It was really a sign of how close the Prince was to madness that he never questioned the swan.
He had gone to the park with no real purpose, other than that he could be alone there, truly alone, without the dreadful picking scrutiny of eyes passing over and through him, catching on his coat, his hair, his bearing, everything but himself. The Prince had been alone all his life, but hardly ever by himself.
Yet when he gets there it is as if they have followed him; a pinching, hissing flock of whispers and stares. What does the Secretary think of you, that he must pay for you to be loved? What will your mother think when she reads the papers? What will people say when they see you, in black and white, grinding your teeth in the gutter?
The sky, stained yellow by the glow of city lights, yawns black and empty above him, the stars seem to have been swallowed up by it.
If I go back to the Palace, he thinks, this is what it will be like for the rest of my life, which shall be years long, and I shall have to pretend to enjoy all of it.
Beneath his feet the frost rimed grass throws back the lamp light with a slick and sullen glitter. If she looked at you like that before, peck the voices, how will she look at you now?
The lake looks so still and quiet before him, the moon a pale splash upon its surface. The Prince, writing his farewells upon a piece of trash, believes it the most beautiful thing in the park.
He changes his mind when the Swan comes. From where, he doesn't see. Maybe he had been roosting in the reeds around the lake, or drifting silently beneath an overhanging bank; maybe the moon's bright reflection had felt pity and become formed and feathered just for him. The Prince doesn't care, he has come, that is all that matters.
His lips part on a soft breath of longing and foolishly, like a child, he lurches forward, hands reaching to grab. The Swan out paces him with an effortless clap of wings, feet light as smoke on the grass, leaving the Prince with nothing but a dizzying clout on the head for his troubles. He staggers, confused, fingers straining towards empty space and suddenly the night is alive with swans, snaking out from the edges of his vision, serpentine and furious.
How dare he? How dare he?
They whirl towards him, wings high and teeth bared. Splendid and terrible in equal measure; for a moment he thinks they will kill him, a finer end than the lake would have been but he doesn't want that any more and flinches from them.
He doesn't see the Swan landing, for he has covered his head with his arms; crunching down in the grass in a futile attempt to save his face from the sharp teeth of the flock. The wing that brushes his back could have come from any one of them, they are very like after all, with their alabaster bodies and white tasselled thighs, backs ridged with the same taut muscles. But the Prince knows, he recognises the Swan, even though his hands are over his eyes and all he can see is the moonlight filtering through his fingers and all he can hear is the pulse of blood in his ears. He gets slowly to his feet, the flock sinking back before him and this time the Swan does not strike him, or run, but instead unfurls his wings, up on his toes in the moonlight and watches him with black-ringed eyes.
Am I not beautiful?
He seems to be saying, stretching himself higher on his toes, silvered feathers on his thighs trembling with the strain.
Am I not the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?
The Prince creeps towards him, smitten, hand outstretched. Surely his arm will be broken for such temerity, surely too, he will deserve it.
Circling in the shadows the flock ruffles their feathers at this sacrilege, beaks clacking. They were all so lovely, so absolutely free, he more than all of them and the Prince was coming to him, ruined with petty griefs and sadnesses that he would never otherwise be touched by.
The hand he reached out might have been loaded with chains.
The Swan waits, poised, though for what the Prince cannot tell. He is tensed but not for running, buffeting wings held low at his sides. The long feathers shimmer with invitation.
Gently, he pushes his fingers into them, the soft down at their base a tickling intimacy against his palm. Evidently there has been a mistake and any moment all that great strength will come snapping down at him and break him to pieces. But the Swan drops his weight into his hand and his arm across his shoulder, and permits everything
It is for you. It has always been for you.
Strange, really, that he could be dancing with a swan in a city park, under a sky that has grown shattered with stars; the brittle winter grass and yellow lights a faded relic of another lifetime, where he had been alone. Stranger still that the swan would turn and love him, embracing him with human arms, adoring him with an animal heart.
The Prince never really questioned it, for the Swan was there and that was all that mattered.
* * *
When the Prince wakes in the empty hours of the morning there is a moment when his thinks the swan is still with him.
They must have drugged him, dosed him up with sedatives, or opiates, or something, for surely he would never have slept otherwise. He doesn't even remember falling asleep.
What he does remember is the Stranger, an oil slick of leather gleaming wetly on his thighs, dancing just out of reach. Turning, lips bent back into a leer with a stripe of soot upon his face. The terrifying strength of him when he finally closed upon the Prince, to punish him for reaching out.
His arms ache with wrenching and he paws at them, expecting bruises - for a moment he is black with them but then they slip away into the shadows, leaving his skin pale and unblemished. Something in his head has cracked, he thinks and is in danger of spilling out. His thoughts are heavy and fluid.
He remembers the look in her eyes as the bullet smashed the light out of them.
With the memory comes a sort of snapping in his skull, like a stretched band has broken inside of his brain. There is no pain, at least, nothing the Prince recognises as such, though the sensation makes him grind his palms into his forehead. Around him the room is blurring into an incomprehensible smear of colours and shapes as though wrenched sideways by a careless hand. There is so much white, the bed, the walls, the ceiling that it is almost like being blind. The Swan, white against white as he twists his way through the covers, should have appeared as no more than a flicker of movement but the Prince's eyes fasten on every detail as if he had been drawn in black ink.
He sees that there is blood ground into the short feathers and how the powerful body is graceless with effort and exhaustion, but he is still nothing less than he ever was, he is still all the Prince has ever wanted. The Prince reaches out for him, too fast and desperate and the Swan starts a little but holds his ground, the furled wings holding such capacity for harm but none of the promise of it.
The Prince wonders how he could have ever mistaken him for the Stranger, as if they were separated in kind only by a smudge of soot and a little plumage.
From the moment the Prince's fingertips touch his skin the world slows and starts to settle. He is slick all over with sweat and the Prince does not think about where he came from, or how he got here, but only that the journey must have been very hard. That such a creature would struggle so hard for him is astounding, in the ballroom he would not have believed it. If he had maybe things would have been different, maybe he would not have been bewildered by the beauty and wildness of the Stranger and minded it less when he was rebuffed. Maybe he would not have drawn his pistol.
He shivers a little against the Swan's hot side, wanting forgiveness and the Swan puts ashen arms around him, drips hot blood on him; protecting and loving him with all the heart the Prince had forgotten that he had.
Just like you forgot hers.
It dances out of the shadows, white and wild.
She was braver than you have ever been and in your head you were calling her a whore.
They come hissing out from the corners and crannies of the room, sliding from the walls like a spill of wet paint. The Swan flares his wings in warning, as if he is stronger than all of them but the Prince feels the shiver of feathers under his fingers and knows he is afraid.
It is not like the last time. There is a certainty in their steps that wasn't there in the star spattered park. Before they had been hostile and suspicious, they had thought him undeserving, a defiler. It is different tonight. Tonight they know what he is and they have come to kill him for it.
You didn't know anything about her because you did not care to learn, but you judged her anyway.
It is no more than a rustle of wings but the Prince can hear the truth in it. He never asked her about her life, or her childhood, or if she was happy. He doesn't know if her parents were alive, or if she had siblings. He doesn't even know if she meant to die for him, or if it was an accident. Or if she would she take it back, if she could.
Maybe she had a child, who needed her more than you did.
They are closing on the bed, as they cross the floor the moonlight bleaches them and gives their bodies a startling, unnatural paleness, like bone at the bottom of a wound.
Behind him the Swan trembles and steps back.
The Prince doesn't blame him, it is not his fault that they are stronger than him, this time.
We know the names you were calling her right before she was shot
There is a moment when their feathers are soft around him, like sea foam, surrounding and separating him and then their lips pull back, wings snarling upwards. He is battered from all sides, driven away onto the cold marble of the floor and the Swan doesn't fight them, or even try to, for how could he win against so many when he is already weakened and bloody?
And as before, it is not pain, not exactly, not like when he had skinned his knees or been nipped by the palace dog, not like the sailor's punch in the bar - but he can feel the little bits of himself being torn away. Teeth clip closed on the empty air around him, snapping shut on nothing and moment by moment he is becoming laced with aching, bloodless holes.
Do you think she saw how you felt about her? Do you think she saw it in your face? Do you think it was the last thing she ever saw?
So, not pain, exactly, but it hurts.
He knows, even though they draw no blood and break no skin, that what they are doing is killing him. That whatever it is that makes the difference between a corpse and a man is being pulled away from him in pieces, pinched between their sharp, neat teeth. He doesn't want to die, is terrified of it and always has been, even in the park he could not have done it, had the terror of living not been stronger still. And now he can feel the Swan at his back, can hear the rustle of his wings over the susurration of the flock and he wants more than anything to stand up and go to him, to push his fingers into the downy feathering of his thighs and rest his head in the ivory hollows of his hips; closing his eyes until the world is still and silent again. He doesn't though. To stand would be to fight and just because he wants to live does not mean that he deserves to. Instead he curls himself over, forehead flat on the ground between his arms as if prostrating himself before an angry god and waits for it to be finished. One hand clenches convulsively on the floor, crunching around a handful of scattered feathers. The feel of them should have made him think, but he is trying too hard not to feel or think anything and so ignores the drifts of feathers that swirl about him, bloody at the base of the barbs and the way the low hissing rises angrily.
It takes him a long time to realise the Swan is fighting for him. He fights with everything he has, something the Prince has never seen before, something he thought happened only in books, the kind with a prince and a princess and happy endings afterwards. It is as if the Swan has no fear at all, up on his toes like a dancer with his wings bent upwards and back, whipping the drifts of feathers into a snowstorm; he is stronger than any of them, faster too and there is not a one that can match him, but there doesn't have to be.
If he lunges after one another will come hissing up behind him, mouth open to bite and should that one be forced back there is always another, not as strong as him, but strong enough. Some of the feathers that billow about him are his own.
It seems dreadfully unfair that someone should fight so bravely and so well and be losing anyway. When they break his wing the Swan falters and not understanding what has happened, tries futilely to raise it, to make himself huge and threatening. He has never known defeat and does not recognise it but the Prince has seen it in the shaving mirror every morning and sees it now in the crooked line of the Swan's wing and the way the sweat and blood have mixed into a pink froth on his body, like on that of a foundering horse.
Now, the Prince thinks, now they will come back and finish me, and he braces himself. The next moment he finds himself wishing for it. For even though the Swan has shattered himself against them, could not possibly stop or harm them, they do not leave him alone but drive him as they had driven the Prince, bulling him back onto the bed. The Swan is no longer fighting them but that doesn't seem to make any difference because they are killing him anyway. The pale circle of wings closes in a tight, white ring, the familiar susurrus hiss starting up and the Prince wonders if their beaks are doing real damage, or if it is like it was with him. Not pain. Not exactly.
He wants to shout at them to leave the Swan alone, that it isn't right, that it is him, the Prince, who deserves this. It was him who reached out to the Swan by the dark waters of the lake, him who saw a stranger with soot upon his face and tried to take his hand, him who took a gun to a dance...
He tries to tell them this, to explain - but they ignore him as if he is making no sound at all. Perhaps he isn't, or perhaps they cannot hear him over the noise of their own chewing. He stands, somehow, swaying on his feet like a drunkard. He will go to them, make them understand; he will shield the Swan with his body because even if it isn't pain, it still hurts.
He hasn't taken more than a step towards the bed before the closest swans turn, forbidding his approach, flinging wide their wings to show the enormity of his undeserving.
You are not worthy to touch him. You had love and look what you did to it.
His arguments die in his throat. He sees what they are doing. They had tried to take him from the Swan and because they could not they were taking the Swan from him, as if it was the same, as if it were equally just.
He had been assuming, that because the swans were beautiful and told the truth, that they were incapable of wrongdoing, that they would be fair.
There is a pistol, made of ivory and abalone, tucked into the waistband of his pajamas. He has never owned such a gun as this, nor would he have been allowed to keep it if he had, after tonight. The Prince doesn't question it, it is there when he needs it and this is enough. He draws it and holds it in his hand, it feels lighter than it should for something made from shell and bone, almost as if he were holding nothing at all.
He clicks the hammer back and at the sound the lead swan, the finest and most powerful of the flock raises its head and looks him in the eye; with its wings outstretched and the moonlight on it, it is very nearly as beautiful as the Swan.
You do not deserve to be happy
It says, splendid and unafraid, even with the pistol pointed pale as death at its heart. There is a torn bundle of blooded feathers strewn about the bed and when it takes a step forward, wings crooked with threat, one foot treads squarely in the centre of it as heedlessly as one might step upon a cushion.
You do not deserve to be happy
And it is all the truths together, everything the flock has been whispering to him since he was a child who could not sleep without his stuffed swan at his side but when he pulls the trigger the Prince does not feel as if he is killing anything important.
The gun fires quite soundlessly, with no heat or jolting; instead there is a great flash of light which blinds him. He closes his eyes against the pain and when he opens them the room is empty. No swans, no blood, no sign that anything out of the ordinary has happened. One of the pillows has become split somehow, spilling feathers over the bed and onto the floor and as he steps towards the tangle of duvet in the centre they crunch under his feet, like snow.
He doesn't know what to expect when he sinks his shaking fingers into the pile of feathers. Bones, maybe, hollow and made for flying, or a stiffening body that rocks under his insistent hands. Perhaps he will bloody himself against the sharp edges of broken teeth. Perhaps there will be nothing there at all.
What he feels instead is almost too perfect to be true. Warm flesh shifts and bunches under his touch and he realises that what he had mistaken for strewn feathers and tangled linen is no less than the curled body of the Swan, whole and perfect amongst the bedclothes. It is a strange mistake to make, almost as strange as the way that - for a moment only - the hand that rested on the Swan's downy thigh had appeared to sink wrist deep into loose feathers, which now come only to the middle joint of his finger. The Prince doesn't really think about this, not with the Swan stirring awake beneath him; stretching out the long muscles in his back and rolling his shoulders as if a little lingering stiffness is all that remains of the savaging he had received.
His body gleams as he curves it, catching the light just as it did in the park and the Prince, looking upwards, sees how the stars are shining through the ceiling as if it were made of a substance no thicker than paper, as if he could reach up and tear right through it, if he wanted.
The Swan stands, flexing his wings experimentally, staring down at the Prince through black-ringed eyes.
Am I not beautiful?
It feels wonderful, being in love and no one to stop you, like the stories the Prince used to tell himself as a child, almost like having wings.
Am I not the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?
A cold breeze raises gooseflesh on the Prince's arms as he reaches up a hand to the Swan; there is a bite of frost in the air and when the Swan comes to him even his light footstep makes a cracking sound as the brittle grass breaks beneath his feet.
It is for you, it has always been for you.
It is absurd, really. Absurd, that he could be dancing with a swan in a whitewashed sanatorium, under an endless shining sky; the walls and bars around him a cage to some other man, who is alone and mad with drugs in his veins and a rubber bit in his mouth.
The Prince never really questions it, for his Swan is there and they are dancing and that is all that matters.