Flashes of him disappeared and reappeared in her head like lightening in the darkest hours.

She wanted to forget last night, but his hungry eyes, those bloodshot things stabbed into her slumber. Every word, every threat, the very breath from his lips pounded through pained ears. “Did you enjoy the dinner?” King Aldrec asked when he entered her cell. Zaira only nodded. “Quiet again? You usually are. My son made it tonight. It’s his first time cooking.” Aldrec smiled at her, and she quickly looked away. “Yes, slightly different and better. He’s a great chef, isn’t he? I guess cooking is another of his talents. And he happens to only be sixteen,” he boasted, forming another grin at the end. She glanced away again for she knew it was just an illusion. He had no heart. He only cared for his son, so any form of friendliness from him couldn’t be trusted. He demanded her to take a seat, so she settled at the edge of the bed. “Zaira, you know why I’m keeping you here,” he started, then knelt down before her, studying her face. Zaira’s eyes grew dim. “Now, don’t give me that look. You don’t realize how powerful you are, how much of a gift it is to have you here.” Zaira wanted to tell him that keeping her as a prisoner for his own benefit was wrong, but she remembered what happened the last time she told him something similar, that brutal blow across her face and the long-lasting pain afterwards. Aldrec sat close beside her and brought his palm up to her chin. “Such staggering eyes…they always get to me…in all your twenty-seven years, not even the goddess of beauty can compare. Unless you’re that goddess yourself come down here in human form.” Zaira pulled from his touch, and rolled her eyes. To think he can try cheap words on her. She rose from the bed, but Aldrec grabbed her arms and pinned her back down. And then it happened. He touched her. “Stop it! Let go!” she yelled, trying to push him away but wasn’t strong enough. “Somebody help!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “That’s no use,” he said. “No one’s around. We’re the only ones here.” “Bastard!” His heavy rage struck across her face. Zaira struggled helplessly to break free as he smothered her neck with wet, dirty kisses. His tongue felt like a poisonous snake, thick with icky slime. When he stopped, and she sat up and stared disgustingly into his frightening stones of utter wickedness, resentment sweltering through every vein in her body. She wondered if he had any shame for what he just did. They looked at one another in what seemed as forever. “Please, leave,” she finally said in the kindest manner, hoping a softer tone would make him do so. She couldn’t stand his presence. Instead, the king roughly grabbed her by her chin and gazed deeply into her with a shadow of darkness lingering over him. He edged his face closer, their lips just an inch apart, but Zaira shoved him away with all her might. “Leave me alone!” “You dare yell at me?” She sunk down against the wall, drawing her knees to her chest and narrowed her eyes with hatred. “Don’t you look at me that way either,” added the king. Zahira kept her head down and ignored him. “Look up to me,” he commanded. And when she didn’t, he knelt before her.

Zaira thought he just wouldn’t give up. But she knew one thing, she won’t be forced by him to give in. She would never surrender even if he beat her for hours more. “Look up to me,” he repeated. Seconds passed and he roughly lifted her chin. “That was an order. And, when you receive and order from the king, you follow them.” Another moment of silence passed until he spoke again. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” “While you touch me?” she bitterly responded. Zaira rose up and continued. “If you lay a hand on me again, I’ll stop my predictions, then your enemies will come, and this castle will burn just like it should’ve done years ago.” King Aldrec chuckled. “I almost believed you there, but make one thing clear, if you do stop, you must realize the consequences.” “And what is that?” Zaira knew that it had nothing to do with her own mentioning of the castle burning in ruin. That was an exaggeration. “You don’t want to know,” he whispered into her ear after taking a step closer to her. “But if you obey me, you won’t have to worry about any such thing. Just follow my orders…” He firmly, yet gently, grabbed both her upper arms. “…and do as I tell you… And don’t be afraid.” And when his hand slid down to her waist, that was it. Zaira shoved him away for the last time. “I’m serious, damnit!” He struck her for the second time across the same left cheek where she received her first blow. For a moment, she held the side of her face in pain, then let go and confronted him with an impulsive vigor. “I don’t care what the punishment is. You gonna’ behead me? Or throw me to the sharks? Or do you plan to rape me first, then kill me? Huh? Nothing’s worse than where I am now. I dare you, in whatever way—kill me.” Aldrec stood motionless, unable to respond to her unforeseen and mad demand. If she’s not afraid of death, then he would know she’s not afraid to withhold her premonitions of enemy approach. Silence lingered between them for the longest time until he finally made a decision. With a heavy grunt of frustration, he retreated out, slammed the gate, locked it, and left. *** Prince Gabriel wanted nothing to do with the never-ending subject of war from inside the castle. So he hid, here in mother’s garden, here in the company of a thousand of her sweetest flowers. If it wasn’t for Gabriel’s maintenance of this haven since her death years ago, the flowers would all have died along with her. Tending this garden was a way of keeping a part of her alive and still with him. Father was probably wondering where he was. And it’s always the same, how he always relied on Gabriel to formulate a quick military plan, either in the army’s defense or attack. But not today, not after what happened at breakfeast. Earlier this morning, Father waited for him in the dining room for breakfast, seated at the end of the table and asked him where he’d been. Gabriel told him he’d simply woken up late, then took a seat by him. “Are you and the princess undertaking preparations for the wedding?” Aldrec began. “Must it be next month? Can’t we postpone it?”

Aldrec leaned back as if he were stunned at Gabriel’s response. “What? I thought you’d be eager to take her hand!” Fumbling with the soup before him, Gabriel couldn’t think of any reason why he’d be impatient, or even willing to marry her. “I have no affection for her.” “I’m sorry, my ears must be playing tricks? What did you say?” “I said I don’t love Ramona. I don’t want to marry her.” “How can that be?” he asked, watching Gabriel take in a spoonful of food. Gabriel thought long and hard. “I don’t know.” “Well…what does it matter? You will take her hand.” “I don’t wish to,” he hesitantly persisted. “You must. If you don’t marry her, we can’t gain full trust of her father, and if our forces don’t come together, my kingdom will lose this war. Your wisdom, Gabriel, is not enough. And that witch I told you of, her presentiments are not always right! Sometimes, I don’t understand you. Your fiancée is rich, stunning, graceful, educated, soft-spoken, and well mannered. What more could you ask for? What more could there be in a woman?” Gabriel didn’t want to hear it, shaking his head at his father’s words. “Well, neither did I love the queen.” He dropped his spoon and looked up at his father for the first time since the conversation began. “Mother loved you.” Gabriel remembered the countless times when she told him and father that she loved them. “And if it’s not sooner, you will eventually take Lady Ramona as your future queen, anyhow,” he added, ignoring Gabriel’s previous statement as if it meant nothing to him. “Is that why you didn’t attend her funeral?” Gabriel asked, still talking about mother. Is that why you think it’s a waste a time when I tend to her garden for hours?” “And if the answer is yes, my dear son?...” Gabriel took in a deep breath, staring indignantly into his father’s dark, stone eyes. “Then why did you marry her?” Aldrec chuckled. “To bare me an heir. And for a sweet lady in the night bed. What else?” Appalled and lost for words, Gabriel rose up from his seat and stormed towards the dining hall exit. “Gabriel!” his father called after him. He rushed out the castle and to mother’s garden. And now, here he was. Gabriel couldn’t think of mother being used in the ways his father said, of living her marriage with father through a lie. He shook his mind from all that, as difficult as may be, and focused on the beauty of the garden. The sun manifested everything in a stunning microscopic level—the fine lines of the leaves like tiny capillaries, the tiny hairs covering the stems of the flowers, all magnified in detail, in essence. Then suddenly, a crow called from a distance and snatched away his attention from everything else. A dead bird lay close to the tree, covered in something dark which Gabriel couldn’t make out from the distance. Was it dirt? He immediately fled to the poor creature. It was a baby raven which must’ve fallen from its tree, and hundreds of stirring ants munched on its lifeless body. He nudged its body and the ants scattered in all directions. He kept doing that until the tiny army fled from the baby.

He cried while holding the baby in his palm. He felt like a hundred ants were eating his own heart. Sometimes, he wished he were like Father. Because the most caring, the most sensitive people are the ones who hurt the most. If he were like Father, he probably wouldn’t care about this bird and it wouldn’t pain him so much to see a baby’s life withered away right before his eyes. Gabriel buried the bird, then climbed up the tree and fixed the nest so no more baby raven’s would fall out. He rested back among the flowers, waiting for midnight to strike. At noon, hunger rose him to his feet and back into the castle. He ordered his food to be taken to his room for he didn’t want to see Father. Gabriel stayed in his bedroom the rest of that afternoon, anxiously waiting for the late hour. And once it came, he fit into his disguise as quickly as possible. The elaborate clothing came off, and on went his plain guard’s uniform in addition to a big mustache, sideburns and a hat. Stealthily, incognito, he crept out his bedroom and rushed downstairs. He darted across the large bridge and arrived at the prison entrance. The two guards allowed him in. There were the main cells where all the prisoners resided, and a single cell on the second floor with a large guarded door in order to get to, and it was that door that was locked yesterday and without usual security. “I’m on second floor watch duty again,” Gabriel said to the guard, deciding not to ask why he was absent last night. Without a word, the man rushed downstairs and Gabriel could see why. Standing by a door all night long up here would kill him with boredom. The door slid open without a creak. He closed it behind him and down the hall he went, stopping at the cell. There she lay, asleep in her small bed against the wall. So quiet she was in slumber, so calm. How Gabriel hated to wake her at the darkest part of the night, but had no other choice. He opened the door with his keys, turned on the light, and brought the chair by the side of her bed to sit down. To nervous to touch the woman, the only thing he could do was gaze at her backside as she laid in slumber before him. He took off his hat and false facial hair. He couldn’t wait to ask her how she liked the dinner. Last visit, he found out what type of food she liked and had cooked it just for her. And there was no doubt he cooked it well, so she’ll surely be impressed by him! He heard that woman take delight in a man who can cook. He coiled with a strand of her hair, while watching her chest heave up and down in slow heavy breathing. The eager moonlight thrusted onto her and licked the soft skin of her neck before smothering again behind thick clouds. And in all this, the mere silence in the air held them together with a deep energy which beated like a heavy heart itself. This love, this maddening desire was a hunger a thousand times greater than lust, for love feeds in the mind, in the heart, and in the hollows of the soul. Gabriel let go of the hair twisted loosely around his finger and went for her hand. The scent of a rose dripped from his lips. He kissed her hand, then held it for awhile. But, he couldn’t hold it all night. He had to let it go. “Zaira…” he repeatedly whispered. “Zaira.” He was about to hide the pieces of his disguise in his pocket before she grunted, turned over on her back, and revealed an unexpected sight. Her eye! “Zaira,” he called louder, forgetting about concealing his disguise. “Wake up.”

*** She slowly, drearily opened her eyes. “What happened to you?” was the first thing Gabriel said. She sat up, looked at him with fear, and retreated to the furthest end of the bed. “Tell me what happened. How did you get those bruises?” “You lied.” “What?” he asked with a raised eyebrow. “You told me you were twenty-one. The king told me last night you’re just sixteen.” She noticed the odd items in his lap. “That’s not important right now. When did this happen?” He was about to take Zaira’s wrist to get a better look, but she swiftly moved it away. “You’re a liar too.” “Okay, I lied! I admit!...But you said my father was here last night. The wounds look recent. Did he do this? Or someone else?…You angered someone.” “And I knew you looked too young,” Zaira continued. “If this happens one more time, be sure, I’ll get to the bottom of it. Which guard was it?” “I don’t want you ‘round here anymore. I know what you want! The very reason your bastard, two faced father came here last night!” She got up from her bed, and looked down at him. “You’re not fooling me.” Gabriel rose and incredulously stared down at her with awe. “You should watch your language…and your tone of voice if you ever spoke to my father that way. Please, that’s enough to get you capital punishment.” Gabriel was almost a spitting image of his father. The only difference was the darker color of his hair. He reminded her so much of Aldrec, and she couldn’t trust him, couldn’t even stand looking at him. Even though he was only about an inch or two taller than her, he loomed over her with the same broad figure as his father; and he studied her with the same eyes as his father—what a fiend! And the worst thing was, he had that slight touch of deception that rather than shining like white pearls through a fake smile, instead, flowed like honey off his lips from an altered soft, almost meek, voice. Deception’s witty illusions spoil to mere absurdity when dealing with souls too wicked for goodness to thrive in. “You can’t tell me to what to do!” she defied him. “I can swear as much as I want. And you, the bastard’s son, can kiss my ass. I won’t follow your orders.” “Why did the king come last night? What happened?” “Your father came onto me and I fought back…,” she finally confessed, still gazing out into the silent waters. “That’s not true…” “Just what you’re here for! For the third time, in midnight! Lying about your age! I’m twenty-seven, you’re sixteen. You know that!” “But that’s absurd. I would never…I—I...” Gabriel shook his head and seemed to be struck speechless. “Then why are you prowling ‘round here? And why lie of your age?” “I’ll answer your question another time. Just know that I’d never follow my father’s behavior. I apologize for this—what he did. If he does this to you—“

“What I need is to get out of here,” she interrupted him. “It’s going to be alright,” he assured her in a soothing voice, gently touching her arm. “I can help y—” Zaira snatched her arm away from his touch and told him, “I don’t need your comfort. If you really care about me, if you really want to help me, then help me escape from here!” Gabriel stared at her with eyes wide open. A deep and long silence passed between them. “No,” he shook his head. Then, he grabbed the pieces of his disguise and rushed back to the gates to leave. Gabriel took one last look at her before locking back the gate and rushing down the hall. “Well, I hope you flame in hell! You devil!” she yelled after him. Here he came and disrupted her sleep for nothing. And his motive for coming here was still unknown. She thought the king had been sending him and she believed it. But tonight, the second she saw that fake mustache and sideburns exposed in his lap, she knew something was odd about his trip here. Unable to fall back asleep, Zaira gazed out again at the waters outside her prison. She wanted out, out so badly. For the next night, she didn’t sleep, afraid that the king or prince might make another late hour visit. And for another night awake, as she mindlessly stared at the grand lake, footsteps grew nearer and nearer towards the bars. She already knew it was Gabriel by the slower steps and didn’t turn around even at the sound of the keys opening the gate. “Come with me quickly,” he whispered, grabbing her wrist that wasn’t bruised. Zaira resisted. The room was dark, but the moon’s glow revealed his full face. Those usual dark eyes had a change. She sensed a sort of pain in them, but didn’t know of what. “Zaira, I’m going to help you escape tonight. We must make this quick before the guards come back. I have everything ready. Okay?” Still as a statue from disbelief, it took her a moment to finally get her senses back and return a slight nod. She allowed him to lead her away, but stopping just before the gates, he turned around and told her, “Before we go, tell me what your crime is.” “I’ve done nothing. King Aldrec kidnapped me eleven years ago. As to why, you ask him.” He took out a heavy hammer hidden in his pocket, went back to the window and smashed it to pieces. Bits of glass fell into the water far down below. She thought him clever when he told her to take off her boots so it would look like she jumped out into the water. She did as was told, then they rushed across the hallway, down the stairs, and out the prison’s main door. A cool breeze swept past them, lifting Zaira’s long curls in the air. The guards Gabriel diverted away were still gone, but he and Zaira’s heart still thumped at a thousand beats per second. Racing across the rocky edge, Gabriel stopped at a few yards from the bridge where the incline of the rocks wasn’t as steep. Lulu spread out her wings from below and rose just below the ground level. Gabriel instructed Zaira to step onto the giant bird’s back. At first, Zaira looked at him as if he were crazy. But when she saw he was serious, she lifted up her long, thick dress above her ankles. Gabriel remained close behind her, just in case she might slip or had trouble getting onto the bird. But, gracefully, she stepped onto Lulu’s back without any need for help. “Here’s some money,” he said, handing her a small pouch filled with a grand amount.

“Keep it close. Lulu will take you some hundred miles away from here. From there, you can decide what to do.” Then, he took out a pair of slippers and handed them to her, telling her they were all he could sneak out. But they were beautiful, decorated with jewels that shined under the night’s glow. She wondered where he got them from. “Lulu, go.” The bird descended down and out over the water. “Thank you,” were Zaira’s only words. But Gabriel did not smile, did not say a word back. Instead, he stood there with a still, pale face. It must’ve been the moonlight’s glow giving him that abnormal look. *** The castle’s atmosphere changed after her escape. His father was in fury, kept wondering how Zaira had smashed the window without any of the guards hearing outside the door. A terrible darkness preyed upon the entire place. But, the darkness which swept through the prison, and the throne hall, into the corridors and into every bedroom, everywhere except his dear Mother’s garden, was nothing compared to the shadows that engulfed his heart as he sat in the garden, still trapped like a prisoner in this war-torn, godforsaken palace under total control of the king. He hoped the gods would hurl rescuing stones of fire from the sky and burn this place to ashes. But Gabriel was stuck here. He wanted to escape with Zaira, but if he did, with her or without, Father would send his best men to track him down. Though, Gabriel was taught that a girl with an unclean tongue is no lady at all, all he could see in Zaira was a lady. It wasn’t her beauty that attracted him. It was her aura luring him to her, and the blaze within her eyes with all their fierce defiance and strength. Gabriel’s tired of woman who follow his every command, who never dare to disagree with him. Never had he known a girl who drew from him both longing and intimidation. What was Ramona? A simple flower, not even a rose, a supposed gift bestowed upon him by his father. But Zaira, she was like fire. A strong woman. Fierce. Untouchable. Destructive, scorching his heart from the inside. But most of all, he felt inferior to this woman. She had all the courage and inner strength that he as a man lacked, courage to defy his father and speak up for herself. He wished he was like her, that he could fight back against his father, tell him that he’s tired of this war and doesn’t want to follow his orders in assisting the construction of never-ending military plans. Furthermore, he wanted to walk into father’s office and tell him, “No, I will not marry Ramona. You’ll never make me. She is boring and too submissive for my taste.” Gabriel escaped to Zaira’s cell because he loved her, and simply wanted to see her. But he couldn’t tell her. He’s too afraid of her response, of denial. No one would reject Gabriel, but here was a girl who just might, the very and only girl he ever desired. Even if he did tell her, there was the fact of his father’s advances towards her. At first, he refused to believe her, but reason overpowered his disbelief. With the revelation of father’s real intention of marrying mother, along with the twice-heard gossip of him sleeping with various female servants, he came to the horrible conclusion that she must be telling the truth. Why else would the high king steal here at night to this mere prisoner’s cell? At first, he couldn’t imagine her escaping. He didn’t want her to leave and not be able to see her anymore. But those strong, demanding flames of fire had burned into his resistance. Anyways, Father always got what he wanted, one way or another, but one thing

he wouldn’t have was Zaira. If he did anything to her, it would be Gabriel’s fault for not taking action beforehand. He remembered that night of the argument when had looked at him as if he had no heard at all. Such a valiant woman, and yet so blind. He finally found one defect in her. Her fire brazes along the surface—and it does only that. These electric eyes had gazed merely under his eyelids, into his pupils, his dark brown irises, all surrounded by sclera. What a shallow way to perceive him. Yet his heart still hungered for her. Why her, and with such a low power lens of perception? Surely, the girl for him must first and foremost be someone who can see past the dark resemblances to his father. But it seems as though this heart of his had a mind of its own, something even Gabriel couldn’t fully understand. A rather complex thing it was, in all his intelligence, it puzzled him more than anything. And the thing was, there were no books, no teachings to understand such a vast entity to its fullest. He could only feel it. And it bled. It bled with open wounds so unbearable that he felt it could pass out if it suffered just one more minor scrape. Gabriel hated himself. This heart of his, nothing but a curse, weighing him down like iron chains. Why can’t he be like Father? Why must he love so much, care so much when all he receives back in return is a damaged heart? Where has it gotten him? Such a heavy burden to carry. And what of Zaira? She cared nothing for him. He wished he never loved her. It’s better never to know what love tastes like, than to have a sip and watch the glass shatter before your very eyes, spilling that sweet drink as your soul craves for every last wasted drip. He’ll set his own self free, and by the only way he can. He fled back into the prison, searching the first floor cells for a middle aged woman. It was dim and some of the prisoners lay asleep. Only two were up and regarded him with no attention for to them he was only a guard. Only one woman was found so she must be the much talked about witch who was unable to control her abnormal curiosity with the human heart. He opened the sleeping woman’s cell with much ease and proceeded to awake her with a gentle shake of her shoulder. She wasn’t too startled at the sudden disturbance and sat up, staring at him with eyes which foretold murder. Gabriel shuddered just by the presence of her. Gabriel knelt before her, pressing his hat to his chest. “Madame, it is Prince Gabriel. What do you think of having your sentence reduced to half ?” Her eyes lit up. “Oh, I would love that!” “But for the exchange of a favor, madame.” “Yes?” “Create me a heart of stone, for myself only. It will be between only you and me.” A great sense of delight now swept across her entire countenance. She clasped her hands together and brought it up above her breasts. “Absolutely!...Oh!” “How fast can you create me one?” “Relatively quickly, your highness. No more than an hour.” “Amani, you will escape with me tonight. We will go to your place. Is everything still there? The soldiers couldn’t find your laboratory.” And just as he thought, it was hidden. A smart woman like her with such risky magic would know to keep her experiments securely veiled.

They escaped that night thirty miles away to her home, to a small cottage near the mountains. She made him stay back a couple yards, then went up to her cottage, running her hand along its stone walls. She whispered some words that Gabriel couldn’t hear from so far off, but her lips moved almost in a rhythmic pattern. Faintly, a light glow gradually grew through the windows as she recited her spell. That glow reached a certain peak before dying back down to a dim radiance and then nothing at all. She brought her hand down and motioned with a smile for him to come over. Once he entered, he couldn’t believe what he saw. The entire house was a laboratory. He almost became so entrenched on the numerous books, and the weird looking plants, and all the gigantic beakers filled with unknown substances. “Come along, dear,” she called, poking her head out from another room. Realizing he’d just been standing in one spot, he hurried into the other smaller room where he encountered a large table with a cauldron and various ingredients and tools scattered about. “I have to watch you,” she told him. “I don’t want you wandering about touching things. Your eyes shine with curiosity…and mischief. Now, have a seat. This shouldn’t take all night.” He watched her gather certain potions and herbs, and along the ingredients was dirt and gravel. And while watching this, he noticed laying beside the pot was a large oval mirror with two handles on its side. “Want to see you heart?” she asked, pouring a strange liquid into the pot. “Have a look in the mirror.” Gabriel reached over, and out of natural tendency, raised it to his face. He saw nothing. “It only shows the heart, your highness. Hold to it to your chest so it can get a reflection.” He did just that and dropped the mirror out of shock at the appalling image before him. The witch glanced at him with confusion. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he told her while picking it up. In some way, the mirror retained the reflection of his heart, so there was no need to hold it to his chest again. He gazed into a heart of reddish-pinkish flesh, soft flesh which beated strongly and profusely. And covering the heart was blood, blood that dripped and trailed from open cuts and gashes. The wounds that covered much of his heart, he felt this very moment. However, very soon, there will be no more dark days, no more longing, no more fear, no more weakness. He will build his own strength, first, by getting rid of this wretched curse of a soft heart and replace it with a lighter one of stone, as light as a raven’s feather. He watched it drop and wither like a half-dead animal lingering between life and death. It went squirming and flopping and never stopped. Let the blood ooze from his old heart, let its sweet scent pervade all around him, and let the aroma grow so much that he can almost taste that sweet loveliness of liquid iron.

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