleo’s kiss had broken Sorey’s curse of silence. Mikleo wondered what curse of his that Sorey’s kiss had broken.
He opened the door to his room for the first time in months, and walked down the tower stairs to seek out his uncle.
Love was a powerful magic indeed, and unfortunately drew the attention of the wrong individual. Symonne was the very same court magician that Sorey had saved from the iron and salt, and the very same court magician that had cursed him. She was an ancient and powerful fairy, and though the concept of gratitude was not unknown to her, her fanatic loyalty to the fairy king was stronger than any sense of debt. Or pity.
The moment Mikleo’s lips broke a layer of her curse, Symonne had pinpointed Sorey’s location, and spied on their conversation. It would not do for her to charge into the territory of the woodland spirits – she knew her king would be sorely cross with her if she provoked them into an uprising. But that presented an even more delicious opportunity: to make an example of that traitorous prince, so unworthy of the fairy throne, in front of the wretched human for whom he had betrayed her king’s patience and affections.
Symonne laid another curse upon the sill of Mikleo’s tower window.
Mikleo awoke the next morning filled with determination, his thoughts racing with the knowledge he had gleaned from the books his uncle had loaned to him. He had barely gotten any sleep; staying up late into the night making notes. But soon, it would be time for Sorey to make his daily appearance. Mikleo walked over to the window, and opened it up to wait.
The sun glinted off Sorey’s feathers as he approached. Mikleo couldn’t help but smile.
Sorey landed on the windowsill, and opened his beak to sing.
A crack of magic split the air, blinding Mikleo with light. Sorey’s voice cut off with an awful sound, and the air filled with the smell of burning feathers. Mikleo shouted for Sorey in panic, still light-blind.
“Sorey! Sorey! ”
Vision returned to him as he blinked, and Mikleo saw that his windowsill was now empty. Gripped with dread, he peered over the side, and was greeted with the sight of a small, unmoving blue blur on the ground far below.
“ Sorey! ”
Mikleo raced down the tower stairs, tripping and stumbling, until he burst out into the garden. There was nothing underneath the window, now – nothing at all but a few scattered blue feathers and streaks of red on the grass. The work of an enterprising palace cat, or marauding falcon, perhaps. Mikleo frantically raced around the gardens, tearing apart the bushes and flower beds for any sign of Sorey.
He had lost Sorey once, and just as he had begun to hope once more, he had lost Sorey again. Mikleo fell to his knees and let tears consume him.
It was neither cat nor falcon that had stolen Sorey away – instead, it was a wandering enchanter, drawn to the scene by the thick scent of dark magic. Zaveid was a clever man; clever enough to know that this bird was not what he seemed, and clever enough to know that he’d gotten in way over his head by snatching him up. He hurtled himself back over the palace wall, and hid himself in the brush. Oh, how curiosity had gotten the better of him once again!
He whispered an enchantment into his cupped palm, and placed the bird’s trembling, bleeding body between his hands to allow the healing magic to do its work. The bird’s trembling eased, and it heaved a sigh of relief from its tiny breast.
“All better, birdie?” Zaveid quipped. “Listen, I dunno what you did to get on the bad side of someone wielding magic like that, but--”
“Run,” Sorey rasped out. “We have to run. Into the woods. Where she can’t follow--”
“Too late,” hissed Symmone.
Symonne was quite incensed at being robbed of the opportunity to plunge a dagger into Sorey’s breast in front of Mikleo, but would settle for finishing the job here. Zaveid’s eyes went huge at the glint of the dagger in her hand, and he fumbled in his coat pocket until his fingers closed around a golden, fairy-winged amulet.
In a flash of light, the three of them were teleported straight to the fairy court. Fairy King Heldalf’s eyes went wide at the scene in front of him.
“Who are you?” he demanded of Zaveid. “And what are you doing with my son?”
Zaveid’s eyebrows raised, and he lifted Sorey to eye level to give him a Look.
“Shoulda known you were trouble,” he grumbled.
“Sorry…” Sorey sheepishly said back.
Still, Zaveid was not one to back down from a challenge. He cleared his throat, and bowed deeply, flourishing his free, non-bird-holding arm wide.
“Your most great and powerful majesty,” Zaveid greeted. “Please forgive my intrusion. I am Zaveid, a wandering enchanter. I was trying to rescue your son from death at the hands of this witch.”
Symonne was shaking with fury. Heldalf stared at her sternly, and bade Zaveid to continue.
“It is quite an accusation, to say that the throne’s greatest magician is guilty of treason.”
Zaveid sighed dramatically.
“I know, your great awesomeness, I know. But just take a whiff of your boy – that blood on him is reeking of your magician’s dark magic. Honestly, just ask him yourself. I’m sure he’ll tell you the whole story.”
Sorey had refused to say a word to his father since he was thirteen, which was incidentally the impetus behind Symonne’s curse of silence. He fluttered onto Zaveid’s shoulder to look straight into his father’s eyes.
“I ran away to seek out a magician to break my curse,” Sorey said. “Symonne followed my tracks, and laid a trap for me. When I landed on a tree to rest after a long flight, her dark magic tore me to pieces and flung me to the earth below. Zaveid saved me, and healed me, and brought us all to the court before she could finish her work.”
“ Liar! ” screamed Symonne. “A traitor and a liar! You ran to the arms of that despicable human that you constantly yowl for in your cage, like a cat in heat--”
“Can’t help but point out that she didn’t deny the whole attempted murder thing, your liegefultude,” Zaveid noted. “And if you’re wondering about how I got us all here, I’ll be happy to spin that tale for you over dinner. You see, I used a magical charm gifted to me as a token by a beautiful fairy maiden, for whom I still hold a burning flame--”
A sharp ahem! interrupted Zaveid’s story. One of the other court magicians in attendance, Lailah, was bright red, and had her cheeks puffed out irritably as she very determinedly refused to look at Zaveid.
King Heldalf rose to his feet, and strode over to stand looming and tall over Zaveid – he passed Symonne as he went, refusing to acknowledge her as she fell to her knees and grasped at the hem of his cloak, sobbing for forgiveness.
“You have our thanks, Zaveid the enchanter,” the king said. “Return the prince, and you may request any reward your heart desires for saving his life.”
Now, this gave Zaveid pause. Sorey looked at him pleadingly with those little birdie eyes, as if begging him to help. Clearly, this prince didn’t really want to be returned, any more than he wanted to remain a bird. Zaveid was nowhere near strong enough to break the curse on him, but…Lailah’s gaze upon him inspired him to be generous. Oh, the things he did for love.
“Not that I mean to intrude on an, uh…family matter,” Zaveid said. “But keepin’ your son here as a bird and – what did I hear your witch say? Locking him in a cage? – none of that is going to help mend whatever bridges are broken between you. After that witch nearly killed him, I think it’s the least you can do to let him stretch his legs again. His people legs.”
The king considered Zaveid’s statement for a long moment, then turned to Sorey.
“Prince Sorey,” he began. “I will return you to your original form for three days, so you are in a better state to consider your duty to the fairy kingdom. If you still refuse after the sun rises on the third day, you will remain a bird forever.”
Without waiting for Sorey’s response, King Heldalf waved his arm, and Zaveid felt the weight on his shoulder grow heavy. Like, real heavy. Heavy like there was a grown-ass teenager sitting on it instead of a little blue bird. Right before Zaveid collapsed to the ground, he saw that he was correct in that assessment. Sorey was quite unlike his bird self – tall, with a broad chest and shoulders and chocolate-brown hair. He looked down at his now-human hands, and his green eyes gleamed with newfound hope. Damn, Zaveid thought. Whoever that human was that Sorey was stealing off to go meet was one lucky dog.
“Escort the prince to his chambers,” said the king to the gathered fairy attendants. “And prepare a room and meal for our guest. We will not be derelict in hospitality.”
A fleet of attendants and guards surrounded Sorey, and he went along with them, though reluctantly. Two brightly-colored fairy attendants approached Zaveid, and he winked at both of them, sending them fluttering and tittering ahead of him. He glanced over his shoulder, and blew a kiss to where Lailah stood – Lailah mimed catching it, and then set her hand on fire. Zaveid clutched at his heart and sighed dreamily. To have his heart crushed by such a beauty was an exquisite kind of agony.
With Sorey and Zaveid both escorted from the throne room, Lailah respectfully curtsied to the king as he approached. Symonne continued to weep and grovel on the ground, inconsolable.
“Your majesty,” Lailah began. “Surely you know that the prince will not agree to those terms.”
The king sank back into his throne, and drummed his fingers on the arm.
“Pray tell, Lailah, what would you consider my alternative options?” he asked. “Allow him to live out a short human life, dying just as quickly as the beasts of the forest? Allow him to return to his mother, allow him to marry that human prince, allow their kingdoms to ally and rise up to destroy us?”
Lailah sighed, and looked away. “But surely you do not truly mean to curse the prince forever…”
“No,” Heldalf admitted. “Simply until that human he is fixated on dies. It will be quick, if he stays here – human lifetimes pass in the blink of an eye.”
First, the king imprisoned his own son in a golden cage for years, and now he was planning to do it once more if Sorey did not comply and promise to never again be with the one his heart truly loved. All out of a wild paranoia, and greed for his son’s undivided attention. Lailah could no longer tolerate her king’s behavior. Something had to be done, and there was one surefire way to do it:
The power of love.
That night, Lailah looked herself over in the mirror critically – did she look the part of a beatific fairy godmother? Oh heavens, it had been an age since she’d last played the role. There was no time to find pumpkins or practice a musical number. She could only hope Sorey’s beloved would rise to the occasion.
For his part, Mikleo was hardly in a state to rise to anything. The awful sound of Sorey’s dying scream echoed in his brain, and the smell of his scorched feathers refused to leave his senses. It was surely the work of that loathsome fae court: unable to force Sorey’s cooperation, they had killed him for the offense. They had taken Sorey from him twice, now. Grief and fury battled each other in his mind, seeing who would triumph and be allowed to consume Mikleo whole.
Mikleo had not moved from the chair he had collapsed into after dragging himself back up to his tower from the gardens. He had not drawn the curtains, he had not lit a candle – and with the fall of night, the room was painted with twilight.
A little spot of light flickered to life, throwing golden color on Mikleo’s cheek. Mikleo slowly turned to look. A candle on his desk was alight, and its dancing flame reflected in Mikleo’s eyes. It seemed to twirl around itself, looking down as if it was a lady lifting up her skirts to spot the best place to put her feet on a staircase. The little flame then hopped off the candle, then leapt off the edge of the desk –
– and became a tall woman in a red-and-white lace gown. Fairy wings extended from her back.
Had they come to kill him as well? Perhaps he should just allow it. He would make an even poorer king now, with a heart filled with sorrow and hatred.
“Prince Mikleo, beloved of Prince Sorey,” the woman began. She curtsied deeply. “I am Lailah, a magician. Please, I come to beg your aid, on behalf of my people.”
Mikleo stared at her in silence, his face a cold, expressionless mask.
“To think you have the right to speak his name – that is very audacious of you,” Mikleo said. He rose from his chair. “I wonder, was my fireplace not to your liking as an entryway, as Sorey’s was?”
Lailah curtsied deeper, and shook her head.
“Prince Mikleo, though you may not believe my words, I swear that it was not I who kidnapped Prince Sorey those five years ago, nor was it I who cursed him, nor was it I who wounded him this morning,” Lailah said. “He is alive and well, and was returned to our palace. The king has returned him to human form for three days, to force him to embrace his role as the fairy prince. If he refuses, he will remain a bird forevermore.”
Mikleo was speechless, his mind working to process what he had been told. The idea of Sorey still being alive – it was too good to be true. What was more, this woman was a fairy. How could he trust a single word she spoke?
“You do not believe me,” Lailah observed. She gestured with one arm to the top drawer of Mikleo’s desk. “In your desk is an iron letter-opener. Place it against my skin and command me to speak the truth through my agony. I swear to you that I shall not contradict myself.”
Lailah paused, then smiled.
“Or you could simply plunge the letter-opener into my chest, and be done with it,” she granted. Mikleo’s eyes went wide. “But your heart is pure and kind, just like Sorey’s. I can tell the thought of it did not once cross your mind.”
It had not. Mikleo sank back into his chair, more than a little overwhelmed.
“What would you have me do to save him?” Mikleo asked.
Lailah clapped delightedly. “Oh, splendid! You are already in a heroic state of mind,” she said. “That will make this so much more straightforward. Hoot have thought this would have been so easy?”
Lailah stared at him expectantly for a very, very long moment. Mikleo felt deeply uncomfortable.
“… hoot have thought? Hoot ?” Lailah prompted him again. “You see, Prince Sorey was a bird for many years, and owls say hoot-- ”
“Yes,” Mikleo interrupted before this got even more unbearable to listen to. “Yes, I understand.”
“Hmm.” Lailah paused, then snorted an undignified laugh into her voluminous sleeve. “—SNNNNRT! HOOT!”
“Lady Lailah,” Mikleo said flatly. “You were speaking of heroics?”
Lailah managed to gather herself, with effort. “Oh. Yes.”
With a wave of her arm, she summoned three ivory eggs; each the size of a goose’s.
“Please forgive me, for I am unable to take you directly to the palace,” she said mournfully. “My magic was…borrowed to transport Prince Sorey and several others from the dangerous situation he found himself in, and it will take time for it to regenerate. And time is a thing that we do not have. However, I can give you three gifts to lead you on your quest.”
One of the eggs began to glow, and when its light faded, a small, odd-looking little creature was in its place.
“Pleased to meetcha! The name’s Atakk, a normin,” said the creature. He extended a paw. “Put ‘er there!”
“Mikleo, this is Atakk. He will guide you,” Lailah explained, and tried to move on to the next egg. “As for the topic of transport--”
“Is that it!?” Atakk squawked despairingly. “Lady Lailah, you’re embarrassing me! I’m standing in front of such a beautiful creature, so you gotta talk me up a little bit to him--”
“Atakk will guide you marginally well,” Lailah expanded on her statement. “Now, as for the topic of transport…”
The second egg glowed and expanded into a beautiful grand chariot, drawn by six more normins who grumbled and griped and adjusted their harnesses. Atakk beckoned for him to give him his hand.
“Please, allow me to lead you to your seat, mon cher ,” Atakk said suavely. “I will serenade you on our journey to make your heart feel light. Do you prefer the pan-flute or the dulcimer?”
“The trip will not be long, with the normins leading the chariot,” Lailah promised. With that, she handed the final egg to Mikleo. “This egg will guarantee your escape from the palace, when you have rescued Sorey. Please, do not allow it to hatch before then, lest you be trapped in our realm forever.”
Mikleo took the egg, then looked Lailah up and down.
“…why are you helping us?” Mikleo asked. “Sorey and I.”
Lailah sighed and folded her hands.
“Our king is…a lonely man. He once fell in love with a human princess, and had a child with her – however, she would not abandon her kingdom to live with our king in our realm. She fled with the child, and our king has never been in his right mind since. He has become wholly convinced that the human kingdoms will rise up against us any day now, and kidnapped Sorey laboring under that paranoia – he thinks your marriage to Sorey, your kingdoms’ alliance, would sound the death knell for our own realm. He seeks to force Sorey to love him as his father through cruel means…he does not appear to properly understand that Sorey will only resent him more and more. I cannot bear to stand by and watch this continue.”
Mikleo nodded. He and Sorey had overheard strange snippets of discussion, when they were children eavesdropping on meetings, that had never quite made sense until now…Mikleo walked to his dressing-cabinets, and stripped down to dress himself in an outfit more suited to a diplomatic engagement. Lailah gasped and bent to cover Atakk’s eyes.
“I will not allow it to continue,” Mikleo said. To finish, he picked up his circlet – the symbol of his birthright – from its locked velvet case and slid it on. “I will speak to him as the king-to-be of my nation, and demand Sorey’s return.”
“I pray for your success,” Lailah said solemnly. “You are our last hope.”
Lailah spoke true – the normin chariot sped across the skies and over the forests and mountains, bringing them far from Mikleo’s kingdom. It would take days, weeks to make the trip on foot…Mikleo’s heart ached at the thought of Sorey making this trip as a bird, just for a chance to see Mikleo again.
The chariot arrived at the fairy palace at dawn – Mikleo had so little time left to save Sorey, and that worry clouded his mind to the point that he spared little wonder at the sight of the glittering jeweled spires, the giant blossoms, the lakes and rivers made of…chocolate syrup? Perhaps he spared a bit of wonder at that. He expected the normins to drop him off at the palace entrance, but they charged on full-tilt past the palace gates, whooping and cheering as they sent guards flying left and right. They raced through the halls, knocking into statues and pottery and other priceless pieces of fine art.
“Slow down, you philistines!” wailed Atakk. “That was a Terca Lumereis original!”
“Emphasis on ‘was’!” yelled back one of the normin.
Atakk’s tears soaked Mikleo’s shirt as he buried his face in his chest to weep.
Finally, the wild rush came to a sudden stop. They had arrived in the throne room, and, judging from the stares of the gathered court members, they were quite unexpected. Atakk stumbled to his feet, and produced a horn from thin air – he blew it loud, even through his tears, to announce their arrival. Mikleo squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and stepped out of the chariot with all the grace and presence his mother and tutors had tried to instill in him over the years. He willed his hands and voice to not shake.
“I am Mikleo, of House Rulay,” he said, loud and clear. “I am the king-to-be of the kingdom of Camlann. I seek the hand of the fairy crown prince in marriage.”
The court gasped and tittered, and looked to the throne for their king’s reaction. Mikleo saw that he was a large, imposing man; with a voluminous fur cloak whose high collar made him resemble a lion. The king’s eyes narrowed.
“How did a human enter our realm undetected?” Heldalf wondered aloud.
“That seems like a personal failin’ of your guards,” said one of the chariot normin. “We didn’t even try to be sneaky.”
Atakk wailed hysterically in the chariot, cuddling a large piece of shattered pottery. Heldalf rose an eyebrow at the normins, and then turned to Lailah; who stood beside the throne with a carefully blank expression.
“It seems your magic has brought yet more visitors ,” Heldalf said. “Do tell me that another of my magicians has not betrayed me.”
Lailah curtsied deeply in apology. “My king, I have placed my magic in many artifacts over the centuries, as gifts to those who have served us. Surely some of them have simply fallen into the wrong hands.”
“King of the Fairies, do you mean to ignore your esteemed guest?” Mikleo asked. He would not allow Lailah to be punished for helping him. “After all the questing I went through to obtain this magical chariot, you could stand to offer me a room, and entertain my request for your son’s hand. Surely as the rulers of two prosperous kingdoms, we could come to a mutually-beneficial arrangement.”
Mikleo knew that he had hit upon a sticking point – even fairies were bound by the rules of hospitality. The king stood, and gestured with his hand to some of his fairy attendants.
“We welcome you as our esteemed guest,” he said. “But know this: humans cannot survive long in our realm. You will be safe if you do not leave the room we prepare for you. Should you venture from it, you will be transformed into a beast. And I have my doubts that your people will accept a beast as their king.”
“A beastly nature will not affect my devotion to my people, nor my devotion to your son,” Mikleo swore. “Please, take me to him so I may make an offer of marriage in person.”
“The prince is sleeping in his chambers, resting due to his injuries,” Heldalf said. “He will awaken…in a few days, perhaps. Until then, you may wait in your guest chambers for him. Practice your poetry.”
A few days. Mikleo bristled in fury. In a few days, Sorey would be a bird again. He could not risk calling the king’s bluff without endangering Lailah. He could not rush to Sorey’s chambers and break the doors down – he could already feel the magic of the fairy realm clouding his brain and making his limbs heavy and odd. Fairy attendants and guards surrounded him, and rounded up the normins – he was on his own as they escorted him to his guest chambers. The weight of the final egg in his pocket was small comfort as he was locked into his guest room.
Mikleo did not spend long bemoaning his fate, for as he looked around the room for something, anything to help him rescue Sorey, he came upon an ornately-designed vent shaft. It was securely bolted shut, but his mind was not on the prospect of escape. Seeing the vent caused him to recall a piece of information that Sorey had mentioned on his windowsill visit: that Sorey’s chambers were connected via these shafts to the surrounding rooms, and that he could hear anything that occurred within them.
Sorey had sung for him, day and night, for five years. Mikleo could surely manage the same for two nights.
Mikleo cleared his throat, and began to hum; a halting, shy tune. Slowly, he grew more confident, more desperate – he allowed himself to write embarrassing lyrics that he would have scoffed at only a few short days ago. He called for Sorey, told him of how he’d longed for him, told him of the sorrow that threatened to drown him when he was convinced of Sorey’s death. He sang of the future he hoped for: not only of grand adventures and travel, but also of days by his side, of suffering through boring court meetings on the promise of a kiss after their conclusion, of evenings taking dinner together over their favorite books, of nights tangled up together in their shared bed.
He sang and sang until his throat was raw, and sang some more – the sun set and rose again, and Sorey had still not called back to him, had still not broken down the door. Mikleo took a moment to catch his breath, and wipe away the frustrated tears that streaked his cheeks. He had but one day more, and then Sorey would be a bird forever – if it came to it, perhaps he’d simply walk the fairy palace halls until he became a beast as well, to live by his side. A pair of lovebirds, matched in the same cage, singing day and night.
“Hey. Hey! Prince!”
Mikleo frowned and looked around for the source of the familiar voice.
Atakk was peeping through the slot in the door that attendants used to slide Mikleo meals – which he had not touched, out of concern for what was in them.
“You’ve been usin’ the vent system to try and talk to Sorey, haven’t you?” Atakk asked. “Any luck?”
“No,” Mikleo said hoarsely, rubbing his throat. He needed to save his voice for another day of work. “No response.”
Atakk hummed thoughtfully, and tapped his chin.
“I’ve been in that room before – those vents echo the sounds loud and clear. He should’ve heard you even if he was sleeping, and woken up…somethin’ fishy is going on. I’m gonna snoop around and get some info for you. Lady Lailah assigned me as your guide, and I ain’t done guiding yet.”
“Thank you,” Mikleo managed to say before his throat throbbed in pain.
Atakk made a kissy face. “Anything for a princely beauty like yourself! It’s so romantic of me, sacrificing my own happiness to bring you closer to another man…!”
Atakk bounced away excitedly, talking to himself of how he’d have to write these verses down before he forgot them. Mikleo shook his head, and stumbled back to the vents on sleepless legs to resume his vigil.
It wasn’t until the sun had nearly set again that Atakk returned – however, this time he was not alone. Three fairy attendants opened the door, and entered Mikleo’s chambers in a line. Atakk gestured to them with a flourish.
“Ta-da!” he said. “These are Prince Sorey’s attendants!”
“…and?” Mikleo said, not able to manage more than one-word sentences.
“And they got the scoop on why Sorey isn’t hearing your little lovelorn sonata!” Atakk said. “…or so they told me.”
The eldest attendant stepped forward.
“We were instructed by the king and the royal doctor to drug the prince’s food and drink to keep him in a deep sleep,” she stated. “His injuries from Lady Symonne were grave, and Zaveid’s magics only served to stabilize him temporarily.”
The two younger attendants giggled at the mention of this “Zaveid”, and the eldest turned to glare at them. They shushed, but continued to whisper in each other’s ears. The eldest shook her head, and continued.
“I do not see why I should go against such esteemed directions to allow the prince to hear your constant caterwauling,” the eldest said. “It will only upset him.”
“The spell,” Mikleo rasped out. “He’ll be a bird. When the sun rises, forever.”
“The king does not mean to truly curse the prince forever,” stated the eldest. “Simply until you and his other human attachments are nothing but dust and distant memory. He will live a long and blissful life here, free from disease and age. You mean to steal him away from us and curse him to a short, desperate, mortal existence.”
Mikleo bowed his head, and put a hand to his aching throat. It seemed so selfish. Perhaps it would truly be best for Sorey that he left, that he allowed himself to fade into memory. But it was Atakk that broke the awful silence.
“That’s all well and good for you to make that decision for the prince then, eh?” he challenged. “Tell me again, ‘cause I forget; have you ever asked Sorey’s opinion on all of this? Seems like it’d be important.”
The eldest attendant glowered at Atakk. Atakk mimed a thinking pose.
“Let me think. Seems like I remember something…oh, right, I remember that terrified little thirteen-year-old that we stole from his family, and then we turned him into a bird and locked him in a cage for five years when he kept begging to go home. Yes, you’re sooooo concerned for his welfare, I can tell.”
Atakk slapped Mikleo on the back, and puffed out his chest.
“But do you know who here is concerned for Sorey? This fella right here. He’ll go on singing and singing until he turns into a bird himself, if he thought there was the slightest chance Sorey would wake up and hear him.”
“I heard his song while tending to the prince,” said one of the younger attendants, fighting back tears. “His feelings for the prince are true.”
“I could barely finish my dusting without weeping from the beauty of it,” said the other young attendant, who was fully wailing. “Madam, we know you heard it as well!”
The eldest attendant’s eyes softened, and her mouth drew into a thin line.
“…the prince dreams of you,” she said quietly. “He speaks your name. I was his mother’s midwife, you know. He was a kind, sweet boy to us over the years, even as we served as his jailers. It pains me to be the cause of yet more grief.”
She turned to leave, gesturing for her bawling younger attendants to join her.
“The prince’s sleeping draught will wear off at midnight,” she stated. “And I might dally in refreshing it. See to it that your song is true.”
As they left, Mikleo managed to smile at Atakk as his tears flowed anew. “Thank you.”
Atakk strutted over and picked up Mikleo’s hand to press a loud, smacking kiss to the knuckles. “It’s all in a day’s work for a tragic romantic hero, mon cher . Now rest up those pipes for a few hours so you can really knock Sorey’s socks off.”
Mikleo did as suggested – his throat was so sore and weak that he could barely swallow the water that Atakk brought to him (with the promise that it was not enchanted). Even knowing that there was no chance for Sorey to hear him, Mikleo was possessed of a nervous compulsion to take a seat back by the vents and continue to hum aimlessly – if Sorey could not hear him properly, Mikleo could still provide some comfort in his dreams.
The clocks chimed midnight, and Mikleo opened his mouth to sing once more. He barely managed to get to the part about kisses after court before he heard Sorey screaming and pounding on every door in the hall outside.
“Mikleo! Mikleo! ”
Mikleo raced to the locked door and began to pound on it himself, and to scream Sorey’s name through his raw, battered throat.
“I’m right here, Sorey! Right here!”
The doors were flung open.
Logically, Mikleo knew that Sorey would not look like his thirteen-year-old self all these years later. But Mikleo did not expect Sorey to be this stunning. Tall, with a sharp jawline and broad shoulders. Strong arms that wrapped around Mikleo so tightly, and brought him close against his chest to feel the beating of his racing heart. Those same green eyes that Mikleo remembered, clear as day.
“Mikleo…” Sorey sobbed over and over, rocking in place with Mikleo. Belatedly, Mikleo realized that they’d collapsed to the floor at some point.
“Sorey,” Mikleo whispered into his ear. “I’ve come to ask for your hand in marriage. Do you accept?”
Sorey kissed him then and there. Mikleo let his eyes fall shut and kissed back, winding his fingers into Sorey’s hair.
“…well, I think that settles that, don’t you, your majesticness?”
Sorey’s arms tightened around him at the sound of that voice, and he broke off their kiss to glare at the approach of his father. A strangely-dressed man with dark skin and white tattoos wolf-whistled at them.
“Hey there. I’m Zaveid, your neighbor,” said the man, gesturing to the guest room next to Mikleo’s. “You kept me up all night with your singing, yanno.”
Mikleo spied Lailah sneaking out of Zaveid’s guest room. He elected to say nothing. Heldalf gazed at Sorey with deep sorrow in his eyes, and heaved a heavy sigh.
“…I suppose it does,” he said with an air of finality. “Sorey. I tried to force your mother to stay here with me, and I failed to learn from her flight, and her distance. Please live your life as you wish.”
The king turned, and made to leave. Sorey and Mikleo’s eyes met. Mikleo took Sorey’s hand, and gave it a comforting squeeze. Whatever his decision, Mikleo would stand by his side.
“…will you attend our wedding, father?”
Heldalf stiffened at that word, then bowed his head, his shoulders shaking almost imperceptibly. Perhaps it was a word he’d never heard before.
Upon their return home, their wedding preparations proceeded in a whirlwind haste. Tearful reunions took place alongside flower selections and dress-uniform measurements, and Sorey barely had the time to accept the embraces offered between samples of wedding cake – though he always managed to make the time to excuse himself for a kiss or two from Mikleo. (Or for a quick sojourn with Mikleo to a secluded room with a lock.)
The ceremony was attended by those from kingdoms far and near – citizens and nobility, woodland spirits and fairy court members alike. King Heldalf gave his blessings to the union, and gifted them with a splendid spread of wedding gifts: among them, a marvelous stringed instrument that played by itself and sounded like a thousand instruments at once, a pair of magical mirrors that permitted instant communication between two individuals, and an enchanted brooch, similar to Zaveid’s, that allowed instant transport to the fairy realm.
“Speaking of gifts,” Sorey said during the reception, as he kissed at Mikleo’s knuckles. “What was in that third egg that Lailah gave you?”
Mikleo blinked – it was still in his robes from their adventure. He requested an attendant fetch it for them, and made to open it.
It cracked open in a glorious light, and when the light faded, there stood a normin dressed in an exotic flamenco gown. It fluttered its fan in its heavily-made-up face, and spoke in a strangely deep voice.
“Dance with me! Cast off your monarchical chains and dance the dance of revolution!”
Mikleo rose an eyebrow, and looked over where Lailah was engaging in a drinking contest with members of the royal court. The normin heaved a sigh, and gathered up his skirts to stomp off onto the ballroom floor.
Fairy culture was a bit beyond Mikleo, as of the moment. But he was willing to learn – after all, alliances didn’t spring up overnight.