Whispers trailed behind Prince Abel as he made his way across the room. The Shadow Prince, some called him; few had seen his kingdom and even fewer had seen the Prince himself. Those who had spoke in hushed voices about a man half-hidden in shadow, of eyes that looked straight through you, knowing more than you could ever possibly know. Some were convinced he was an avatar of the Mother, but others knew that not even she had a gaze that sharp.
Prince Abel ignored the chatter. His fingers ran across the soft leather pouch at his hip, filled with cotton and warm stones, his reason for being here nestled in the very center. So much depended on the young Judge’s choice this evening, but Prince Abel wasn’t worried. It was impossible to turn down a creature who had hatched in the palm of your hand. Absently, he reached up to stroke his servant’s long, thin neck. Her wings brushed softly against his cheek.
If Dromeous was surprised to see the reclusive Prince standing in the middle of the crowd, all relaxed lanky limbs, he didn’t show it. He greeted Prince Abel in his low, level voice.
“I have brought an animal for the new Judge’s consideration,” Abel said, holding his head at an odd angle that cast shadows over his clear, bright eyes.
“My servant will place it with the others.”
“No.” Abel’s servant stretched and shifted on his shoulder. She stared Dromeous in the eye, unblinking. “I must take it there myself.”
“As you wish.” Dromeous nodded and his servant, Ayubu, was instantly at his side. His eyes were downcast and he bowed respectfully to Abel, picture of the perfect servant. Abel felt his pulse thud offbeat. “You will show Prince Abel to the animals and assist him in anything he requires,” Dromeous said.
Ayubu bowed deeply once more. His eyes flicked upward for a moment. Abel forgot how to breathe.
* * *
The flutter of wings at Ayubu’s window came shortly after midnight, as mysterious things often do. Edgar was asleep in a bassinet in the corner of the room. Someone was standing on the balcony, casting a slim silhouette on the curtains. Ayubu undid the latch.
“Prince Abel!” Ayubu bowed his head. Questions ran through his mind. “Was there something you required?”
Abel’s slender fingers were at Ayubu’s jaw. He tilted his head upward. “I have not come to ask anything of you,” Abel said, “I have only come to make an offer.”
Ayubu’s heart beat faster as his eyes strayed up Prince Abel’s slim, pale arm. His eyes had strayed often that afternoon. “What offer could you possibly make another man’s servant?” he asked, his voice cracking more than it ought.
“If we were naught but men,” Prince Abel said, “if you were the Prince and I the Servant, what would you do?”
His eyes were clear and bright and beautiful. Ayubu’s mouth grew dry.
* * *
Prince Abel paid a visit to Prince Dromeous and the new Judge once a year, just around the young Prince’s birthday. Many speculated on the reason, and it was some years before anyone bothered asking.
“Why do you come so often, Prince Abel?” Fleance said one afternoon shortly after Abel’s arrival. Edgar sat perched in his hair. “Everyone says you never leave your territory.”
Prince Abel knelt down. His hair shaded his eyes. “I’ve been asked to keep a watch on the new Judge and his servant,” he said. Murmurs rose up behind him. He need not say who had asked.
Ayubu was looking at him out of the corner of his eye. It was all Abel could do not to smile and ruin the effect.
* * *
Abel liked it when Ayubu grabbed his hair and pulled, when he grazed teeth sharp down his neck, because it was something a servant would never do.
“If you had earned this yourself, I wonder what sort of man you would have become?” It was a question he often asked while they lay together in the starlight, limbs tangled. “Would you have been great? Would you be together with me like this.”
“I would have never met you,” Ayubu would say, marvelling over white, perfect limbs and soft skin, beauty he’d never get used to. “I’m glad I am a servant.”
“You would have met me,” is all Abel would say.
* * *
Abel’s servant was waiting for him in the small grove when he returned. She stared at him, unblinking.
“I know,” he said, stroking her stiff, ragged crown. “I know. But I can’t stop now.”
* * *
It was quite a long time before Prince Dromeous said anything about them.
“Presumptuous of you, isn’t it?” They were in the garden. Fleance lay curled up in the grass, sleeping. Ayubu and Edgar sat a little ways away. Ayubu pointed to a page in his journal and Edgar nodded, pushing the hair out of his eyes with one hand and tracing letters with his other. “I recall once offering all that is mine at your disposal,” Dromeous continued, “but I don’t recall offering my servant.”
Abel wanted to tremble but didn’t. “How long have you known?” he asked.
“He told me after the first time.”
There was nothing but the servants’ soft voices in the garden for some time. Abel ran his fingers around the rim of his cup. Abel’s servant shifted almost nervously on his shoulder. “Why didn’t you come to my coronation?” Dromeous asked.
“Because you weren’t important,” Prince Abel told him.
Dromeous nodded, as if he’d suspected as much. “It makes him happy and doesn’t interfere with his work,” he said, “so I’ll allow it.”
“Could this be the same judge who presided mercilessly over the Serpent trials?”
“Such things seem less important now,” Prince Dromeous said, and sipped his tea.
* * *
Ayubu heard a flutter of wings outside his window. His heart thudded and he scrambled out of bed, flung open his curtains, expecting a tall, slim figure clothed only in starlight. Instead there was girl standing on his balcony, a servant, her Ace form barely thirteen. Her hair hung long and feathered down one side.
Ayubu choked out a name, one he’d heard Prince Abel whisper a thousand times to the bird perched perpetually on his shoulder. The girl nodded, smooth and graceful. Her neck was long and slender. If she’d grown up she would be beautiful, but as a girl she was merely pretty.
“Your prince is going to die soon,” she said.
Ayubu nodded. He didn’t need her to tell him. It was all he could think about lately.
The girl’s head titled to one side and she stared at him unblinking. “How do you feel about my Prince?” she asked.
Ayubu told her. She seemed satisfied. Without another word she turned and glided out the window to the ground below.
* * *
“Would you still hold me if you weren’t a servant?” was another question Prince Abel often asked. “Would you be with me like this if you weren’t obligated?”
Ayubu’s hand would clench the sheets. “I am not your servant,” he would say, “I have no obligations beyond treating you with respect.”
Abel would smile ever so sadly. “How can I know?”
“Honestly!” Ayubu always got angry at this point. It made Abel shiver. “You’re not even my Prince, and I still…”
Abel would embrace him. “Cast me away or love me, I’m yours do with what you wish.”
And Ayubu would cling fiercely to him. “I would never cast you away.”
* * *
It was the middle of summer, the hottest it had been all year. One of Prince Abel’s gladiators stood before him, panting. He’d raced through the jungle, in the heat.
“We’ve just received news,” he said. “The old Judge has died.”
Abel glanced at him, but didn’t say anything for a very, very long time.
* * *
The first swan arrived in the autumn, or what passed for it in those parts. The gladiators tensed, but though it was an animal that didn’t belong it was still no more than an animal. A few days later, another joined. And another. And another.
* * *
“My name is Fleance,” the boy said, standing in the clearing like he owned it. “I’m here to see Prince Abel.”
“He isn’t seeing anyone,” the young woman told him. “I’m sorry.”
Fleance’s eyes narrowed. “Do you know who I am?”
“Yes,” she said, “but he’s still not seeing anyone.”
Fleance let out a growl, and the young woman sighed and pointed to the hilltop behind her. A tall, slim figure stood atop it, silhouetted by sunlight. There were swans all about him.
“You didn’t come this year,” Fleance said, standing in front of Prince Abel.
“You’re quite old enough now,” Abel said, lowering his gaze to meet the young Judge’s. The bright sunlight cast shadows about his eyes. “I don’t think you need looking after any longer.”
There was not much to be said to this. “My servant was asked to make sure you received this,” Fleance said abruptly, holding out a small brown envelope the size of his palm. “Prince Dromeous’ servant gave it to him.”
Abel’s hand closed around the packet. The brown paper crackled softly. “Thank you,” he said, and Fleance was satisfied.
* * *
There was a flutter of wings at Prince Abel’s bedside. He opened his eyes. His servant was still on her perch, sleeping soundly. He looked around, then smiled.
“Ah,” he said, “is she finally done with me?”
The figure at his bedside nodded.
His arms stretched out. “Take me away then. I am yours, after all. Since the moment I met you. Before that, maybe. Perhaps since the day I was born, though I did not know it.” His smile stretched out further and he sat up in his bed as the figure leaned down to meet him. They embraced, and Prince Abel sighed. “I always knew you would be a great man,” he said.
The members of Abel’s kingdom found their Prince dead the next morning, his servant resting her head on his chest. There was an empty brown envelope at his bedside. The swans had all flown away in the night.