As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. No one knew this better than Emperor Spine, ruler of Fantasy Forest, the Cactus King.
He grew up in the very castle from which he ruled in the present, being just the latest in a long line of royal cacti. He saw his father reign; he saw how happy the inhabitants of the forest were, and he sworn to be an equally just ruler when it came his turn. And when that happened…
He liked to think that he started out very well. He changed very few of his father’s policies, and things went very smoothly… But he wasn’t very happy. He concluded that it was because he was alone—his father had his mother, but Spine had never met any girl that caught his interest. Therefore, he put out a royal announcement, stating that he was looking for an consultant of sorts—anyone who thought they could be the most service to him was to come to the castle and whoever impressed him the most would become his adviser.
The populace didn’t miss the implications of the power they’d receive if they were chosen, so when the day came, the castle was filled with beings of all races, with all sorts of powers and talents. Fierce wolves with sharp fangs, tiny faeries with flashy powers, wizards with command over various elements… He saw it all. There was one major problem though—he knew that whomever he chose would need to be tolerable, as they’d be spending much time together. And everyone he saw was, quite frankly, very intolerable. They all were cocky and arrogant, and he was beginning to lose faith that he’d find anyone, until a certain someone walked in…
He was a lithe little elf, probably just out of his adolescent years, dressed in a long purple robe with an oversized matching hat atop his head. He had long white hair and soft pink eyes… And he looked terrified. He shook as if he expected to be eaten at any given second.
Spine was finally interested.
“Um, m-my n-name is Thistle. I’m… I’m a magician.” His lisped voice held none of the arrogance of the others before him. That was encouraging.
“And why do you wish to serve me Thistle?” It was interesting to see the magician’s face flush lightly at the simple question. If nothing else, he already had Spine’s attention more than anyone else had managed.
“I… I think that I can be of great assistance with my magic.” He took off his hat—revealing that the top of his head was bare, something that was common of male elves of all ages—and a swirl of sparkles flew out. They zipped about the throne room momentarily before returning to the hat, which Thistle promptly placed back on his head. “I can do many things with my hat, and I’m also very good at mixing potions. My teachers all said I was a quick study, so I suppose they know what they’re talking about, though I’m not so sure…”
The last part was murmured, as if it was not meant to be heard. Spine considered the magician before him. Not only was he not a boastful imbecile, he was actually bordering on low self-esteem. Well, that could easily be rectified with time. Besides, he sensed great power from the little elf… He had no doubts as to what his choice would be.
“Tell the others that they may return home,” Spine called to one of the guards off to the side. “I’ve made my decision. Thistle will be appointed my court magician immediately.” Thistle’s eyes widened at the announcement, apparently not having honestly thought he’d receive the position.
“R-really?” Spine nodded, chuckling at Thistle’s surprise.
“As long as you feel you’re ready for such a large responsibility.” Thistle’s face broke out into a grin, which suited his face far more then his previous nervousness had.
“Oh, yes! I mean, um, of course your grace. I won’t let you down!”
And that was how it began. Thistle proved to live up to expectations and even surpass them. His magical hat could store limitless amounts of objects and even create new things. His potion making skills were second to none, and his past teachers had been right—he was a quick study indeed. He learned the way things worked around the castle in only a few short months, and it wasn’t long before he came to learn just how Spine worked too.
They worked in close contact, ate their meals together, spent most of their waking hours doing something together… So Spine wasn’t entirely surprised the day Thistle nervously asked to speak to him alone. They went to Spine’s private chambers to talk, though that only seemed to make the magician all the more nervous.
“What is it you want to say, Thistle?” Thistle’s face was already tinged red as he shyly gazed up at his Emperor, who was almost twice his size.
“Well, your majesty, you see, I’ve been here for over half a year now, and I… I think, no, I know that I… We… Us… Oh, I can’t say it!” Spine had a good feeling that he knew what his little magician was trying to say… When he put a hand to Thistle’s cheek and the color on his cheeks deepened, he was nothing short of positive.
“Are you perhaps trying to say that you love me?” Thistle could do nothing but nod, his eyes wide and his mouth slightly agape. “Good. Then I won’t feel guilty when I do this.” Taking advantage of his open mouth, Spine leaned down and pressed their lips together. It took Thistle a few moments, but once he got over his shock he began to kiss back, just as Spine had known he would.
Spine realized why he’d never found his empress… And he was okay with it. Thistle was better than any woman he could possibly find anyway.
Their relationship, both professionally and privately, was exactly what Spine had been looking for. A friend, confidante, and lover all in one little package—what more could he ask for? He wanted to give Thistle the world, and as the Emperor, that was well within his powers. In the three years they worked together after their relationship tipped past the point of being platonic, they got to know each other inside and out. The little oddities—Thistle’s fear of moths was among one of the more humorous and endearing in Spine’s opinion—that only lovers could know, and they knew them all. …Well, almost all of them…
Spine never told Thistle his biggest insecurity, as he hated to admit it even to himself. Cacti were supposed to flower upon reaching maturity—his parent, grandparents, they all had by his age. And yet, all he had were thorns. Thorns that did nothing but hinder himself and Thistle from ever getting too close, as they were sure to impale the magician if they ever made a wrong move. But he kept quiet, telling himself that as long as he was Emperor of Fantasy Forest, he could make Thistle happy.
And then Baron Burr came into the picture.
Burr was infamous for speaking in rhymes, and obscure ones at that. He showed up at dinner one night, claiming to have just learned of a prophecy that was destined to happen within the next year. When prompted for details, all he said was that the rule of the forest would be changed by a human painter, then he disappeared in a blur of blue. Thistle laughed it off; after all, humans couldn’t understand the animals of the woods, and they couldn’t even see the magically inclined population, such as himself. But Spine’s anxiety immediately flared. The rule of the forest was his… How could a mere human painter take it from him? Hadn’t he been a fair ruler?
Why was this happening…?
Things went on normally for a few months before Thistle noticed his Cactus King acting oddly. He was becoming quieter, more withdrawn… But he wrote it off as a temporary state. It didn’t end though. It just got more and more severe until one day…
“Spine, are you feeling alright?” When he received no answer, Thistle scooted closer on the bed they shared—Thistle hadn’t slept in his own room in over two years—until he could position himself safely among his lover’s thorny body. He didn’t notice the Emperor tense up at his touch. “I hope you aren’t still worrying about that prophecy. It’s merely a fable, I’m sure…”
“…Thistle, I want you to send out word to the guards to rid the forest of all the beavers.” Thistle blinked up at him in confusion. Since when had he hated beavers…?
“Rid the forest of all beavers? But what did they—”
“Just do it!” Spine hissed, standing abruptly and not noticing the slice he made to one of Thistle’s arms as he stalked out of the room, muttering about beavers and painters.
“So he is worried about that…” Thistle sighed, clenching the wound on his arm. Luckily, it wasn’t anything more than a flesh wound that he could bandage himself. He just didn’t understand why Spine was acting so paranoid about the whole situation… Still, he was confident this phase would pass.
That evening the decree was made and Spine, finally noticing the bandage on his magician’s arm, suggested that the elf sleep in his own room that night. When Thistle protested, Spine relented, though he took extra caution to be careful.
A week later, it seemed that the beavers hadn’t taken the decree seriously, and therefore Spine had his engineer create the Spinetinglers, a second army of maniacal looking axes, which Thistle immediately distrusted. …The beavers were gone within three days.
The beavers were gone, the residents of the forest were in a panic, and Thistle was progressively more ignored as the days went on. He knew his place of course—lover or not, he was still only the court magician—but it was getting ridiculous. One night he voiced his concerns to Spine, insisting that the beavers be allowed back, the Spinetinglers recalled, and all thoughts of the prophecy forgotten. His response?
“You pinhead! Can’t you see that I must do this? I cannot lose my kingdom to a measly human!”
Thistle chose to return to his room that night. Both had trouble sleeping, but neither side gave in. When the verbal abuse only escalated in the coming days, that was where Thistle stayed. The once close relationship they’d had for years was swiftly being torn apart, though the optimistic magician still tried everyday to make his Emperor see the light. All he was met with were cries of pinhead and needlebrain, which eventually became accompanied by smacks with Spine’s scepter. Regardless, Thistle never stopped adoring his Cactus King, even if he thought that the man had gone utterly insane.
There were always two sides to every story though, even if one side never disclosed their half. In his head, Spine couldn’t understand why Thistle was being so obstinate about his plans. Didn’t he understand that he was doing this all for him? He’d already proven that he was capable of hurting his little magician without meaning to, and why? Because he’d never started to bloom. All he had left to offer him was the status and power that came from being second in command to the Emperor.
It never once crossed his mind that Thistle would love him no matter what his position was.
The months flew by, but things didn’t get any better. Finally, one day a crow flew through the window cawing “caw-tion,” bringing news of a human painter entering the forest. Thistle had already known, having heard it from forest animals while he’d been out gathering herbs the day before. He hadn’t wanted to tell the Emperor for fear it would unhinge him even more… Not that his silence helped.
When the painter failed to show up for an engagement over lunch, Baron Burr, who’d started it all in Thistle’s opinion, showed up, finally ready to disclose the entire prophecy…
No man may rule of cactus taint
Until the forest runs with paint
But when it comes that dreaded hour
The hopes of Cactus King will flower
And while Thistle was left wondering what the flowering part was about, things became very clear in Spine’s deluded mind. All he had to do was get rid of the painter in any way and he could finally bloom?
That could be arranged.
They sat in their room, neither saying a thing as Thistle leaned against Spine’s chest, for once not at all afraid of being stabbed. After all, what was dangerous about pastel colored flowers? But while Thistle was serene and comfortable, Spine was conflicted. How? How could Thistle be so calm after all that he’d been through?
“Why?” The magician looked up and smiled, still getting used to the blue eyes and pink skin he saw, rather then the yellow and red he’d initially fallen in love with. Ah well, he’d adjust.
“Why what, my Cactus King?” His smile, it was so bright, so loving… so very confusing.
“Why are you so pleased? Just yesterday I burned, flooded, and almost cut down the entire forest. And I ordered your execution! How can you forgive me when I haven’t even asked you to?” Thistle wasn’t used to hearing Spine sound so unsure of himself. Although he supposed that if he’d been like this a year ago, the entire prophecy fiasco might have been avoided.
“Why wouldn’t I be happy? You haven’t let me get this close to you since you first heard about the prophecy. I’m just glad you’re you again… I know you weren’t in your right mind before, so why would I need to forgive you?” Spine still looked conflicted.
“I almost killed yo—” Thistle quickly placed a long green finger to his lover’s lips, effectively cutting him off.
“It’s not going to do either of us any good if you brood about it, will it? If you want me to forgive you than I do. But I don’t blame you for anything. It’s in the past and we’re both fine… You know, the festival was fun. You should have one every year.” Spine still felt repentant, but he did as his magician wanted and dropped it. He was right after all, ruminating would do no good; he had to focus on fixing his mistakes now.
“Yes, that sounds like a good idea… It can be a festival to celebrate peace. That way I’ll never forget and make the same mistakes again…” Thistle opened his mouth to comment, but he never got the chance as Spine leaned down and captured his lips in a kiss. Thistle immediately began to return it—he couldn’t even remember the last time they’d kissed like this. Having nothing to worry about, Spine pulled Thistle into his lap, wrapping his arms securely around his lover’s thin waist. In return, Thistle looped his arms around Spine’s neck, fully enjoying this intimate moment.
He could still remember the days when he’d constantly blushed whenever Spine so much as looked his way. He’d honestly never expected that the Emperor would return his affections, though he was certainly glad his wish had been fulfilled. They’d managed to make it though such a hellish experience, and now Thistle was positive that they could make it through anything.
When they finally ended the kiss, Thistle was beaming and Spine was smiling warmly. They still had a lot they’d have to work out, but they both knew they could handle it…
After all, the road to hell might be paved with good intentions, but you cannot reach heaven without first taking that long path.