Prince of Nothing
By: Amber Michelle
Originally posted on Livejournal for the July 13th prompt at 31days.
The wolf queen, Rafiel thought, was very much like her kingdom: strange. Or, perhaps exotic was a better term. Markings were brushed onto her arms, hands, legs, like ink or watercolor, inviting his eye to follow each line to its conclusion. Her adornments were gold - gold beads, gold plates, gold embroidery. Her hair and fur were feathery and silver. She glinted like metal in the shade of his sickroom, pale here, painted there, and he couldn't help examining her every time she visited. Her accent was stilted and odd, but she knew the old tongue, and they found ways to understand one another.
Her visits kept him from sinking into a dark sleep and gave him something to look forward to when he opened his eyes in the morning. Hatari, she said, hasn't seen your kind since the flood. Even the oldest has never seen a heron - and now we have a prince on our hands. It's hard to believe you're real.
Hatari. How on Tellius did he get there?
Just as Tellius had legends of her land, the Hatari had passed songs and poems down from ancient times, when the world was not divided by unnatural deserts and mountains. When the flood waters washed away, the desert was born, she told him. We vowed not to cross the goddess again, and we haven't approached that border since. Her stories were so old the names of Lehran and Dheginsea were mentioned without their perpetual companions, the lion and the queen, because they had not existed yet. When he recovered in spite of himself and regained his voice, he told her the story of Ashera's war against chaos and the history of the world since then.
Seven nations? Her eyes were wide. Not one or two, but seven. And then: What of yours, Serenes? Are there many like you?
He wasn't there to see the story's end, so he told her the truth as he knew it: no.
"You said there are other bird laguz here?" he asked one morning. It was his first time outside of her keep and the area she led him to, crowded to bursting with green plants and flowers in red and yellow, tempted him into talking.
"Scavengers," she said. "Browns and blacks, carrion eaters. Beyond them, that way," she pointed north, and through the slitted window in the courtyard wall he saw more trees. "There are panthers, and a group of lizards." When he asked how it could be so pleasant, not hot and dry like the desert, and she said, "We are far beyond the sands of death. You were ill for a long time."
He examined a flower with markings like Nailah's on petals that resembled wings. An orchid, she called it, and there were many others of like appearance, reminding him of butterflies and the large, feathery moths native to Serenes. Rafiel paused at a tree in the far corner and looked up, following the slender trunk to the apex where it split into long, paddle-shaped fronds. Clusters of fruit spiraled around a heavy, drooping branch, green and brown. He stretched his wings without thinking, hand resting on the trunk, and felt the muscles in his back tremble and strain. No.
"Plantains," she said, following his gaze.
He looked back at her. "Have I eaten one?" Aside from berries, which seemed to look the same no matter where one found them, the fruit and other foods served to him by her servants were unfamiliar.
The wolf queen shrugged. "You can take one if you like and find out."
Rafiel gave them one more glance before stepping away. He folded his wings against his back. "No, that's quite alright, but thank you."
She met his eyes with a fading smile, and he couldn't help thinking, who has ever heard of a bird who can't fly? She bowed as if he'd given her an order and watched a nectar bird dip its beak into violet flower. No one had said a word since his awakening; the queen never asked why he didn't want space to fly or stretch, or why he wasn't uncomfortable tucked into bed with his wings pressed to the pillows as if with pins. They bent in ways they weren't supposed to sometimes, the muscles having gone slack and then stiffened up again in illness. The Begnion priest who healed him had no knowledge of laguz needs.
If he tried to fly, they would probably bend and crumble like paper and leave him in the dirt. He had yet to transform because of a similar worry. What if he couldn't manage?
"Wait here a moment," she said, drawing him out of his contemplation.
Nailah climbed the tree using old and broken stalks as her hand-holds, and stretched her arm out to pull a plantain from its cluster. She came down with two tucked behind her belt. Up in the sun her silver hair shimmered, and her tail bristled like a brush. He wondered if it was softer than it looked.
"Who ever heard of a wolf climbing trees to fetch?" she asked when her feet were on solid ground again, offering him a plantain, and he laughed.
When Rafiel was well enough to leave the grounds and explore Nailah brought him robes of white silk and a fine coat embroidered with gold thread. The pattern was of leaves and winter flowers, plum blossoms on their branches and glory-of-the-snow. Serenes slept under a blanket of white during most winters, but it reminded him of home anyway.
The Hatari hadn't known what to dress him in, it seemed. When he came to his covering had been limited to blankets - a generous supply of them, but hardly a replacement for decent clothing. The wolves didn't wear layers as his kind did. Her gift, however, was crafted in such a familiar style they must have imitated his old clothing. He let it slide from his hands when the queen offered to help him dress and stared at the floor until she prompted him to remove his sleeping gown.
"I'm sorry if they aren't to your liking," she said after a pause, working the robe over a wing. With no patterns to use, his caretakers had simply acquired articles of normal Hatari make and slit holes in the back. "We didn't know what your preferences would be when the project was started."
"They're beautiful." He kept his expression stiff and smooth until it was safe to blink again, but his eyes stayed hot, moist at the edges. "They could have been made at home."
She remained silent. Nailah hadn't uttered a word about his home since he told her why they found him lost in the desert. Serenes was dead. There were times Rafiel wondered if he was really here, or if Hatari was a dream of the afterlife, but he knew it for reality in the morning when the sun rose and he awoke alone. Leanne, Reyson, Lillia, everyone-- they were gone, suffocated or hacked to pieces by angry beorc, or burned away by fire.
The last time he spoke to Leanne she had given him a branch of cherry blossoms for the anniversary of his birth, with silk ribbons woven around the wood by her own little hands. It would have swirled to the heavens like the trees, like feathers, and fallen to the earth in a rain of ash. Of Leanne herself he tried not to speculate.
"Do you know why we crossed the desert?" Nailah asked when the silence became heavy. He breathed slowly, evenly, and tilted his head so she knew he was listening. "I don't think it's the goddess's punishment, or that it can't be crossed. That's what we've believed for centuries. But the land here is too small, and we have to fight the cats every season for the rights to our borders."
She stroked over the downy feathers at the base of his wing, where the bones joined with his shoulder blades. The calloused tips of her fingers were peculiar and rough. "You told me," he said when she draped the coat over his shoulders and came around front to adjust it, "your people speculate there is land on the other side of that straight to the north."
"We can't get over there to find out," she said with a shrug.
No wings, he thought, and sighed. He may as well shed his own, for all the good they did.
"Is there room where you're from?" Her nails scraped over the hollow of his throat where she clasped the collar, and he had to hold very still to keep from cowering away.
Rafiel watched the highlights of her hair shift when she bent to glare at a clasp. He forgot sometimes that her white teeth could lengthen to fangs, and her nails to deadly claws. "On Tellius?" He clasped her hand and looked down at the lines on her palm, the way her nails blunted at the tip, a pearly white. "Not for laguz."
He gave in one day, when she and her trusted retainers escorted him to a waterfall deep in the forest, and reached to trace her markings. Water beaded under his fingers where he moved them. The area was misted and cool, the waterfall a loud din in the background. The others hunted fish in the river shallows.
"They're real," she murmured when he came to the swirl on her shoulder.
"And this," he said, tracing a white line across her arm. It was followed by others, parallel scratches. Rafiel shook his wings and sent droplets of water flying everywhere. "A panther?"
"An insolent pup who decided to challenge me when I stepped up as queen."
"And this one?" His fingers found another scar, a slight ridge down the length of her thigh.
"A fall from the roof, right onto a stone lantern in the courtyard."
Rafiel rubbed the pad of his thumb over it, watching the skin fade to white, then red, then back to almond. "What were you doing on the roof?"
Nailah huffed, rolling her eyes to the trees. "Being an idiot. It's what pups do."
He smiled and rested his hand on her cheek, turning her head to see a faded streak over her jaw, so old it almost blended into her tan. "This?"
She let him look, and her green eyes slid aside to see him. "I tried to fly."
He felt his feathers ruffle and straightened, folding his hands in his lap. "What a foolish idea."
"I agree." Nailah twisted, refolding her legs and leaning on one hand to watch the others splash in the water. Silver hair clung damp and heavy to her neck and shoulders. "Who needs to fly, after all? Our own two legs are good enough."
At first Rafiel had not believed Nailah to be royalty. She had the confidence, and was certainly strong, but he did not sense the strict reserve, the formality that wrapped about his own father, or even some of the other rulers - excluding Tibarn. She helped him dress every morning when she should have handed over him to a servant. She ate with him, and always found time to talk with him, yet here in Hatari he was no better than a beggar. What of royal dignity, et cetera?
He remembered the Duke's efforts to care for him, and wondered why Nailah was less objectionable. Because she was female? Beautiful? Because she saved him?
Volug was the one to find him, she told Rafiel eventually. He was ordered to scout the area around the ruins - yes there were ruins, it isn't my fault birds are blind - while she investigated inside. He returned with a heron slung over his shoulder, a creature sunburned and nearly dead of deprivation. They took turns carrying him on the way back - you're light as a feather, but your wings are so awkward - but it was the queen he remembered seeing when he first opened his eyes and felt cool water against his lips.
"I thought you would stay red forever," she said. "It was horrifying to watch your skin peel."
He pressed his hands to his cheeks and felt them grow hot. Nailah grinned.
Business cropped up to the north when Rafiel had been there several months, perhaps even a year. Nailah asked him to remain in the keep with Volug as his guard until she returned - she would be there and back in a flash, and he wouldn't know the difference. Panthers? he'd asked when she disappeared down the road, and Volug simply shrugged.
Her return was slow. He didn't worry until he saw her in the distance from the gate, between the trees, walking on two legs instead of four and supported by one of her companions. Her jewelry was crusted with dried blood; there were new scratches raked over her arms, and a bandage made of scraps from her clothing wrapped over her face. He ran the distance to her side. Business? This is what you call--
"Panthers," she said. When he gripped her face with both hands, forcing her good eye to focus on him, she hmmed and added, "And a foolish pup who thought to challenge me."
"More than a foolish pup," he said, slinging her other arm across his shoulders. "Unless you expect me to believe you're anything less than a goddess on the battlefield."
"Mmm, I didn't ask your opinion, did I?"
"Well you're going to listen to it while I take care of these."
Nailah let him do as he wanted, though her retainers could have removed him easily if she wished it so. He washed each wound, applied an herb gel Volug fetched for him, and wrapped the scratches in bandages. "You should have been more careful," he said when he was finished, softly, his fingers lingering on the bandage over her eye.
"You won't believe I found an even match?" she asked, lifting her eyebrow.
"Absolutely not." Rafiel lowered his head to her shoulder and let his eyes drift closed when he felt her fingers work into his hair. "I have many years left to dedicate to you, and you must be alive to accept them. Is that understood?"
Nailah's fingers curled and her nails scratched over his nape, making his skin prickle and shiver. "Does that make you mine, Rafiel?" He lifted his head and watched her lips form a satisfied curve. "Yes, I think so." Her smile softened. "As you wish."