He paces like oncoming tide, relentless threat measurable by proximity. In the center of the room—though one cannot say the heart—sits a small child of indeterminate age, somewhere around fifteen years old if pure-blood Fey and around six years old if mixed. The people called “Leaf-Ears” do not ripen with haste.
The child has mastered a surly expression normally cultivated by misanthropic teens.
It has not endeared him to the king. “Do you think your choices please me?” The king slows and weaves an accusing look into his walk, a tide that pauses on shore for dramatic effect. “Did you think we would not know?”
The child’s gaze skitters off his royal father to rest briefly on the black throne behind—which, more accurately, is the heart of the room—but cannot stay there, and jumps as if chastised back to his relentless sire. Perhaps from wisdom, he does not reply. Perhaps from fear, as well, or raw stubborn anger—his long ears twitch back and stiff, ramrod and willfully straight.
“John, your father has asked a question,” glissades from the walls, the floor, the cracks between floor and wall in a sweet alto that shakes the bones like a live wire between the teeth.
The child keens and clutches his mud-spattered knees, and his ears—easily as long as his forearms—flip back and down, down, like the plummet in his belly.
“Mother,” chides the king, who continues to weigh—and evidently find wanting—the small form of his son.
They hardly look alike, these three. The child—small, pale, almost too white and covered in mud; the father—regal, frightening, adorned with dark red and iron-grey hair, a deep tan and a host of scars; and the queen mother, who is, of course, an immense ebony throne.
It is as if each generation bled, leaked ink or paint or power. Or perhaps it is something else that has left them.
Softness survived. Maybe they will purge it from the child. Maybe not. Of all that leaked between generations, willpower remained waterproof. “I’ll tell you what I did,” the child says into the tiny, muddy cleft between his knees. “I went out and had some fun.”
“Fun.” The king has never heard the word before, judging by his tone.
“Fun,” repeats the child with less certainty.
The king’s arm-length ears are heavily pierced, and the weight of gold in that sensitive derma terrifies the child. “You are my heir,” says the king.
The child says nothing.
“If something had happened to you—”
“I know, all right? I know!” The child grips his own ears as though to protect them from piercing—or perhaps to hide their tell-tale blush. “I’m sorry!”
The king sighs. “Six essays.”
“On why what you did endangered the throne.”
“She wasn’t in danger!”
“On my doorstep by tomorrow.”
It was unthinkable. Unendurable. Unless— “May I write six songs instead?”
And the tiniest twitch at the corner of the king’s grim mouth reveals what amusement might lurk within, but it does not peek again. “Yes.”
The child leaps to his feet—his ears perk forward and up, so delicate the light shines rosily through them—and races out of the throne room, eager to begin and eager to end this travesty of time and justice.
“He will not stay.” The throne speaks, a voice from timeless subconscious, always familiar and always too deep. “Soon, he will run and be gone forever.”
Unthinkable. Unendurable. Unless— “He’s my son. He knows what’s at stake. He’ll obey.”
The throne’s throaty chuckle punctures the king’s certainty like rivets through fine stone facade.