“This is a stupid way to choose someone you’re supposed to spend the rest of your life with,” Taako snaps, pushing his chair back and getting to his feet. Captain Davenport looks tired. Taako’s fine with that. Davenport’s not to the one getting roped into a ball to choose his future husband. “Who the hell thinks this is a reasonable way to decide on a partner?”
“Look,” says Davenport, holding his hands up placatingly. “I’m not the biggest fan of it either, but the law is very clear about unmarried crown princes who’ve reached the age of majority and—”
“Maybe I don’t want to be crown prince anymore!” Taako says. “Lup’s the one who should be inheriting anyway and everybody knows it. It’s some sexist bullshit that I’m the one up for the throne just because Merle can’t remember who came out first.”
Taako likes Davenport most of the time. For a commander of the castle guard tasked with being regent until Lup and Taako turn twenty-one and are able to ascend to the throne, he’s got surprising little interest in usurping them and installing himself as king. He made sure they got a good education, fostered their interest in magic, and immediately accepted Lup informing him and the rest of the court that she was a princess and they better start referring to her as such when she and Taako were kids. He doesn’t deserve to be yelled at, but Taako doesn’t deserve to be married off to some stranger, so here they are—both fucked.
“Taako, you knew this was coming,” says Davenport, voice studiously calm. “Merle and I have brought up the possibility multiple times since—”
“I didn’t think you’d do it!” Taako says. “People make threats they don’t mean all the time.”
“They weren’t threats, Taako. They were warnings.”
“If you won’t let Lup be queen, why don’t you stage a coup?” Taako asks. “You be king. That’s what regents do, isn’t it? You’re supposed to lock us in a dungeon of something.”
Davenport gives him a very unimpressed look. “I’m not going to stage a coup.”
“Kind of a shitty regent,” Taako grumbles, crossing his arms over his chest.
Taako needs a drink. Maybe some fresh air. Maybe to abdicate his right to the throne so they can’t make him get married and so Lup can take over ruling Faerun instead. He knows she’d make a better queen than he’d make a king. Lup is bold and courageous and has a depth of compassion and morality steers her in the right direction. Taako veers away from the “morally correct” path often. He’s the pragmatic one. He’s sensible. Kind of. He’s the one who doesn’t want to marry a stranger just because tradition and the royal court says he’s gotta have someone locked down by the time he turns twenty-one.
He likes parties. Balls are usually fun. He’s going to hate this one.
“When are you making this happen?” Taako asks.
Davenport purses his lips. “The court suspected you’d have some reluctance about going through with this,” he says. “With that in mind, we have… a tight timeline. We’ll formally announce the ball tomorrow morning. For the end of the week.”
Taako stares at Davenport, shocked. There’s tight timeline and then there’s having days to figure out some way of escaping from the living nightmare of going to a party where all the guests are hovering around, thinking they might end up married to a future king. He feels like he’s been slapped.
“That’s—the end of this week?” he repeats. “Not even a full week? How am I supposed to—this isn’t fair.”
“It’s not,” Davenport agrees. “But your position comes with responsibilities, Taako. I wish there were something I could do about the law, but as regent my powers—especially my powers around rules of succession—are limited. No one is asking you to marry your betrothed immediately. We can draw the engagement out and give you a chance to get to know each other.”
“Oh thanks,” Taako snaps. “So generous of you. You know what? Taako is out. Done! I tried and this just isn’t working, so I quit.”
“Taako, you can’t—”
Taako turns on his heel, storming out of Davenport’s office and down the hallway, heading for his bedroom. It’s not like he was completely in the dark about this, but Taako hates the court’s expectations and traditions. It’s some fairy tale bullshit, choosing a husband at a grand ball when you’ve barely even had a conversation with the guy. It’s bullshit, and Taako’s not going to do it.
When he gets to his room, Lup and Magnus are waiting for him. He gives them both an unimpressed look. “Did Davenport tell you he was telling me?”
“Yeah,” says Lup. “This sucks, babe.”
“Maybe you’ll meet someone nice,” says Magnus, as Taako storms to his wardrobe to pull out his good travelling cloak and his favourite hat—pointed and purple, glittering with enchanted constellations that mimic the seasonal rotation of the stars in the sky.
“I’ll meet some prince who’s trying to climb the social ladder and secure a spot as prince consort,” Taako says. “Some stranger who will murder me in my sleep.”
“I don’t agree with it either, Taako, but I don’t think Davenport would let anyone who’d try to murder you come to the ball,” says Lup. “Are you going somewhere?”
“I’m running away.” Taako pulls on his cloak, turning to face Lup and Magnus, glaring at them. “Don’t tell Merle or Davenport about this. I expect more from the two of you. No narcs allowed in my bedroom.”
“Babe,” says Lup, “don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?”
“You’ve got Barry. It’s easy for you to accuse me of being dramatic when you’re not going to have to do this.” Taako sticks his hat on his head. “I’m going to run away and start a new life where I’m not a prince.”
“What are you going to do when you get there?” Magnus asks, looking very unconcerned about Taako saying he’s going to run away forever.
Taako hesitates. He hasn’t, admittedly, thought every part of his plan through yet. “Cook,” he says, after a beat. “Or make money using magic—either or. I’ll decide later.”
“Where?” asks Lup. “Taako, you’re the crown prince. People know what you look like.”
“They know approximately what I look like. There are plenty of hot elves with freckles and blond hair out there.” Taako grabs a bag and then looks around the room, trying to think about what else he’s going to need for his new life on the road. Money, obviously. Spell components. He stuffs his coin purse into his bag and tosses some magic bullshit in after it.
“Can I come?” Magnus asks. “I’ll bring an axe. That’s folksy.”
“Pretty sure that’s desertion from the Royal Guard,” says Lup. “I think technically that might be treason.”
Taako rolls his eyes at Magnus and Lup as he tugs his bag onto his shoulder. “You can come if you’re going to take this seriously,” he says. “But you gotta come now because I’m going.”
“Sure,” says Magnus, getting off Taako’s bed and grinning at him. “I’ll be right back. Let me find an axe.”
Lup watches Magnus leave the room, then turns her attention back to Taako. “You know I’d take over for you if they’d let me, right?” she asks. “I’ve got Barry. They couldn’t pull this ball bullshit on me.”
“Yeah, I know,” Taako says, deflating. “This is dumb.”
“We’re twin royal heirs and we don’t know who’s really older because Merle says he can’t remember which of us was born first and our parents are dead so we can’t ask them. Our lives are dumb.” Lup slides off the bed and stands in front of Taako, holding her arms open for a hug. “You still gonna run away?”
“Yeah.” Taako steps forward to hug her. “It’s the principle of the thing.”
“Cool,” says Lup, patting him on the back and pulling away. “Bring Magnus back in one piece. Don’t get lost.”
Taako scowls at Lup. So much for having a supportive sister. “We’re not going to get lost.”
Taako and Magnus leave the palace and head into the woods beside the palace. Taako and Magnus very quickly get lost.
The Felicity Wilds are a dark place with strange and powerful magic lurking around every corner. Taako is a magician and Magnus has an axe. In the middle of the woods, after sundown, that doesn’t feel like much protection at all.
“This is not how things were supposed to go,” Taako says, frowning at a tree he’s sure he’s seen before. The bark kind of looks like a snarling face and the branches look like they’re reaching towards them—like if they step too close it’s eat them.
The Felicity Wilds are a fucked up place.
“Should we head back?” Magnus asks, looking around. “And, uh, which way do you think back is?”
Taako does kind of want to go home. They’ve been out for an hour. His feet hurt. His shoulder is sore from the weight of his bag. It’s dark and getting cold and he has no idea where they are. “We don’t need to go back yet,” he says, mostly because he’s not willing to admit that they’re lost. “We’re fine. Let’s go this way.”
Taako forges on, leading them deeper into the woods. Or maybe out of the woods. He’s not sure. He leads Magnus through the woods and hopes they’re not just walking around in circles because Taako has the distinct feeling they’re being watched and he doesn’t know enough about the creatures lurking in the Wilds to be sure there isn’t something stalking them—some monster intent on rending the flesh off their bones and leaving them as a warning to other people who venture into the woods at night.
Taako shouldn’t have let Lup rope him into listening to Merle’s bedtime stories when they were kids. Royalty always got in the most trouble in Merle’s stories. Taako scans the forest floor, keeping his eyes open for any signs of something about to pounce.
Magnus is the one who spots the bird—a raven—flitting through the trees above them.
“Hey, uh, Taako? Does it seem like that raven is following us?” he asks.
Taako glances up at the bird and tries not to think about what a traditional harbinger of death following them around might mean. “It’s a bird, my dude,” he says. “It’s not smart enough.”
The raven swoops down and snatches Taako’s hat from his head, taking off with it through the woods. Taako lets out an indignant yelp and chases after it, cursing, as Magnus crashes through the brush after him, trying to keep up. Taako might be worried about traps and getting eaten, but like fuck is he going to let some bird nest in his favourite hat.
The raven leads them to a tall, crooked tower deep in the woods, far off any beaten path. There are thick briars with long thorns growing around the tower and Taako thinks fuck I’m gonna have to convince Magnus to climb through those when he sees them, but the bird drops his hat before it reaches the twisted hedge.
The raven alights on the ground on other side of the vines. As the moon rises above the treeline and casts light into the dim little clearing at the base of the tower, Taako smells the distinctive scent of big magic—ozone, hanging thick in the air. The bird unfurls its wings, growing larger and shifting before Taako’s eyes until it's no longer a bird at all, but the most handsome man Taako’s ever seen.
He’s dark-skinned, with long dreadlocks that tumble down over his shoulders, dressed in a fine suit that’s years out of date, but perfectly preserved. His cheekbones are high and his gaze is sharp. He studies Taako and Magnus from the other side of the thorn bush, and tilts his head, considering them.
“You’re a long way from home,” the man says. “Did no one warn you about the dangers lurking in the Felicity Wilds after the sun goes down?”
Once upon a time, there was an elven queen who was as beautiful as she was powerful—and she was very powerful. She had dark skin and high cheekbones and wore her hair in long braids, tumbling down her back. She wore fine dresses adorned with dark feathers and was much beloved by her people because she was just as wise and as she was powerful and beautiful. They called her the Raven Queen for her cleverness and for the aviary of ravens she kept as familiars.
Possibly it was more for the ravens than the cleverness.
The Raven Queen had a son, a half-elf, as beautiful and as clever as she was, gifted with magic shaped by music. Her son, Kravitz, spent his days with tutors and his mother and with the ravens. The tutors taught him reading and arithmetic. His mother taught him music and magic. The ravens taught him cleverness. Kravitz’s childhood was happy and he grew into a handsome, well-rounded young man with a penchant for fashion and the colour black, like his mother.
But although she was beloved by her people, the Raven Queen still had enemies. Her sense of justice—of right and of wrong and of balance—led her to outlaw the use of necromancy in her kingdom. There were those who objected to the ban, who felt it wasn’t the queen’s place to decide what they did with their magic.
Two necromancers in particular hated the Queen more than most. They watched their younger brother die and—unable to bring him back with their magic—they blamed the Queen’s ban for his death. They wanted to hurt her the way they’d been hurt, to suffer as they suffered.
And so these necromancers—twins, Edward and Lydia—driven mad with power and grief after their brother’s death caused them to rip out their own souls, cursed the Raven Queen’s son as he sat in the aviary, singing to the ravens.
They attempted to transform him into one of the birds he and his mother so loved—a common raven, nothing special or magical about him—but Kravitz was a sorcerer like his mother and fought back. He sang as the curse hit him, shaping its magic—doing what he could to counteract its effects. When the spell settled into place, it had changed into something more complicated—the result of dueling magics.
Kravitz wasn’t trapped as a raven forever. He sang a love song, as he transformed, and wove love into the curse that trapped him. He sang transformation and the light of the moon. He sang and as the moon rises, you’ll know my face, and the darkness will be banished by your warm embrace.
Lydia and Edward, realizing they’d fucked up, now stuck with an irate, entirely too self-aware raven, scooped Kravitz into a bag and fled the kingdom to a land far, far away.
They took the kidnapped prince to a tower deep within the woods and surrounded it with briars and thorns. They clamped a silver band on the raven’s ankle, enchanted to shift with Kravitz’s body and to limit his magic. They couldn’t lift the curse they placed on Kravitz because Kravitz had sealed it in place, wove his stipulations into the spell and pulled it tight around himself, like a second skin.
They couldn’t lift the curse, but they could modify it.
The moon’s light would transform Kravitz back to his human self, but only if he was within the thick circle of thorns they planted around the tower. As the moon set and the sun began to rise, Kravitz would revert back to a raven, but he had to be back within the circle or else his transformation from human to raven would be permanent.
Edward and Lydia couldn’t undo the changes Kravitz made—that he would be himself in the light of the moon, that being embraced by someone who loved him would break the curse—but they could hide Kravitz far from his mother and his people. They could trap him close to the tower, keep it so he’d never meet anyone capable of breaking the curse for him, keep him trapped.
They could, they realized, do something even better than killing him—they could watch him suffer.
And so Kravitz lived, trapped by the tower or as a raven, with only his jailors for company, for many years. He grew tired of hope as the weight of the curse bore down on him. He could sing, but his magic didn’t answer him, and the band around his ankle was too tight to remove without injuring himself. Somewhere far away, his mother searched for him, and Kravitz never knew.
Kravitz stayed in the woods, close to his tower, and one day, when he was flitting through the woods, enjoying the small amount of freedom being a raven afforded him, Kravitz spotted two men who were clearly lost and decided to steal the pretty one’s hat.
“How the fuck do you know where we live?” Taako asks, glaring at the handsome stranger as he picks up his hat and puts it back on his head. “Who are you, bird boy?”
“My name’s Kravitz,” Kravitz says. “I don’t know where you live, but it definitely isn’t here.”
“I’m Magnus,” says Magnus. “This is Pr—” Taako elbows Magnus in the side, cutting him off.
“I’m Taako,” Taako says. “Are you, like, some kind of fairy? Sorcerer? That face, that’s gotta be an illusion, right? If you’re secretly an old witch trying to eat us you’ve got to tell me otherwise it’s entrapment.”
“Oh shit, do you grant wishes?” Magnus asks. “I’ve given what I’d wish for a lot of thought. My answer depends on how many we get? Is it three each, or do we have to split them between us?”
“I’m not a genie,” Kravitz says. “I’m not a fairy either, and that’s a bit of a stereotype, don’t you think? Most of the witches I know are perfectly nice people.” He pauses, pursing his lips and looking for all the world like someone who doesn’t want to say whatever it is that’s going to come next, and then gestures to the tower and the thicket surrounding it. “I’m… in need of some assistance.”
Magnus reaches around and removes his axe from his back. “Oh, I can cut through this, no problem,” he says, and before Taako can point out that they should make sure Kravitz isn’t trying to trick them before letting him out, Magnus brings his axe down hard on the vines.
The axe striking the vines makes a sound like metal on stone. Magnus is immediately shoved backwards by a wave of magic that slams into him so hard he looks a little dazed as he stumbles away. Taako winces in sympathy.
“Okay,” Kravitz says, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “I think I was being overly optimistic leading you here.”
“Hey, handsome? Fuck you.” Taako is a magician and doesn’t need to hit things with an axe to make his point. He twists his hand in the air and then flicks a finger in Kravitz’s direction and a sends a bolt of magic sailing over the thick fence of thorns, beaming him in the center of his forehead. Kravitz jumps when the magic hits him. “You stole my hat and insulted us and you want our help?”
Kravitz rubs at his forehead, giving Taako a considering look. “You’re a mage.”
“I prefer wizard,” Taako says. “We’re leaving now, Magnus. Come on.”
He turns his back on Kravitz and the tower, grabbing Magnus’s elbow.
“Wait!” Kravitz calls. “Wait, if you help me I can help you get out of the woods!”
Taako pauses, glancing up at Magnus. They are lost, but trusting a random bird you meet in a dark forest is a recipe for disaster.
He turns back to look at Kravitz. “How do we know you’re telling the truth?” he asks. “Your bush hurt Magnus.”
“I would have warned him,” Kravitz says. “That’s what I need help with. I’m… stuck.”
“You’re a bird,” Magnus says. “Just turn back and fly over it.”
“It’s not that simple.” Kravitz gestures to the sky and the moon hanging heavy above them. “I’m only human when the moonlight touches the ground at the base of the tower. When the sun rises, I’ll turn back into a raven. If I’m outside of this circle when that happens, then I’ll be stuck as a raven forever unless I break the curse keeping me here.”
Taako eyes Kravitz suspiciously. “If you’re stuck in there, how are you going to help us get home?”
“I’m not stuck when I’m a raven,” Kravitz says. “I just have to be here when the moon rises and sets. I can show you the way out of the wilds if you promise you’ll return to help me break the curse and go back home.” He pauses, then adds: “My mother is wealthy. I’ll make sure you’re richly rewarded.”
“Oh, Taako’s a p—” Taako elbows Magnus again. Princes have obligations. A prince who comes across a handsome man under a terrible curse, trapped and alone in the woods, especially has obligations. Taako, who doesn’t want a ball or a husband or the weight of kingship, isn’t about to let Kravitz know who he is.
“Okay, sure,” Taako says. “If you get us out and if your mother will pay up, I’ll do my best to help you break the curse. I’m a wizard. Magic’s kind of my thing. Deal?”
It’s Kravitz’s turn to be suspicious now, but Taako knows he doesn’t have many options. He has to show them the way back home. Kravitz hesitates for a moment, even though he suggested the plan, and then nods. “We have a deal.”
Kravitz is stuck with Taako and Magnus until the moon sets and he transforms back into a raven. He doesn’t trust them, but he has no choice but to put his faith in them returning. Kravitz has grown wary, since being cursed, of other magic users.
Taako doesn’t look like a necromancer, but there’s no guarantee and there are people in the world who resent the Raven Queen. Kravitz is protecting himself and his mother by keeping his heritage to himself. He doesn’t need to give up any personal information beyond the promise of future wealth.
Instead, he listens to Magnus talk about the trees in the Felicity Wilds and how he’s pretty sure they’d hit back if he tried to chop them with his axe—probably accurate—and how he really should have brought his sword. He listens to Taako complain about how he’s starving and Kravitz’s mouth waters as Taako describes the meal he’s going to make when he returns home—sandwiches with leftover meat from yesterday’s dinner.
“I miss food,” Kravitz says, without thinking.
Taako and Magnus abruptly stop talking, peering at him through the vines keeping them all apart. “What do you mean, you miss food?” Taako asks. “You don’t get to eat with the curse? I guess you wouldn’t. You’re stuck, huh? No kitchen in that tower?”
The tower has a fireplace and Kravitz has learned how to build a fire in it, but there’s no one to bring him food to cook with. Edward and Lydia trapped him here, but they only visit occasionally, to taunt him. Certainly not to make his life easier. “I eat,” Kravitz says. “I’m a raven. I… hunt.”
“Gross,” says Magnus. “Like bugs and stuff?”
Taako wrinkles his nose. “Aren’t ravens carrion birds?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Kravitz says, because the truth is, yes, they are, and there are all sorts of things he’ll eat as a raven that make him queasy when he’s human. “I miss food for a reason.”
“Remind me not to get stuck as a bird anytime soon,” Taako says, and then changes the subject to speculating about how upset Davenport—whoever that is—is going to be when he realizes that Taako and Magnus are missing.
Kravitz tunes their conversation out, watching the moon. Some nights Kravitz avoids turning into his human form so he can have the freedom that comes with being a bird. Other nights he can’t shed his feathers fast enough. The worst part of being trapped isn’t even the food—it’s the loneliness, and there’s nothing he can do to fix that.
He’s gotten very good at passing time. He sings to himself. Cleans the inside of the tower. Thinks about what his mother is doing at home and if she’s given up on him.
When the moon finally sets, Kravitz feels the rush of magic around him that signals the transformation. He raises his face to the sky and closes his eyes, folding in on himself as the world shifts around him, and when he opens them again he’s a raven.
Kravitz stretches out his wings, one after the other, and looks down at the silver band wrapped around his leg. When he’s human it’s hidden under his clothes. As a bird, it unbalances him, always present. It made learning to fly harder than it needed to be, but he’s had years to practice dealing with its weight and now flying is one of the few times he feels almost free.
Kravitz takes off, soaring over the vines to land beside Taako and Magnus on the other side of the bush.
“Oh fuck yeah! We’re getting out of here,” Taako says, bouncing up to his feet. “Lead the way, bird boy. We’re right behind you.”
Kravitz has explored every inch of the woods. He knows how to navigate them. He flits from branch to branch, leading Taako and Magnus through the forest and out towards civilization. They follow him to the edge of the Wilds and when Kravitz brings them to the road that leads back to town, Magnus lets out a whoop of triumph.
“I can get us home from here!” he says. “I know where we are!”
“Thank God,” says Taako. “I’ve decided the whole running away from home thing isn’t for me. Fuck adventuring. I need a bath.”
Kravitz lands on a low-hanging branch near them and lets out a pointed croak. There were promises made that he hopes they’ll keep.
“I’ve got it,” Taako says, waving a dismissive hand. “I’ll look into the curse thing. You just go back to your tower and relax. You’ve got nothing to worry about. Magnus, I’m thinking, like, big fuck off sandwiches for breakfast. What do you think? Like ridiculous sandwiches. Real big boys.”
“Hell yeah,” Magnus says, turning his back on Kravitz and leading Taako away from the woods. “I’m starving.”
Kravitz watches them leave and has the distinct feeling he’ll never see them again.